Beyond Any Statue or Man, at Stake Are Princeton’s Mission and Character

December 07, 2023 5 min read

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by Bill Hewitt ‘74

A recent Princetonians for Free Speech opinion essay finds the outlook at Princeton “bleak for the [John Witherspoon] statue, for the memory of Witherspoon, and perhaps also that of other founders of the United States.” But this controversy has far more at stake for Princeton.

Consider four matters of great concern. They go to whether decision-makers at the University are transparent and responsive. Moreover, these matters go to whether these leaders further Princeton’s missions to pursue truth and transmit knowledge to society.

First, the Committee on Naming (CN) – presently deliberating recommendations on the Witherspoon statue – continues to withhold the full record of its April and November Witherspoon symposiums. Specifically, despite repeated requests, the CN still excludes from its Witherspoon website any video of the Q&A discussions accompanying each presentation. This is troubling because it denies public access to important information.

The above-referenced PFS opinion reported that during her Q&A exchange, November symposium presenter Patricia Kim voiced a personal preference to leave the Witherspoon statue in place. Similarly, in his Q&A remarks after his April symposium presentation, Emmanuel Bourbouhakis spoke against removing the statue. In these and other respects, the two symposiums’ Q&As contain information the Princeton community should have access to.

The Committee on Naming initially sought to withhold all video of the April symposium. Only after adverse publicity in the PAW did videos of the presentations become public. Under these circumstances, the continued withholding of the April and November symposium Q&As gives an impression that the Committee wants to hide pertinent information. This goes against the spirit, if not also the words, of the Committee’s Principles, which state in part:

The processes by which the University considers questions about particular names or images should be clearly articulated and publicly known . . . [Emphasis added.]

The Committee on Naming should post these Witherspoon Q&As forthwith. Failing that, its Chair should provide a public explanation for the refusal to do so.

Second, since 2017 the Princeton & Slavery Project has published false and misleading information on University websites about John Witherspoon’s relation to slavery. This has caused needless anguish and dissension within the Princeton community. Despite repeated requests for the Project to correct its errors, the Project has chosen not to make any corrections to its website, or even acknowledge the requests. The Project’s wrongdoings in the Witherspoon matters are detailed in the October 31 complaint filed with the CPUC Judicial Committee.

The Project’s earlier errors in its depiction of Witherspoon are deeply problematic. But far worse have been the Project’s failures to offer any corrections or explanation. Indeed, as laid out in paragraphs 70 to 82 of the October complaint, the Princeton & Slavery Project “flouted and continues to flout the University’s standards of intellectual integrity” and “demonstrates a wanton disregard for the truth and betrays the University’s mission.”

Will the Princeton & Slavery Project publicly acknowledge that these errors in its depiction of Witherspoon have been brought to its attention? Will it act voluntarily to correct them?

Third, President Eisgruber has failed his duties to prevent the continued wrongful depictions of Witherspoon on University websites. Contemporaneously with the filing of the October complaint, The Princeton Tory published my overview of President Eisgruber’s culpabilities – “On Witherspoon, Eisgruber Flunks His Own Test”. These failures are detailed in paragraphs 83 to 96 of the complaint.

In his continued inaction, some might find President Eisgruber an embodiment of that being Winston Churchill made famous – “The Boneless Wonder.” But, however apt such characterization may be, the cruel prospect for Princeton is that – in the words of the complaint – its President:

  1.  “has failed to hold the Project accountable to the standards he himself publicly asserted the Project to embody.”
  2. “[has] failed to enforce the applicable rules prohibiting the transmission of defamatory content via University IT facilities.”
  3. “has breached his oath of office.”

These Witherspoon problems go beyond the shortcomings of any individual. In the continued wrongful depictions of Witherspoon by the Princeton & Slavery Project and in the University administration’s utter failure even to acknowledge the issue publicly (much less institute corrective actions), Princeton exhibits a serious, ongoing, and unacknowledged institutional failure of deeply troubling proportions. Failed are standards of honesty, integrity, and fairness we would expect of students, no less our University.

