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Princeton University is One of the Least Racist Institutions in the World

Reflecting on recent events in Princeton starting with the July 4th “Faculty Letter” to the president, Professor Joshua Katz’s reply in his Declaration of Independence, and all the brouhaha it has generated, I cannot help noticing the asymmetry of the situation. In today’s demonology, no epithets are more noxious than “racist” and “white supremacist.” They have largely replaced the previous most damning insults, “fascist” and “Nazi.” The epithet “terrorist” is also pretty high on the list, though less frequently used, and “Communist” never carried the same negative weight, at least not in academia, despite the mass killings and innumerable other crimes perpetrated by Communist regimes. The July 4th “Faculty Letter,” and the many ensuing declarations of support for it, accuse Princeton University of systemic racism and propose an array of measures to fix the problem—48 of them in total, which, if fully implemented, would radically transform and irreversibly wreck our university. Some of these recommendations are themselves overtly racist, such as giving special privileges to some faculty based on the color of their skin.

In his declaration of independence published in Quillette, Katz, a chaired professor in the Classics department, defends the importance of free speech in academia and accuses the authors of the letter of trying to impose unreasonable changes at Princeton. But because he used the word “terrorist” to describe the campus activities of the defunct Black Justice League, he was immediately accused of racism at Princeton.

Katz’s letter, which received widespread acclaim in the media, was almost universally condemned on our campus, including by the president and the administrative leadership of the Classics department. Though the president, to his credit, was careful not to assume a racist motivation and also to defend Katz’s right to speak, the others, in particular four executive officers of his own department, were not so circumspect. On the other hand, with the notable exception of Katz, nobody has condemned the signatories of the July 4th letter for their accusation of systemic racism at Princeton.

This awful accusation is in no way consistent with the experience of most of us. Together with all other academic institutions in the US, Princeton is today a model for the diversity of both its faculty and its student body. A cursory look at campus demographics will show that people of color, a category that includes Indians and Pakistanis, as well as Chinese and other people of East-Asian origin, make up a much higher proportion of the campus population than their representation in the US population. Those charging Princeton University with “white supremacy” never explain how their accusation is compatible with this reality.

In my own department, Mathematics, both the faculty and graduate students are recruited from all over the world with absolutely no regard for any other criteria beyond excellence in research, scholarship, and teaching. If anything, the process produces a shockingly small number of US-born faculty—at my counting less than 15 percent. Our department has for years been credited as the top Mathematics department in the US and probably in the world. I very much doubt that we could maintain that position if we introduced a quota policy for US citizens to counter their lack of proportional representation in our program.

In recruiting students and faculty from all over, irrespective of race, color, religion, ethnicity, etc., we must be fully confident that they have not only talent and enthusiasm, but also a sufficiently strong grounding in the subject to compete with the best math wizards from all over the world. There is no reason to believe that students of color or US-born faculty cannot meet this requirement—in fact, a great many do. But when we fail to make sure that our standards are fully met, we do more harm than good.

This is especially true for students. Nothing is sadder and more preventable than to see the enthusiasm of a talented young student waning away in a competitive environment where he or she is not fully prepared to compete. We sometime err in taking risks with students in whom we invest hope despite a record that does not give us full confidence of success. When they fail to thrive in our highly competitive program they suffer lasting harm. The truth is that in a more nurturing and only slightly less competitive program than ours, those students may have excelled.

As a Jew who grew up in Communist Romania and whose parents lived through the worst excesses of Nazi-dominated Europe, I have a great sensitivity and complete disdain for racial and ethnic prejudice. Yet I challenge anybody who has signed the July 4th letter to show me even one racist or white supremacist colleague on Princeton’s faculty or in its administration. I don’t know of a single colleague who is not eager to recruit more African American students (especially graduate students) and faculty.

The wild accusation of structural racism and anti-blackness appears to be based only on the statistical under-representation of African Americans at Princeton. The statistics are true, but I strongly dispute that they have anything to do with racism. If those who signed the July 4th letter are honest about their desire to solve the under-representation problem, I suggest they do something meaningful and redirect their attention to the dismal state of our urban schools. Instead of asking for special perks for some faculty based on race, they could instead ask for funds for any student who wants to volunteer to improve the pre-college education for US minorities. In his new book Charter Schools and Their Enemies, Thomas Sowell points out that some of the Success Academy charter schools in New York City, with mainly black and Hispanic students from the most disadvantaged neighborhoods, have achieved levels of success comparable to or higher than some of the top schools in the state, public or private. If that claim is true, which I have no doubt it is, shouldn’t Princeton direct part of its considerable resources, financial as well as moral, toward supporting such charter schools nationally?

In a personal letter sent to President Eisgruber several weeks ago, I suggested that Princeton lead by example by calling for a “University-wide celebration of freedom of speech at Princeton in which people representing different points of view engage in reasoned and respectful discussion and debate the most pressing issues facing the nation,” including that of the under-representation of African Americans in the Ivy League. I have not had a response, but I am still hoping that the administration will heed my call.

I want to end by condemning in the strongest possible terms the spurious accusation of racism at Princeton. At best, the accusation is gravely misdirected. At worst, it shows its own racial animus towards all who do not agree with the world view of the signatories of the July 4th letter, pointing to their “whiteness” as an explanation for their alleged bias. I doubt that most of those who signed that letter intended that and hope that, upon reflection, they will withdraw their signatures from a document which, however well-intentioned, is deeply misguided and will be judged harshly by history.


Sergiu Klainerman is the Eugene Higgins Professor of Mathematics at Princeton.

Photo by Christian Lambert on Unsplash