Where the Buck Stops: Christopher Eisgruber ’83, Leonard Milberg ’53, and how administrators and diversity bureaucrats undermined academic freedom and erased history.
June 27, 2022
By Leslie Spencer ’79
Leonard Milberg ’53 collects rare things of scholarly import. In his 30th reunion book entry, he says, “I have belatedly, but passionately discovered books, prints, and the Princeton University Rare Book Library.” Over the years his expertise grew, as did his collections, which came to include 19th-century American prints and drawings, book collections of American poetry, Irish poetry, prose and theatre as well as two Judaica collections. Princeton is the lucky beneficiary of over 13,000 of these items, and over the decades Milberg has organized eleven exhibits at Princeton and paid for their accompanying publications. He often looked to Princeton faculty and other academics with relevant expertise to shape the content and provide context for these projects. And along the way he endowed two Princeton professorships. In short, Milberg has been for decades a devotee not only of history, literature, art and the knowledge one can derive from them, but also of Princeton. Over many decades his philanthropic endeavors have been completed without incident, and with immeasurable benefit to Princeton students and the wider community.
The latest one went differently. And the ensuing controversy throws into question the honesty of Princeton’s leadership on the subject of its willingness to defend academic freedom.
After months of planning, Milberg withdrew funding for an exhibit of American Jewish artists from the second half of the 19th Century, due to open at Princeton in the fall of 2022. It was designed to highlight a new collection of essays sponsored by Milberg and published by Princeton University Press. The collection, Yearning to Breathe Free: American Jewish Culture in the Gilded Age, 1865-1900, fills a significant gap in scholarship on the subject of American Jewish artists working in the post-Civil War period. Princeton’s art museum is currently under construction, so the cancelled exhibit was to open in, yes, the Ellen and Leonard Milberg Gallery at Firestone Library.
As curator, Milberg chose Professor Samantha Baskind of Cleveland State University, a leading scholar of Jewish American Art, author of five books on the subject and editor of the Encyclopedia of American Jewish Artists. Last July, Baskind signed a contract with Princeton to direct the exhibit, and, in collaboration with Milberg and library staff, turned to the painstaking work of research, acquisition and design. A few items derived from Milberg’s own collection. The bulk were to be on loan from museums, universities and galleries throughout the country.
Why, six months in, did Milberg cancel the project? According to Milberg, Baskind and others involved, in December Princeton’s librarian, Anne Jarvis, in collaboration with Vice Provost for Institutional Equity and Diversity Michele Minter, took curatorial control and insisted that the works of two of the most prominent Jewish artists of the era, Theodore Sydney Moise and Moses Jacob Ezekiel, be eliminated from the exhibit. The reason? Because they served as soldiers in the Confederate army and Ezekiel, despite expatriating to Italy, remained a lifelong proponent of the “Lost Cause” view of Civil War history.
No one suggested that the exhibit memorializes or even makes any reference to the Confederacy. Three Ezekiel sculptures meant for the exhibit are busts, one of Isaac Mayer Wise, the 19th Century rabbi considered the founder of reform Judaism, and the other two of Abraham Lincoln and Franz Liszt. And in ultimate irony, “Faith”, which was to be the exhibit’s centerpiece, is Ezekiel’s copy of one of four figures comprising his famous allegorical monument, Religious Liberty, which stands in front of the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. Religious Liberty, commissioned as thanks to the US for religious freedom guarantees, features an 11 foot woman in classical garb wearing a Phrygian cap, bestowed on freed slaves in Ancient Rome. At her feet is a nude boy representing Faith, and a snake, which has been interpreted as a symbol both of intolerance and also of slavery, being attacked by an American eagle. At its 1876 unveiling, Ezekiel affirmed the ineffable power of allegory: “I feel my inability to express myself fully on this expansive subject, and I must now beg of you to allow my work to speak for itself and for me.” A missed learning opportunity for the Princeton community? For sure.
It is worth noting at this point that a prequel to this exhibit, called “By Dawn’s Early Light,” premiered at the Princeton Art Museum in 2016. It enjoyed outsized success, including a five-month run at the New York Historical Society, and enthusiastic critique in the New York Times. “There were paintings by the very same Theodore Sydney Moise, which included portraits of his aunt Penina Moise – ‘the Poet Laureate of Charleston, South Carolina’ … and Henry Clay borrowed from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City,” Milberg wrote in a guest contribution for the Daily Princetonian after the controversy broke. “The accompanying catalog fully disclosed Moise’s Confederate background. … I was not aware of any complaint about Moise’s Confederate past.”
