In the weeks and months following George Floyd’s death on May 25, the presidents of America’s most prestigious colleges and universities have gone to their nearby tailors and all got fitted for a metaphorical hair shirt on race.
The itchier the shirt, the longer it was worn and the more publicly the wearer was in agony, the better. It was like an expensive, bespoke suit if the purpose of the suit was self-flagellation.
If you were at the helm of any major institution of higher learning in these United States, the point was to outdo your colleagues by pointing out just how perfidious you and your university had been in sentences composed mostly out of stock phrases like “systemic racism,” “embedded structures of hate” and “institutionalized bigotry.”
This is all so pro forma as to render the hair shirt wearer’s writhing and contorting meaningless, but they’re going to do it anyway,
Take Christopher L. Eisgruber, president of Princeton University, for example. Princeton is an ivory tower within an ivory tower, so it’s probably unsurprising that its self-excoriation was going to be lacerating.
It was so lacerating, in fact, that the Department of Education is now investigating the school for being racist because, well, it called itself racist to score points.
The letter is an update from a June statement in which, as Eisgruber recalled, he “charged my Cabinet … to develop plans to combat systemic racism at Princeton and beyond.
“In my letter, I invited suggestions from all of you, and many individuals and groups responded,” he wrote.
The conclusion he reached was that the university was a deeply racist place.
“Racism and the damage it does to people of color nevertheless persist at Princeton as in our society, sometimes by conscious intention but more often through unexamined assumptions and stereotypes, ignorance or insensitivity, and the systemic legacy of past decisions and policies,” Eisgruber wrote.
“Race-based inequities in America’s health care, policing, education, and employment systems affect profoundly the lives of our staff, students, and faculty of color.
“Racist assumptions from the past also remain embedded in structures of the University itself. For example, Princeton inherits from earlier generations at least nine departments and programs organized around European languages and culture, but only a single, relatively small program in African studies.
“This summer’s effort to address systemic racism began with changes and initiatives that we announced in June,” he continued.
“These included new funding for teaching, research, and service projects related to racial justice and the changes to the names of what are now the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs and First College.”
This transitioned into a bullet-pointed action plan that the university may or may not follow through on. There are few concrete goals there — and indeed, it’d be inadvisable to put those forward, given that concrete goals would be tantamount to a quota system, and that’s illegal for institutions which receive federal funding.
That being said, without those concrete goals, there’s not much aside from the president of Princeton wearing the hair shirt — which, in the end, might have been the entire point.
Under federal law, of course, schools that get financial assistance from the federal government can’t be racist. If they are, that’s a serious issue — one that the Department of Education should get involved in.
Lo and behold…
“Since you became President in 2013, and in exchange for well over $75 million in federal Title IV taxpayer funds alone, Princeton University (‘Princeton’) has repeatedly represented and warranted to the U.S. Department of Education (‘Department’) Princeton’s compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” the Sept. 16 letter read.
“Title VI provides no person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance. Also, Princeton has made many material nondiscrimination and equal opportunity representations to students, parents, and consumers in the market for education certificates during this time.”
But of course, Eisgruber admitted that Princeton had been racist — exceptionally so, in fact.
“Based on its admitted racism, the U.S. Department of Education (‘Department’) is concerned Princeton’s nondiscrimination and equal opportunity assurances in its Program Participation Agreements from at least 2013 to the present may have been false,” the letter read.
“The Department is further concerned Princeton perhaps knew or should have known, these assurances were false at the time they were made.
“Finally, the Department is further concerned Princeton’s many nondiscrimination and equal opportunity claims to students, parents, and consumers in the market for education certificates may have been false, misleading, and actionable substantial misrepresentations in violation of 20 U.S.C. § 1094(c)(3)(B) and 34 CFR 668.71(c). Therefore, the Department’s Office of Postsecondary Education, in consultation with the Department’s Office of the General Counsel, is opening this investigation.”
Now, Princeton probably isn’t any more or less racist than any other American school at present. The school certainly said it was, however.
You can see this one of two ways: It was either a political move on the part of the Trump administration or it was the natural result of a Department of Education that has an obligation to look into a school that admitted it was racist. At least on the latter count, the government has fairly ample evidence to start an investigation.
Among the things the feds are looking for: “records concerning, relating to, or referencing Princeton’s ‘systemic’ and/or ’embedded’ racism, as those terms are used in the President’s Letter,” a “spreadsheet identifying each person who has, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, been excluded from participation in, been denied the benefits of, or been subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance as a result of the Princeton racism or ‘damage’ referenced in the President’s Letter” and a “spreadsheet of all Princeton employees and outside advisers or consultants … who were consulted regarding or who participated in collecting information for and drafting the President’s Letter and/or the Diversity Measures” the university is using to correct its supposed racism, among other things.
Eisgruber will also have to sit for an interview under oath, along with a “designated corporate representative.”
If Princeton is admitting that it acted discriminatorily, then it’s also admitting to breaking the law.
And making such an admission is exactly what Princeton did, even though it believed they was simply wearing the most ostentatious, itchy bespoke hair shirt in all of the Ivy Leagues.
This will be perceived by many as a knee-jerk points-scoring political reaction to a letter that was meant to be taken seriously but not literally.
To say it wasn’t supposed to be taken literally, however, is to reduce it to meaningless posturing. Which is basically what Princeton admitted it was the next day in a statement that seemed to indicate it meant to look at the wider issue of race in America, not to admit that the school itself was particularly racist.
In a short statement, the university said it “stands by our statements about the prevalence of systemic racism and our commitment to reckon with its continued effects, including the racial injustice and race-based inequities that persist throughout American society.
“Attracting talent from every sector of society is crucial to our academic mission, and we will continue to lead on these issues.
“The University will respond to the Department of Education’s letter in due course. It is unfortunate that the Department appears to believe that grappling honestly with the nation’s history and the current effects of systemic racism runs afoul of existing law.
“The University disagrees and looks forward to furthering our educational mission by explaining why our statements and actions are consistent not only with the law, but also with the highest ideals and aspirations of this country.”
Officials from other universities, meanwhile, began to pile on the Department of Education for even pursuing this.
“Across the nation, individuals, families, communities, businesses, corporations, and educational institutions are coming to grips with the country’s legacies of slavery and racial oppression,” read yet another hair-shirt letter signed by over 80 of America’s leading institutions of higher learning, according to The Washington Post.
“As presidents of colleges and universities, we, too, acknowledge the ways that racism has affected and continues to affect the country’s institutions, including our own.”
However, in City Journal, Seth Barron put it best when he said that the Department of Education “has executed a jiu-jitsu maneuver with the potential to neutralize the entire systemic racism narrative.
“If racism is institutionally embedded somewhere, the United States has a juggernaut of laws, courts, investigators, and prosecutors that can tear the offending institution into shreds and pulverize its racism,” Barron wrote.
“This isn’t 1955 anymore.”
If Princeton is racist in a specific sense, it should cooperate unfailingly. If not, Eisgruber should retract his letter, which was bathed in meaninglessness from the beginning.
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