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Head of the Class

Q&A with Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber

Interview by Wendy Greenberg | Photography Courtesy of Princeton University, Sameer A. Khan/Fotobuddy

In its 275th year, Princeton University has a lot to celebrate. As students return for the fall semester, two new residential colleges have opened — Yeh College and New College West — with the goal of increasing the number of undergraduates by about 10 percent. This past year ground was broken across Lake Carnegie for the Lake Campus Development, which will include graduate student housing, athletics, and recreational facilities. Add to the campus development an engineering and environmental studies complex, and a new art museum, anticipated to open in late 2024.

At the helm of all the activity is Christopher L. Eisgruber, a 1983 alumnus, who will continue in his role as the 20th president of the University for at least the next five years. On April 9, the board of trustees extended his presidency as the school looks toward the expansion of its undergraduate student body, increasing investments in emerging areas of science and innovation, gains in philanthropy, and the ambitious building program. Trustees cited “transformational gains” in student body diversity and philanthropic support, accomplishments that have enhanced the University’s teaching and research, and historic campus expansion as reasons to extend Eisgruber’s tenure.

Eisgruber received his A.B. in physics from Princeton in 1983, graduating magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. He then earned an M.Litt. in politics at the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and a J.D. cum laude at the University of Chicago Law School, where he served as editor-in-chief of the law review. After clerking for U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Patrick Higginbotham and U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, Eisgruber taught at New York University’s School of Law for 11 years.

Joining the Princeton University faculty in 2001 as the director of the Program in Law and Public Affairs, he served as the Laurance S. Rockefeller Professor of Public Affairs in the School of Public and International Affairs and the University Center for Human Values. He directed Princeton’s Program in Law and Public Affairs from 2001 to 2004 before being named provost in 2004. He has served as president since July 2013.

A renowned constitutional scholar, Eisgruber has published numerous articles on constitutional issues and testified multiple times before legislative bodies on the issue of religious freedom. His books include Constitutional Self-Government (2001); Religious Freedom and the Constitution (with Lawrence Sager, 2007); and The Next Justice: Repairing the Supreme Court Appointments Process (2007).

This past May he presided over Princeton’s 275th commencement (and also its 273rd, due to the pandemic), and told graduates that “persistence” would be the quality that mattered most “across the many dimensions of achievement or talent … the ability and drive to keep going when things get hard.” He praised students for overcoming “challenges that none of us could have imagined when you began your studies here.”

He said, “One way or another, we need to add back the chairs missing from graduation ceremonies around the country,” referring to financial barriers or other challenges among students at Princeton and elsewhere.

Marking the University’s 275th anniversary, and going into his 10th year as its leader, Eisgruber has answered questions posed by Princeton Magazine. Here he explains what Princeton is doing to add the chairs.

PM: How has Princeton weathered the pandemic in terms of academics and the student experience? Did this experience influence your advice to 2022 graduates to be persistent?

CE: The University has weathered the pandemic well, and we just came out of a tremendously strong year. It was spectacular to have people back on campus and together in person again. But of course, the pandemic was tough for all of us, including for our students who lost precious parts of their student experience. That really did influence my messages — both to the graduating Class of 2020, which we brought back this spring, and the graduating Class of 2022. I talked to 2020 about their connection to Princeton — what I call their “entanglement” with Princeton — and what it meant to simultaneously be a Princeton student and not be at Princeton. And I talked to 2022 about persistence and perseverance, how important those are in life, and how much the graduates have demonstrated those traits.

PM: Describe the progress Princeton is making in increasing the number of first-generation, low-income, and transfer students. How is Princeton reaching these students?

CE: Increasing the number of what we call “FLi” students — first-gen, low-income students — on our campus has been a priority for me from the moment that I took office and is one of the things that gets me up in the morning every day. That’s because of the tremendous talent that they bring to this campus, the impact that they can have for the better in our world, and what a University education and a place like Princeton can do for them. We know it’s a rocket booster. A Princeton education is great for all the students who attend, and it’s a giant difference-maker for students who may not have had those kinds of educational benefits in the past. So, we’ve looked for ways to identify and reach out to students we weren’t attracting in the past. We’ve trained our admissions officers to look for indicators of talent different from what we were using in the past. We have also recognized that we have to work hard to yield these students and make sure that we are supporting them so that they can thrive on our campus.

I’m really proud of what we are doing in our transfer program, and I’m delighted that the faculty voted to double the size of that program last fall. That program is focused on community college students and military veterans. They bring dimensions of diversity and experience to our campus that are different from what we’ve had here in the past.

PM: What benefit do these students bring to the University and broader community?

CE: When we’re getting talent from sectors that we’ve not been able to draw from in the past, it adds to our excellence. That’s always our objective when we’re reaching out to students. Second, we think students with different experiences in different parts of the world, in different parts of our society, benefit the learning that happens on campus because of the perspectives that they bring. Third, we believe that our diversity generates a broader group of leaders who can have impact in a greater range of groups, communities, societies after they graduate.

PM: You have championed Princeton’s commitment to service, and indeed we see many students volunteering and trying to make a difference. How do you maintain this tradition of service amidst all the other pressures and incentives that students face?

CE: In my view, one of the great things about this generation of students is that they have a real and genuine commitment to service that I think surpasses, for example, my own generation’s commitment as we came through. People are always fond of criticizing the young on the basis of their differences from other generations. This is a place where we ought to tip our caps to them because they really care, and they want to serve. From my standpoint, service is something that, among its other benefits and values, provides a way of dealing with the stresses and pressures that all of us face. Doing things that make a difference for other people in the world, that get you together with other people in ways that enable you to look beyond yourself, is one way of addressing the stress that comes from competition and other pressures. We see our students stepping up in that regard, and we’re appreciative to be able to support them in that. I’m particularly pleased that many of them are interested in doing that in ways that are local to our community here in Princeton and across Mercer County.

