On the DOE's Princeton Investigation: Looking Beyond the Public Statement

On Sept.16, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) notified Princeton University that it would be under investigation for violations of nondiscrimination and equal opportunity rights, potentially leading to “an action to recover funds” from the university that had been provided by the federal government. This investigation followed a Sept. 2 letter (notably, very similar to the Amherst Anti-Racism Plan unveiled by President Biddy Martin on Aug. 3) in which Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber admitted that Princeton, like most institutions of higher learning in the U.S., is plagued by institutional racism and pledged to address that racism. 

This move by the DOE has been decried by critics as a “politically motivated fishing expedition” aimed at quashing discussions around colleges around the country on the ways race plays into life on campus. Others have noted that the move comes at the same time as President Donald Trump promises to launch his 1776 Commission promoting “patriotic education,” his pushback against the growing prominence of critical race theory in mainstream academia and curricula (something he has referred to as “a form of child abuse”), as well as the Trump administration’s efforts to oppose racial sensitivity training (referred to by the president as “divisive” and “un-American”).

On Sept. 24, in response to this investigation, Martin and Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University, wrote a statement acknowledging the impact of racism on their own institutions and urging the DOE to drop its investigation. More than 80 college presidents, including those of the rest of the Ivy League, signed on to the letter, in a united effort to preserve the right of colleges to introspection and self-improvement.

Quite often, The Student’s Editorial Board reserves its weekly editorial real estate for critiques of the administration’s actions (all in the name of a better Amherst College, of course). But this week, the Editorial Board offers its support to President Martin and the rest of the administration in condemning the DOE’s investigation. 

The DOE is using what are supposed to be anti-racist educational policies in order to disincentivize anti-racist work. Without the ability to openly discuss our failings as an institution, we have no way to communicate or combat them. While some, including Princeton alumni, decry these letters as “platitudes of the new anti-racist faith,” they fail to acknowledge the many meaningful measures colleges have undertaken in order to address barriers students of color face on campus. For example, the Amherst plan committed to the diversification of both staff and faculty, a new anti-discrimination policy, more anti-bias training at every level of the institution and a decreased reliance on the Amherst College Police Department in favor of student affairs and mental health resources. None of this could be accomplished without a sustained and open discussion of the impacts of racism on Amherst’s student body and its alumni. And that discussion is only possible when institutional acknowledgment of historical injustices is not used against that institution in a court of law, all for what appears to be a political play. 

As much as we, the Editorial Board, fully stand with President Martin’s call to end this federal investigation, we acknowledge that this call to action is only a first step (would it really be The Student’s weekly editorial without some constructive, loving criticism for the administration?). We are grateful to be members of one of the over 80 institutions that were able to take that first step. However, a commitment to reducing racism and its effects on the student body is only as good as its follow-through. 

We cannot treat the acknowledgment of an institution’s racist past as a heroic solution to racism — it takes more than that. Of course, in these particular circumstances, the college’s acknowledgment of its own racist history in the letter puts it in legal jeopardy right alongside Princeton. In that sense, that public statement is the college taking legitimate action. 

However, after the national statement has been made, we need to see the college back these sentiments with action on our own campus. We want transparency and updates on the status of the anti-racist work pledged in the summer. 

The college has made good on its promise to provide educational opportunities about the history of anti-Black racism and many of the intersections of racial justice. However, that was one promise of many. In particular, we would like to see, hear and (for remote students) read about the headway that has been made in diversifying the Board of Trustees. We want the change of our policing structures to be visibly obvious (e.g. putting someone other than ACPD in charge of sending out Covid-19 updates, since ACPD is not a symbol of safety for all members of campus). We understand change takes time. And we appreciate the college’s first step of taking a public stance against the Princeton investigation. But the next step is maintaining transparency with the Amherst community about the status of our anti-racism campaign, and ultimately seeing that campaign through to the very end.  

We, the Editorial Board, stand with the administration in its denunciation of the Department of Education’s attempt to quash free speech and open dialogue on college campuses throughout the nation, but we are now looking for more — reform that goes beyond a public statement. Acknowledgment of harms is the first step, but real, palpable change comes from decisive and immediate action; that’s what Amherst College needs, what The Student commits to do within our office and what we implore the administration to do.  

Unsigned editorials represent the Editorial Board (assenting: 10; dissenting: 0; abstaining: 4)