Home/Rod Dreher/Attempted Putsch At Princeton

Attempted Putsch At Princeton

Blair Hall at Princeton University. (Photo by: Loop Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

What a remarkable document this is. It’s a July 4 letter to the president and administration of Princeton University, from some BIPOC faculty and allies, demanding a revolution in the storied Ivy. Excerpts:

Anti-Blackness is foundational to America. It plays a role in where we live and where we are welcome. It influences the level of healthcare we receive. It determines the degree of risk we are assumed to pose in contexts from retail to lending and beyond. It informs the expectations and tactics of law-enforcement. Anti-Black racism has hamstrung our political process. It is rampant in even our most “progressive” communities. And it plays a powerful role at institutions like Princeton, despite declared values of diversity and inclusion.

Anti-Black racism has a visible bearing upon Princeton’s campus makeup and its hiring practices. It is the problem that faculty of color are routinely called upon to remedy by making ourselves visible; by persuading our white colleagues to overcome bias in hiring, admission, and recruitment efforts; and by serving as mentors and support networks for junior faculty and students seeking to thrive in an environment where they are not prioritized. Indifference to the effects of racism on this campus has allowed legitimate demands for institutional support and redress in the face of micro-aggression and outright racist incidents to go long unmet.

At this moment of massive global uprising in the name of racial justice, we the faculty—Black, Latinx, Asian, and members of all communities of color along with our white colleagues—call upon the University to take immediate concrete and material steps to openly and publicly acknowledge the way that anti-Black racism, and racism of any stripe, continue to thrive on its campus. We call upon the administration to block the mechanisms that have allowed systemic racism to work, visibly and invisibly, in Princeton’s operations. We call upon the University to amplify its commitment to Black people and all people of color on this campus as central to its mission, and to become, for the first time in its history, an anti-racist institution.

Did you know that Princeton was a Klucker kampus? I did not. And now, to the demands, which include:

Implement administration- and faculty-wide training that is specifically anti-racist in emphasis with the goal of making our campus truly safe, welcoming, and nurturing for every person of color on campus—students, postdocs, preceptors, staff, and faculty alike. Require the participation of staff members who work with students and student groups, like “Free Expression Facilitators” and Public Safety officers. This training should be led by an outside facilitator, selected in consultation with student representatives and expert practitioners (e.g., Race Forward), and become an integral and annual component of our faculty institutional culture. To be clear, this type of training is by no means one-size-fits-all; it is challenging, and it necessarily moves participants through stages of vulnerability, productive discomfort, and reflection. Thought must be put into determining which approaches will be most effective for academic units on a case-by-case basis and in consultation with experts in both social science and anti-racism. Support and guidance in this process must be a University priority and conducted in-person (or, given the COVID-19 restrictions, live and interactive).

In other words, bring in woke commissars. More:

Reward the invisible work done by faculty of color with course relief and summer salary. As of the fall of the 2019-20 academic year, faculty of color make up only 7% of the laddered faculty, according to figures provided by the Office of Institutional Research, but they are routinely called upon to exert influence in hiring committees and to stand as emblems and spokespersons of diversity at Princeton. Being required to chiefly and constantly “serve” and “represent” in the interest of administrative goals robs the imagination and interrupts any possibility of concerted thought. Faculty of color hired at the junior level should be guaranteed one additional semester of sabbatical on top of the one-in-six provision (and on top of any leave awarded through University or Bicentennial Preceptorships).

Special salary and vacation bonuses for being a person of color? Really? And notice how being given special input in faculty hiring, and being asked to take a particular role in helping Princeton be more diverse, is an intolerable burden, one that should be compensated.


Remove questions about misdemeanors and felony convictions from admissions applications, and all applications to work and/or study at Princeton. In recognition that mass incarceration and predatory policing not only menace the safety of all people of color at the University and their families but also hinder our community’s progress towards racial justice, heed the Princeton Faculty Call to Action to Divest from Private Prison and Detention Corporations.

So Princeton wouldn’t be able to ask potential students if they have been convicted of a felony, because that’s racist? So much for campus safety.

