Statue of former university president John Witherspoon on Princeton campus. Photo credit: Jay Yuan / Shutterstock.com.
In Congress, on July 4, 1776, came the “unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America.” Signed by 56 men, many of whom were considered national heroes just a few minutes ago, it opens with a long and elegant sentence whose first words every American child knows, or used to: “When in the Course of human events . . .” In Princeton, New Jersey, on July 4, 2020, just two hours after my family and I sat around the festive table and read the Declaration aloud in celebration, a group of signatories now in the hundreds published a “Faculty Letter” to the president and other senior administrators at Princeton University.
This letter begins with the following blunt sentence: “Anti-Blackness is foundational to America.” One important difference between the two documents might wrongly be dismissed as merely cosmetic. In 1776, there were “united States” but there was not yet the “United States”; in these past two months, by contrast, at a time when we are increasingly un-united, “black” has become “Black” while “white” remains “white.”
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. If you haven’t yet read it, do so now. Be warned: it is long.
A Princeton faculty letter calls for eliminating academic freedom via a committee that would review all publications for racist thought (racist defined by the committee). It was issued on….July 4th. https://t.co/VeU9LICqbR
— Zaid Jilani (@ZaidJilani) July 6, 2020
There are four reasons why colleagues might have signed the letter.
(1) They believe in every word. I suppose this is true for a few, including, presumably, those members of the faculty who were the initial drafters.
(2) They signed without reading it. I would not ordinarily believe this, but I am aware of a similar petition, not at Princeton, that people were asked to sign — and did so! — before knowing what they were putting their name to.
(3) They felt peer pressure to sign. This is entirely believable.
(4) They agree with some of the demands and felt it was good to act as “allies” and bring up the numbers even though they do not assent to everything themselves.
I imagine that the majority fall into this last category. Indeed, plenty of ideas in the letter are ones I support. It is reasonable to “[g]ive new assistant professors summer move-in allowances on July 1” and to “make [admissions] fee waivers transparent, easy to use, and well-advertised.” “Accord[ing] greater importance to service as part of annual salary reviews” and “[i]mplement[ing] transparent annual reporting of demographic data on hiring, promotion, tenuring, and retention” seem unobjectionable. And I will cheerfully join the push for a “substantial expansion” of the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program, which encourages underrepresented minorities to enter PhD programs and strive to join the professoriate.
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.
“Establish a core distribution requirement focused on the history and legacy of racism in the country and on the campus.” There would be wisdom in this time of disunity in suggesting (not, in my view, requiring) that students take courses in American history and constitutionalism, both of which almost inevitably consider slavery and race, but that is not the same thing. Not incidentally, if you believe anti-blackness to be foundational, it is not a stretch to imagine that you will teach the 1619 Project as dogma.
“Commit fully to anti-racist campus iconography, beginning with the removal of the John Witherspoon statue.” Since I don’t care for this statue or its placement in front of the building in which I have my office, I would not be sad if it were moved away — but emphatically not because of Witherspoon, a signer of the Declaration of Independence who was a major figure in Princeton and American history with a complex relationship to slavery. There is no reason for me to say more: innumerable sensible people have commented on the impossibility that anyone can pass the Purity Test. Someone who passes today will not pass tomorrow.
“Acknowledge, credit, and incentivize anti-racist student activism. Such acknowledgment should, at a minimum, take the form of reparative action, beginning with a formal public University apology to the members of the Black Justice League and their allies.” The Black Justice League, which was active on campus from 2014 until 2016, was a small local terrorist organization that made life miserable for the many (including the many black students) who did not agree with its members’ demands. Recently I watched an “Instagram Live” of one of its alumni leaders, who — emboldened by recent events and egged on by over 200 supporters who were baying for blood — presided over what was effectively a Struggle Session against one of his former classmates. It was one of the most evil things I have ever witnessed, and I do not say this lightly.
“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. . . . Guidelines on what counts as racist behavior, incidents, research, and publication will be authored by a faculty committee for incorporation into the [usual] set of rules and procedures.” This scares me more than anything else: for colleagues to police one another’s research and publications in this way would be outrageous. Let me be clear: racist slurs and clear and documentable bias against someone because of skin color are reprehensible and should lead to disciplinary action, for which there is already a process. But is there anyone who doesn’t believe that this committee would be a star chamber with a low bar for cancellation, punishment, suspension, even dismissal?
A couple of weeks before the Faculty Letter, other missives to the Princeton administration were promulgated, most significantly two intemperately worded lists of demands signed by hundreds of present and former undergraduates and graduate students. The immediate consequence was the widely publicized removal of the name Woodrow Wilson from the School of Public and International Affairs and the first of the university’s six residential colleges (now blandly renamed “First College”). I mention these letters because the Faculty Letter states twice — first in connection with graduate-level requests and then again with reference to undergraduates — “We offer these recommendations in full support of theirs.” One of the demands of Princeton Graduate Students United is that public safety be defunded since (to quote the “X-Campus Statement against State Terror and Call for Termination of University-Police Ties” that was started at the University of Minnesota) “[p]olice, and their proxies, private security companies, have no place on university campuses.” I defy any of my colleagues to argue persuasively that defunding campus police is a good idea, even at idyllic Princeton. I defy anyone who signed that letter, directly or indirectly, to send his or her children to a college or university without campus security. Fantasizing that you can do without the police is the height of arrogant privilege.
Independence of thought is considered the hallmark of academia, but everyone deserves it. In the United States, thank heavens, freedom to think for oneself is still a right, not a privilege. To my colleagues who signed the Faculty Letter: if you signed it independently and thoughtfully, good for you. I hereby solemnly publish and declare my own declaration.
Joshua T. Katz is a professor of classics at Princeton.
This piece first appeared in Quillette.