On Thursday, it was reported that the Department of Education is launching an investigation into race-based discrimination at Princeton University. The investigation comes after Princeton president Christopher Eisgruber did his best Harvey Dent impression — “Take the racist into custody, I am the racist” — on September 2 in a letter addressed to the Princeton community. In the letter, Eisgruber makes claims that “racism and the damage it does to people of color nevertheless persist at Princeton” and, even more damning, that “racist assumptions from the past also remain embedded in structures of the University itself.”
In a letter of its own, this one addressed to President Eisgruber, the Department of Education points out that these claims stand in contravention with Princeton’s past declarations that it has been complying with Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which states that federally funded institutions and programs may not discriminate “on the ground of race, color, or national origin.” The letter goes on to ask for Princeton’s cooperation in its investigation and to warn that, based on the results of that investigation, Secretary Betsy DeVos may take “action to recover funds” and initiate a “fine proceeding.”
The letter was met with enthusiastic acclaim on the right and outrage on the left. I find myself somewhere between joyful and scandalized over Princeton’s new headache.
If there’s one thing that’s clear, it’s that this is a mess entirely of Eisgruber’s making. No one forced Eisgruber to declare Princeton University — one of the country’s most progressive institutions — a place where pervasive systemic racism does damage to minorities with the misfortune of being there. The self-flagellation is worthy of criticism. Moreover, the Department of Education has a responsibility to ensure that its funds are not being sent to institutions in violation of Title VI. It also has an interest — if a federally funded institution is not guilty of discrimination — in that institution not declaring that it is.
Nevertheless, I have reservations. I do not for one second believe that DeVos thinks that Princeton is in fact discriminating against students, faculty, and staff on the basis of race. The only evidence of “racist assumptions” that Eisgruber cites in his letter is that “nine departments and programs organized around European languages and culture, but only a single, relatively small program in African studies.” It is doubtful that the Trump Department of Education considers this to be evidence of discrimination. And if it does, will it be conducting investigations of all schools with similar disparities in the size of their European and African studies programs? Also, to acknowledge that racism persists in some form at Princeton does not mean that the University itself is discriminating against people of color.
This investigation, then, is being pursued not because the Department of Education suspects that Princeton is guilty of racial discrimination, but to make a political point about the absurd and overly broad definition of racism peddled on the left and championed by elite academic institutions such as Princeton. It’s an important point, but there’s something about an arm of the federal government threatening to pull funding to make it — under the pretense of investigating racial discrimination that it doesn’t believe exists — that I find troubling inherently, and as a precedent.
There has been concern about federal overreach in some quarters of the conservative movement about the Trump administration’s 1776 Commission and promotion of a patriotic-education alternative to the 1619 Project. Those strike me as far more effective and less suspect measures than its investigation into Princeton’s supposed bigotry.