Here’s a big one:

Constitute a committee composed entirely of faculty that would oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty, following a protocol for grievance and appeal to be spelled out in Rules and Procedures of the Faculty. Guidelines on what counts as racist behavior, incidents, research, and publication will be authored by a faculty committee for incorporation into the same set of rules and procedures.

Racist research?! Racist publication?! To be decided to a faculty committee?! This is where the Princeton president ought to tell this mob to turn around and go back to their offices. This is absolutely unacceptable in a university.

Read it all. There’s a lot more, of course, and all of it would make it impossible for Princeton to function as a community of learning. Why? If the university implements even half of these demands, it would turn campus into a grievance-centered ideological hothouse. Mind you, the signatories of this letter include a number of prominent professors, and not just from arts and humanities faculties.

What happens at America’s Ivy League schools eventually works its way across academia. We had better all hope that the president and administration of Princeton turn back this radical putsch, firmly. A leading Yale professor whose wife was the victim of racist cancel culture (and a pusillanimous administration) there, observes:

It really is McCarthyite. If you go through that letter and substitute versions of “100 percent Americanism” every time you see “antiracism” and its variants, it will be crystal-clear what’s going on here. This Hannah Arendt quote, from her The Origins Of Totalitarianism, describes the stance of pre-totalitarian elites that opened the door to hell. It is relevant here:

The members of the elite did not object at all to paying a price, the destruction of civilization, for the fun of seeing how those who had been excluded unjustly in the past forced their way into it.

UPDATE: A Princeton professor writes:

I am a Princeton professor who signed the letter that you wrote about today.  I am also a devout Christian and a daily reader of your blog.  I used to write (poorly) for our campus conservative magazine when I was a student here at Princeton, so my perspective is probably different from my co-signers.  I particularly appreciate the ways in which you wrestle publicly with your thoughts on difficult topics.  On these issues, I believe you are too reactionary — in response to sometimes overwrought and reactionary rhetoric from the left — and I would urge you not to dismiss everything without more thought and empathy.
In general, your arguments proceed too quickly down the slippery slope and presume the worst possible outcome.  Your warnings are well-heeded — it is appropriate to know the dangers before embarking on a given path, to make sure you don’t fall down the slope.  It’s safest not to start down the slope at all, but what if the right place to be is somewhere uncomfortable, holding two seemingly contradictory ideas in tension in a constant struggle?  I find this is often where faith leads for me: balancing justice and mercy, faith and works, even the very nature of God as three-in-one.  This is what I think the Bible means when it says that the gate is narrow and the way is hard – you can err in two directions, and finding the balance is incredibly difficult.  CS Lewis wrote about how the devil sends evils into the world in pairs of opposites, and “he relies on your extra dislike of the one error to draw you gradually into the opposite one.”  All of which is to say that I think we are often called to stand in a deeply uncomfortable place, and that navigating issues of race is one of those times.  I think your fear of totalitarianism has pushed you too far to the other extreme.  Admittedly, I’m sure that I am often wrong in both directions, and I clearly don’t have many answers, only a feel for the struggle.
The deepest danger, as you point out, is the potential to upend academic freedom by having a committee that could review professorial conduct and writing.  I agree with your fears here, in abstract, that such a committee could become harmful if not watched closely.  However, in practice, I doubt that would come to pass — perhaps I am too naive — and worry more that tenure allows professors to act with complete impunity in all matters, with almost no enforceable discipline for behaviors that would easily get you fired in a normal corporate environment.  I have little fear that this committee would be able to threaten or harm any of our deep conservative thinkers, but the current lack of any discipline has allowed some very troubling behaviors to persist unchecked among our faculty.
I also see a link between the lack of official structures of discipline and the rise of “cancel culture” and the power of the mob, which I strongly oppose.  When egregious acts go unchecked, it creates a sense of powerlessness that can only be overcome by mass action and unrest.  These mobs initially set their sights on “worthy” targets, though with no checks on their power.  And, given how mobs work, they can rapidly proceed to overreach and chaos.  We saw this to some extent with the “me too” movement; obvious and egregious examples of sexual impropriety went unpunished for decades by official channels, until victims had enough.  The ensuing uprising played an essential role, and clearly did more good than harm, but in some instances went too far and did not afford any due process.  This could have been avoided with a more appropriate and rigorous official channel to consider and act against harassment.  I fear we are at a similar place now on race issues, where a lack of consistent and enforceable standards that can be widely agreed upon will give way to a less fair and systematic approach.
With regards to rewarding invisible work, it is indisputably true that there is significant inequity in workload for a number of reasons across faculty members in a department.  Faculty jobs are complicated — we teach and do research, but also serve on committees, mentor students, and engage with a broader intellectual community.  When considering raises and promotion, all of this information is used, at least to some extent.  While some of this work can be measured — how many students did you have, how were your teaching reviews, what funding did you raise, what papers did you publish — important mentoring interactions with students are difficult to measure.  The faculty in my department is <10% female, and we have never had a Black professor.  We want most committees to have some representation, so our female faculty are asked to serve much more frequently.  A few years ago, we had a significant public sexual harassment issue in our department.  Our students were upset, especially our female students, and over a year and a half long process, sought advice and support from faculty, primarily female faculty.  But if more than a third of our students are female and less than 10% of our faculty is female, this is a significant burden on a small group of people, one that takes time away from more visible research metrics but is essential to a healthy department.  Finding ways to measure this would be ideal, and we are working on that, but at least acknowledging and considering it is important.
There are also clearly structures in place that are not explicitly racist, but produce widely disparate outcomes for a variety of reasons.  Disrupting these systems can lead to better outcomes for everyone, but can in particular close racial gaps.  For instance, several years ago I was tasked with examining our required freshman engineering sequence – primarily a healthy dose of math, physics, chemistry and computer science.  During freshman year, rates of attrition from the school of engineering were significantly higher among racial minorities than the school average.  This mostly stemmed from differences in high school preparation – some students had seen more math and physics than others, and the traditional college courses are taught in basically the same way as good high school courses.  Students who had seen less would misinterpret differences in preparation and prior exposure as differences in ability.  We sought to address this disparity, not in an explicitly race-focused way, but by teaching the same material with a new approach: focusing on applications, especially ones linked to societal challenges.  This had the dual benefits of connecting the material to the reason we were teaching it, but also it simply didn’t look like anything that any student had seen before at first.  This avoided the issue where students assume they can’t succeed (“stereotype threat” in the lingo).  Three years later, attrition from our program is dramatically down across the board with no real demographic gaps.  I think this demonstrates that we need to look at our systems of education and find ways in which we can innovate and see if it can address systemic inequities.
This has gotten long, but my main point is not to let fear of overreach lead you to dismiss legitimate grievance.  Sometimes the right place to stand is uncomfortably in the middle of a slippery slope – good thing we have a Rock to stand on.
Andrew Houck
Professor, Electrical Engineering
Princeton University

I appreciate Prof. Houck taking the time to respond. If there are any professors at Princeton who declined to sign the letter, or who intend to decline if asked, I would like to hear from them.

UPDATE.2: Here’s a strong column by Princeton professor Jonathan T. Katz, about why he did not sign. Excerpts:

I am friends with many people who signed the Princeton letter, which requests and in some places demands a dizzying array of changes, and I support their right to speak as they see fit. But I am embarrassed for them. To judge from conversations with friends and all too much online scouting, there are two camps: those cheering them on and those who wouldn’t dream of being associated with such a document. No one is in the middle.

He says that there are some good things in that long letter. Yet:

But then there are dozens of proposals that, if implemented, would lead to civil war on campus and erode even further public confidence in how elite institutions of higher education operate. Some examples: “Reward the invisible work done by faculty of color with course relief and summer salary” and “Faculty of color hired at the junior level should be guaranteed one additional semester of sabbatical” and “Provide additional human resources for the support of junior faculty of color.” Let’s leave aside who qualifies as “of color,” though this is not a trivial point. It boggles my mind that anyone would advocate giving people—extraordinarily privileged people already, let me point out: Princeton professors—extra perks for no reason other than their pigmentation.

Read it all. It is encouraging that at least one faculty member at Princeton is against the proposal, and troubled to make his opposition public, and explain it.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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