PM: Princeton brings so much to the greater community. Last year there were some hard feelings over expansion on Prospect Avenue. How is Princeton looking to balance its own needs and being a good neighbor, especially with two new residential colleges and expansion across Lake Carnegie?

CE: I think communication is essential to any strong partnership and to a working community. One of the things I’ve really appreciated is that the town Council has welcomed me for a conversation every year of my presidency. As I’ve said to them, and they’ve said to me, we’re not always going to agree, but it’s important to have the channels of communication open. We’re going to be able to find a lot of things — and I think we have found a lot of things both before the pandemic and during it — where we can cooperate with one another and become stronger together as a result. And I know that there are patches where we disagree. We had disagreements around Prospect Avenue. We found ways to work it out. I think that’s the right way to go, and I think we’ve come through the pandemic in a situation where there’s greater appreciation within the University and within the community for all that this partnership can do. I know that I heard that from local merchants in town as I was doing my own shopping after Reunions. People were talking to me about how glad they were to have all of that activity back.

PM: You wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post that was critical of rankings, yet Princeton participates. What is your advice for high school students and their families in this area?

CE: I offer a few college-selection criteria in The Washington Post piece that I think people should pay attention to. One of them is graduation rate. Another is the extent to which students at a place are serious about studying and engagement, because that really matters to the quality of the education you get. Another is whether or not you’ve got faculty who are really engaged in teaching the courses. So those are all things that people ought to look at. The good news is that there are a lot of really terrific places where people can get a great college education.

One place, by the way, that excels on all the criteria that I mentioned right here in Mercer County is The College of New Jersey. It is an underappreciated gem in American higher education.

PM: What has been the most difficult moment or experience for you in your presidency so far?

CE: Let me start by saying there are several candidates! It’s been a challenging set of times.

I would say the most difficult moment was March of 2020, when we had to send students home because of the pandemic. We made that decision — we pretty much had to make it — really early in the pandemic. When we started putting out communications encouraging students to stay at home, there had only been a handful of cases in the state of New Jersey.
I remember walking out of my office on the 13th, the day when most of the students had to pack up and leave, and seeing them saying their goodbyes to one another and just wondering whether we had done the right thing. At that point, it was hard to tell where we were headed on this. Of course, there were a lot of hard moments that came afterwards, but that choice was incredibly difficult.

It was incredibly difficult partly because the reason that any of us in Princeton’s administration take our jobs is because we love the activity and the engagement that take place on this campus. So, the idea that you’re going to say to students that you have to walk away from that — that was something that I had never imagined, I think none of us had ever imagined — that’s the last thing you want to have to say.

PM: What is the lasting impact you hope your presidency will have on the University and community?

CE: What I think of is doing things that allow more students to have more impact on the world for the better in more ways. That’s about increasing the number of students that we bring to Princeton, so expansion has been very important to me given the extraordinary benefit that we provide when we educate a student at Princeton and the high number of applicants we turn away. And it’s also about diversifying the group of students we bring to Princeton, because I want students from more backgrounds. It’s about adding new fields to what we do at Princeton by, for example, fortifying the School of Engineering, strengthening our art museum, adding American Studies, and making new investments in quantum science. And it’s about inculcating an ethos of service that I think bridges the University and the community.

PM: Tell us something to help the community know you better. What are you reading? How do you unwind?

CE: I read mysteries to relax, so right now I’m going through a couple of Mick Herron’s series, reading from both Slough House spy novels and the Oxford mysteries, which I recommend to anyone. I mix that in with more serious stuff. The most interesting book of that kind I’ve read this year is by Michael Strevens, who is a philosopher of science. It’s called The Knowledge Machine and it is a very ambitious book. And right now I’m reading Kevin Rudd’s book, The Avoidable War, about U.S./China relations.

To unwind, I cook. It was one of the good things that I picked up in the pandemic. I’m mainly cooking fish these days. I love to get out to baseball games when I can, although the Cubs are mainly depressing this year when I see them. And Lori (spouse Lori A. Martin) and I love to get out for live music and did a great trip down to Nashville earlier this year.

PM: Beyond your role as president of the University, how do you view this community as a resident? What are your aspirations for it?

CE: Lori and I moved to Princeton before I was connected with the University. We moved down here for her job and because we thought this was a great place to live. And I feel that strongly. This was the place that we raised our son. We loved the public schools, the community support, and the range of things that there were to do, both at the University and beyond it. Having been here as a student before, I think Princeton as a town keeps getting more and more vibrant. There are so many different places now to go out and find interesting food from different traditions in a way that wasn’t true when I was a student here. I’d love to see the town continue to develop in terms of its cultural opportunities and the kind of entrepreneurship that goes on, and for it to continue to have the kinds of businesses that make it a nurturing home.

PM:  A 1973 alumnus asks, “Amidst all the great educational institutions in the country, what makes Princeton ‘the best old place of all?’” (From the school song, “Going Back to Old Nassau.”)

CE: Well, I think for those of us who are part of this community and connected with it, it is because of the love that people feel for the place. It’s that people care intensely. They disagree, but amidst all those disagreements they love the University, they remain connected to it, they want it to succeed, and they want the other people in it to succeed. So, I think in a way it’s “the best old place of all” because the love people feel for it. Although someone might think people love it because it’s the best, paradoxically, it’s the other way around — it’s the best because people love it.

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