Perhaps to create plausible deniability that they were eviscerating Princeton’s rules protecting academic freedom, library administrators asked Baskind to re-imagine the exhibit to a later period. “[T]his will get us away from some of the artists with confederate background, which is not something we want to foreground,” library staff said, according to contemporaneous notes of a December 2021 zoom meeting at which the staff exerted their control.
Eisgruber’s role was revealed in April when, in a radical pivot from what participants in the matter had known for months, he made the by then implausible claim to The Princeton Alumni Weekly that his subordinates had never intended to exclude these two artists due to their Confederate ties. According to Eisgruber, the problem was over how to “contextualize” the art and who had control over curatorial decision-making.
“The question was how to broaden and contextualize this art,” Eisgruber said. “This isn’t about whether Princeton will display controversial art. It’s about how that art gets displayed and who has editorial control.”
Baskind confirmed that – as has been widely reported -- “contextualization” was discussed and offered, but the Princeton bureaucrats were not interested. She said: “Contextualization is what I do. …The library was unwilling to do the tough intellectual work, unwilling to embrace the complexity of these figures, explore them, so that a contemporary audience could learn from them.”
The veracity of Eisgruber’s account is further thrown into question by his explanation for why these artists’ works were banned: “It wasn’t about the reactions. It’s about making a presentation of the material that speaks to the intellectual issues that are involved.” Did Eisgruber know when he said this to PAW that his subordinates had unequivocally stated to Milberg and Baskind that fear of student reaction and possible protest was the rationale for their decision to eliminate these two artists from the exhibit? “We do not have anything to add to President Eisgruber’s comments on this issue in PAW,” said University spokesman Michael Hotchkiss in response to a request for comment.
Milberg told PAW that Eisgruber’s rendition of the story was “categorically false,” an assertion he affirmed in an email to PFS, in which he recalled his meeting with Eisgruber in the wake of the exhibit’s demise.
“President Eisgruber never mentioned contextualization to me. He repeatedly referred to ‘Academic Freedom.’ He said the decision as to whether to display the works of former Confederate soldiers was not his nor mine to make but belonged to the Librarian Anne Jarvis. He insisted I not speak to anyone at the Library since University policy prohibits a donor from having any involvement in an exhibition.”
To endow administrators with the power to undermine academic freedom -- in the name of academic freedom? Is it possible to believe that Eisgruber did not understand the full implications of this distortion of reason and high principle?
So, where academic freedom is concerned, a question arises. Where does the buck stop?
Princeton’s Commitment to Freedom of Expression says, in part:
“… it is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive. Although the University greatly values civility, and although all members of the University community share in the responsibility for maintaining a climate of mutual respect, concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community.”
Is it appropriate for a university president to devolve responsibility to inexpert, likely biased subordinates to have final say in the content of an exhibit? Why should Eisgruber give administrators the authority to limit access to historical material, whatever their motive? Perhaps they have not had the benefit of full acquaintance with the Chicago Principles, which Princeton faculty adopted in 2015 with Eisgruber voicing support? By allowing this to happen, is Eisgruber not ducking his responsibility?
Arguably, once he got involved, Eisgruber’s priority should have been to end the pretense about why these 19th Century Jewish artists were being airbrushed out of this exhibit. He should have honored those experts responsible for explaining these artists, their work and the irony, contradiction and complexity of their lives. Perhaps some students, in these fraught times, would have protested in offense at sharing institutional space with 150-year-old works created by artists with Confederate ties. But protest, as long as it remains peaceful, is completely within students’ rights. Had the exhibit gone forward, the mix of reactions might well have added to historical understanding.
Exasperated and exhausted, Milberg prefers now to look forward: “[A]fter spending over a year fighting over the art exhibit … I prefer spending my efforts on furthering scholarship and knowledge at Princeton.” One might wonder if Princeton deserves him.
As for Baskind, the experience was searing, but also inspirational. She is rewriting the introduction to her forthcoming biography of Ezekiel. It was to be a basic biographical summary. Now, she feels compelled to address the broader issue of our time -- what can be said and not said. In her words, “Ezekiel’s work is being cancelled, talking about his art and his life is censored, in 2022, at Princeton University.”
Leslie Spencer ’79, a former journalist, is a member of the Princetonians for Free Speech Board of Directors