Letter from Princeton Open Campus Coalition to Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber

November 24, 2021

Dear President Eisgruber:

We, the undersigned students, write on behalf of the Princeton Open Campus Coalition (POCC), a group of undergraduates committed to the philosophy that a university cannot fulfill its mission without protecting and honoring free speech, robust discourse, and viewpoint diversity. These ideals––which provide more than merely administrative directives––form the foundation of an intellectual culture in which the pursuit of truth can be fully actualized. We write to express our concern regarding violations of the institutional neutrality required for these ideals to flourish. We focus on one recent and particularly egregious violation––namely, a statement by Dean Amaney Jamal [which is quoted in full in this College Fix article] released to the student body of the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) in response to the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict.

In our June 2020 letter, we highlighted concerns about the damage that formal institutional practices (having to do with curricula, hiring, mandatory trainings, etc.) can cause. But the values of free expression and lively discourse can also be threatened by informal institutional behaviors––including statements, signalings, and double standards. Hence, university administrators speaking in their official capacities must consider the impact their actions will have on the health of their institutions’ intellectual environments.

When university administrators speak officially on controversial matters of social importance, they must be cognizant of the fact that––as faculty at the University of Chicago recognized at the height of the Vietnam War––“[t]he university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic.”[1] If the university itself becomes the critic––which occurs when administrators qua administrators opine on controversial issues not bearing a tangible impact on the university’s ability to function––it diminishes the openness of an academic climate that would otherwise invite dissenters to engage boldly with their peers and colleagues. This truth led the University of Chicago’s Kalven Committee to recognize that institutional neutrality enables the “fullest freedom of its faculty and students as individuals to participate in political action…” [2] We believe that the institutional neutrality principle, so articulated, reasonably restricts university officials’ speaking in their official capacities.

Unfortunately, recent events at our University suggest that the neutrality principle has been dangerously dishonored. In the case of Dean Jamal’s November 20th statement regarding the Rittenhouse verdict, the significant factual errors (while embarrassing) are not the cause of our protest. [3] What motivates our letter is a concern about the implications of a University administrator, speaking in her official capacity, promulgating to an entire community of students her moral evaluation of the outcome of a highly publicized and controversial trial. Her doing so in effect places SPIA’s institutional support behind a particular position on a matter which, as it engages the interests of so many, should invite a vigorous and respectful conversation amongst students and faculty alike.

Instead, students and faculty are left to read that a Dean has adopted a definitive stance on a matter about which reasonable people of good will can and do disagree. Dean Jamal writes with a “heavy heart” as she decries the “incomprehensib[ility]” of a not-guilty verdict, labels the defendant a “minor vigilante,” and situates the alleged outrageousness of the trial’s outcome within the broader context of racial inequalities pervading “nearly every strand of the American fabric.”

Each of these features––the verdict, the alleged vigilantism, and the systemic racism claim––are the subjects of genuine debate among serious legal commentators and academics. Contrary to Dean Jamal’s forceful assessment that some of these issues––viz., the systemic racism allegation––are settled “without a doubt,” these topics occupy the debates of students, faculty, and the public at large. Though no one claims that Dean Jamal’s statement directly forces dissenting students to remain silent or to affirm what they do not believe, it is no stretch to conclude that the establishment of an institutional position tends to draw restrictive parameters around a dialogue that would be otherwise unfettered.

Consider the systemic racism claim. Many readers will interpret Dean Jamal’s statement to mean that Rittenhouse’s exoneration was the product of systemic racism. By Dean Jamal’s implication, to defend Rittenhouse’s innocence in light of the facts of the case and the relevant legal principles would amount ipso facto to a defense of a purportedly racist system. Dean Jamal’s statement therefore primes many students and faculty to disregard oppositional views as mere defenses of racism and to stigmatize dissenters as morally suspect. Her posturing exerts pressure on students and faculty to mold their thinking and conversations in conformity with what the institution’s leaders promulgate as moral truth. Dean Jamal provides a cheap incentive for the students and faculty with whom she agrees to scoff at the views of those who disagree, and her taking a position as Dean will tend to chill discourse by suggesting the boundaries within which a conversation should take place. Suggestions stemming from the official pronouncements of an institutional leader tend to acquire a “teaching power” ––that is, the power subtly to mold and therefore to curtail the fullness of an otherwise free discourse. This is even truer when such official pronouncements take on a moral color. Institutionally framing conversations in this manner is inimical to the life of the mind insofar as it proposes artificial boundaries on discourse.

To be clear, all of this would be just as true if Dean Jamal’s statement had been a celebratory one. Suppose Dean Jamal had written that we should all be rejoicing to see justice done in the Rittenhouse case, to see a jury holding fast to the principle of “innocent until proven guilty” and refusing to be bullied by Antifa and the left-wing media into convicting an innocent man. Certainly, there would be outrage across campus, much of which would result from widespread substantive disagreement with the content of the message. However, such a statement would be equally inappropriate not for the rightness or wrongness of its message, but rather because it would have resulted from a similar disregard for institutional neutrality. In other words, we take no issue with the viewpoint of Dean Jamal’s statement. We do, however, oppose the dissemination of a position on a controversial public issue by a Dean who is speaking in her official capacity.

As an organization dedicated to freedom of speech and open inquiry, we condemn the silencing of individuals, no matter how unpopular their views; we defend freedom of expression, and we celebrate Princeton University’s adoption of the University of Chicago free speech principles. But our philosophy extends beyond a simple defense of free expression. We believe that the University administration has a responsibility to foster an environment in which faculty and students can participate freely in the pursuit of truth, and in which they feel encouraged and excited to do so. That duty demands that the University refrain from “speaking” as an institution when doing so will violate the basic neutrality which must exist as a precondition to the full realization of its truth-seeking mission.

Accordingly, our defense of free expression encompasses Dean Jamal’s right to free speech. We do not oppose the content of her letter, but rather the fact that her statement implies an institutional position. We respect Dean Jamal’s right to convey precisely the same perspective in her personal capacity, be that in an opinion piece, a television interview, or by another medium. However, we are disappointed that she broadcasted her personal moral judgment on the matter by speaking in her official capacity to the University unit she directs as Dean.

The most fundamental calling of the university administrator is to facilitate an environment where truth-seeking can be fully realized. When institutional leaders step beyond their facilitatory responsibilities by violating the basic institutional neutrality required of a university, the truth-seeking apparatus suffers a dangerous blow.

Myles J. McKnight ‘23
President, POCC

Abigail Anthony ‘23

Signed by 60 other members of the POCC, whose names were redacted as a condition for the public release of this letter.

[1] Kalven, Harry Jr. Report on the University’s Role in Political and Social Action. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1967. Accessed November 20, 2021. https://www-news.uchicago.edu/releases/07/pdf/kalverpt.pdf
[2] To be sure, the signers of the Kalven report recognized the need for institutional input on controversial issues, but drew the boundaries very narrowly around when such input was appropriate.
[3] Dean Jamal inaccurately states that Kyle Rittenhouse carried a semi-automatic rifle across state lines. She also suggests, leadingly and unverifiably, that he was acting as a “vigilante.” That accusation is itself charged and is the subject of controversy.