The Trump Administration has opened an investigation into Princeton University and its anti-racism efforts — claiming that because Princeton officials say the university needs to do more to fight racism today, perhaps the school’s previous attestations about compliance with federal anti-discrimination law haven’t been accurate.
So says a letter the Education Department sent to Princeton University president Christopher Eisgruber on Sept. 16. The letter cited a statement Eisgruber made to the Princeton community on Sept. 2, where Eisgruber outlined numerous diversity efforts Princeton is launching this fall in response to the social justice protests that wracked the country earlier this summer.
Eisgruber’s statement included these lines: “Racism and the damage it does to people of color nevertheless persist at Princeton as in our society… Racist assumptions from the past also remain embedded in structures of the University itself.”
The Education Department seized on those words, and said that if Princeton is still confronting racism today, that calls into question whether recent claims of compliance with federal education and civil rights law were accurate:
Based on its admitted racism, the U.S. Department of Education is concerned Princeton’s nondiscrimination and equal opportunity assurances in its Program Participation Agreements from at least 2013 to the present may have been false. The Department is further concerned Princeton perhaps knew, or should have known, these assurances were false at the time they were made.
The letter then demands a long list of university records related to potential incidents of systemic racism at Princeton. For example:
- All records concerning, relating to, or referencing Princeton’s “systemic” and/or “embedded” racism, as those terms are used in [Eisgruber’s] letter. The time frame for this request is January 1, 2013 to the present.
- A spreadsheet identifying each person who has, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, been excluded from participation in, been denied the benefits of, or been subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance as a result of the Princeton racism or “damage” referenced in [Eisgruber’s] letter… The time frame for this request is January 1, 2015 to the present.
Perhaps most alarming to compliance officers: the letter ends with a demand that Eisgruber and “a designated corporate representative with knowledge regarding the bases and accuracy” of Princeton’s compliance attestations submit to interviews with the Education Department, under oath, within the next 28 days.
The Education Department letter was signed by Robert King, assistant secretary for post-secondary education. He copied the Civil Division of the Justice Department.
What’s Really Happening Here
This letter stems from President Trump’s recent declaration of war against diversity training that mentions white privilege or systemic racism, or otherwise qualifies as “un-American propaganda.” Trump’s directive only targeted diversity training within the federal government, although the Education Department has already embraced that mission zealously, right down to investigating employee book clubs within the department.
Now we have assistant secretary King’s letter, expanding beyond the scope of Trump’s directive in two important ways.
First, Trump’s directive specifically targeted diversity training sessions that mentioned “white privilege,” “critical race theory,” or “any other training or propaganda effort that teaches or suggests either (1) that the United States is an inherently racist or evil country or (2) that any race or ethnicity is inherently racist or evil.”
Neither the statement from Eisgruber, nor a follow-up university message about diversity efforts the school has implemented this year, mention any of those things. Nor are those statements training programs, either.
Second, Princeton isn’t a government agency. It is a government contractor, because it receives federal support for financial aid programs and university research, and that does make Princeton subject to compliance with federal education law. But that’s not the same as Princeton being a government agency, which were the original targets of Trump’s directive.
So, really, Trump Administration bureaucrats are taking the anti-diversity spirit of Trump’s directive and applying that standard to government contractors. Trump acolytes are turning reflections on racial problems in the United States back against the speakers of those words, using the pretext of an investigation into compliance with federal anti-discrimination law to quash thoughtful discussions of diversity and inclusion at private institutions.
Ultimately, of course, Princeton won’t produce evidence of rampant racial discrimination on campus recently, because the university has taken many strides to fight racism on campus. Then assistant secretary King will use that lack of evidence to say Princeton’s concerns about systemic racism are unfounded — after wasting taxpayers’ money on a baseless investigation. Because the real purpose of this investigation is to scare other higher education officials into not talking about racism so openly.
I have said this before, and will say it again: Compliance officers in higher education or at government contractors, watch your backs. The Trump Administration will keep hammering at this phantom menace of diversity training that supposedly is “un-American propaganda” because it polls well with the president’s political base of white supremacists. (Nevermind that the president himself is a white supremacist, too.)
So I fully expect more investigations like what we see at Princeton; and if Trump wins a second term, you can bet your diversity report that he’ll try to expand that anti-diversity directive to all businesses that receive federal dollars — hospitals, colleges, defense contractors, IT support firms, and so forth.
That will clash directly with today’s highly diverse workforce, which sees documented evidence of police racism and other racial inequity on Twitter every day. Good luck threading that needle.