Will President Eisgruber publicly acknowledge any of these issues brought to his attention? Will he enforce the applicable rules of the University?

Fourth, the CPUC Judicial Committee continues to delay in its response to the October 31 complaint. By way of background, the Committee received the first complaint regarding the Witherspoon matter last April. In late August, the Committee Chair made a jaw-dropping attempt to dismiss that initial complaint. This letter of September 1 details the shortcomings and problems raised by the attempted dismissal. The superceding complaint filed October 31 expanded the scope and parties of the dispute placed before the Committee for its adjudication.

Quite troublingly, the Judicial Committee has not yet proceeded with this complaint, nor has it offered specific explanation for this delay. Arguably, it should have held a “pre-hearing conference” within a week of the complaint’s receipt, but the Committee has not even offered a suggested date. (See RRR Absent any explanation for its failure to proceed, the ugly specter arises that the Judicial Committee is slow-rolling the complaint. Section 5.6.3 of the CPUC Charter requires the following of each Judicial Committee member:

recognition of the Committee’s judicial role and a commitment on his or her part to apply established rules and regulations impartially to the facts of individual cases.

Full, fair, and credible resolution of the significant issues for the Princeton community regarding actions and inactions by the Princeton & Slavery Project and President Eisgruber vitally depends on the Judicial Committee members’ honoring these requirements laid down by the CPUC Charter and proceeding with transparency. Will the Committee do so? Will it devote the care and resources called for by a complaint of this scope and gravity? And when will the Committee act?

Princeton should pursue a path of truth and reconciliation, rather than punishment and retrubution.

My May essay on this topic, concluded:

To those who cooperate fully and transparently to provide truth in these matters, the University should – wherever possible – offer them relief from the specter of its punishment. With such undertakings we Princetonians can promote truth, understanding and reconciliation.

 I join in these invitations. These matters need open engagement. As the great Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis observed, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” Should an invited party choose not to respond with public comment, PFS readers reasonably may draw their own inferences.

Also, who among the Princeton community might assist these efforts to bring the Princeton & Slavery Project and the Eisguber administration to public account? Many hands will better haul their alleged wrongdoings fully to light. Please follow developments on the October 31 complaint and related matters at the Substack site Tiger Roars.

In closing, what W.E.B. Du Bois said of nations also applies fully to Princeton, especially now: Nations reel and stagger on their way; they make hideous mistakes; they commit frightful wrongs; they do great and beautiful things. And shall we not best guide humanity by telling the truth about all this, so far as the truth is ascertainable?

1 Response

Tom Williams '77
Tom Williams '77

December 09, 2023

Dear Bill,

Thank you for your determination to see the truth be told. The pitifully thin indictment of President Witherspoon made by his detractors has itself been shown, due to your efforts (among others), to be a travesty driven by ideology, not review of the facts.

I have been completely disillusioned by the inability of President Eisgruber and the University authorities to ensure that the truth is heard, much less to be supported. I can’t decide if they are just completely “woke” or spineless or duplicitous. Or all three.

Without question Princeton has some skeletons in its closet around slavery and racism, most especially the deplorable racism of President Woodrow Wilson. But Witherspoon? Please! The more one digs into his life, the more one realizes that Witherspoon took some very strong stands in a society that supported racism and slavery.

If we wipe out his legacy, what will replace it?

Our founders sacrificed to ensure we’d have freedoms. I have travelled in 52 countries and lived for months in three besides the USA. Nowhere have I seen a country more dedicated to truth, freedom of inquiry, and freedom of speech and association. I don’t claim our ancestors to be saints, and I am myself a descendant of both while colonists and America Indians. Some of my white ancestors came for religious freedom, some came out of necessity, and some came to make a fortune. Compared with the genocides of the Spanish and Portuguese, the English were lenient. And I can’t say that my Indian forebears were blameless either.

I think it best that we not become too self-righteous. For example the use of abortion in our country as a birth control method is surely an even greater individual sin than enslaving someone. Another generation after us will, in the future, doubtless find us “weighed in the balances and wanting”.

Thank you for standing up and being counted.

Tom Williams ’77

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