Legislators question Princeton University investigation


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In the wake of an investigation into Princeton University by the U.S. Department of Education for racial discrimination, U.S. Senators Cory Booker and Robert Menendez have asked U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to reconsider the investigation into the Ivy League school.

In a joint letter dated Oct. 2, the two New Jersey senators also asked for more information about the investigation, which alleges that Princeton violated provisions of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The law bans discrimination on the basis of race, color and  national origin in programs that receive federal funds.

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Depending on the results of the investigation, Princeton may have to repay at least $75 million in Title IV taxpayer funds awarded to the university since 2013. Title IV is the federal student financial aid program, under the Higher Education Act of 1965.

The investigation into the university stems from a Sept. 2 letter that Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber wrote to the Princeton University community that outlined steps that it would take to address systemic racism, following the deaths of several Black men and women at the hands of police officers.

Eisgruber acknowledged that for most of its 274-year history, Princeton “intentionally and systematically excluded people of color, women, Jews and other minorities.” The university now takes pride in the diversity of its community, he wrote.

“Racism and the damage it does to people of color nevertheless persists at Princeton, as in our society,” Eisgruber wrote. Sometimes it is intentional, but it is most often through stereotypes, ignorance or insensitivity, he wrote.

Racist assumptions from the past are embedded in the structures of the university itself, he wrote, pointing to academic departmental emphasis on European languages and cultures – but only one small program in African American studies.

To make amends, Eisgruber said Princeton would ramp up its efforts to attract more minority faculty members and to increase by 50% the number of tenure or tenure-track faculty members from underrepresented groups in the next five years – which the U.S. Department of Education viewed as an admission of racism and discrimination.

Eisgruber said Princeton University also plans to broaden and diversify its vendors, consultants, professional firms and business partners – which the U.S. Department of Education also considered as an admission of racism and discrimination.

Meanwhile, the two U.S. senators wrote in their Oct. 2 letter that they were “alarmed and disappointed in the Department of Education’s response to Princeton University’s efforts to grapple with our nation’s painful history of systemic racism and discrimination.

“The university’s efforts to confront and examine the ways in which it contributes to and perpetuates systemic racism are in line with efforts being made by businesses, schools and institutions across the country, including the federal government,” they wrote.

“We are deeply concerned that the Department of Education’s effort to undermine Princeton’s efforts to combat systemic racism on campus will have a chilling effect on those institutions undergoing a similar type of examination,” Booker and Menendez wrote.

Instead, colleges and universities should be actively encouraged and supported to examine the institutional and other barriers that “disproportionately impact underrepresented groups in this country,” they wrote.

“We stand with Princeton University (which disagreed with the investigation) and urge you to reconsider your decision to open an investigation into this university,” Booker and Menendez wrote.

Last month, Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman issued the following statement:

“While it’s hard to be surprised by the law – and logic – defying audacity of this administration in what will hopefully be its last days, this is an impressive lack of reasoning. President Eisgruber rightly acknowledged that Princeton, like countless institutions that laid the groundwork for our day-to-day experiences in this country, was built on systemic racism. He went on to lay out strategies for mitigating the enduring effects of systemic racism – among them, ways to provide the prestige of Princeton for communities where such education has traditionally, systemically, been out of reach. For those thoughtful notes on inclusion, Trump’s administration has opened an investigation into racist practices by the school. It is dumbfounding. Mind-boggling. It is utter stupidity, and a waste of taxpayer resources to investigate racism and threaten to clawback over $75 million from a school that has just said it will do everything it can to address its racist past.

“Those resources would have been better used to investigate targeting of minorities by for-profit colleges, where they often left such students loans and no meaningful skills or degrees. They certainly would have been better used to continue Obama-era policies to end the school to prison pipeline crisis by reducing suspensions and expulsions. But, from an administration whose Secretary of Education suggested historically Black colleges and universities created during segregation were great examples of school choice, I can’t say that I’m surprised.

“This mistaken ideology that exploring the racism of our past is unpatriotic, that righting the enduring systemic wrongs that such racism created is somehow a threat to society is racist unto itself. You can believe in the beauty of this country and understand the wrongs of its past – in fact you’ll be better at it. You can find us to be the greatest nation in the world while understanding that we haven’t always valued the equality we proclaim in our founding documents – in fact, you’ll fight harder to make us that much better.

“This investigation is a symptom of a sickness, and I’ll do everything in my power to find its cure,” she wrote.

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