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Princeton, Betsy DeVos, And The Need For a Real Debate About Race

Can we talk about racism at our colleges and universities?

I mean, really talk. Not gesture or pantomime, which too often passes for dialogue in this realm. Can we engage in a full and free exchange of ideas, where people actually say what they think and think what they say?

That’s the real question raised by the latest dust-up over racism in higher education, pitting the Department of Education against Princeton University. And thus far, unfortunately, the answer seems to be no. Proclaiming the urgent need for discussion, our universities are effectively silencing it.

In response to a statement by president Christopher Eisgruber that acknowledged continued racism at Princeton, the DOE announced last month that it would initiate an investigation of the university. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bars institutions from discriminating based on race if they take money from Uncle Sam. So if Princeton is as racist as it says, the DOE argued, perhaps it has also flouted federal law.

There’s good reason to believe the Education Department wasn’t acting entirely in good faith. Its sudden concern for black lives at Princeton drew happy cackles from conservatives, suggesting that the real motive here was to hoist liberals on their own anti-racist petards. When the right-wing New York Post congratulates Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for her “epic trolling” of Princeton, well, it’s fair to suspect that Betsy DeVos is trolling Princeton.

But there was also something disingenuous about Princeton’s response and the letter signed by 80 college and university leaders, who charged the DOE with threatening academic freedom. “It is unfortunate that the Department appears to believe that grappling honestly with the nation’s history and the current effects of systemic racism runs afoul of existing law,” a Princeton spokesman said.

How can you grapple honestly with racism if you declare it before the discussion even starts? A letter signed by 350 faculty members last July flatly asserted that “anti-black racism has a visible bearing upon Princeton’s campus makeup and its hiring practices.” President Eisgruber of Princeton followed up with his own letter in September, admitting “systemic racism” at the university and pledging to recruit more black professors.

Yet we really don’t know whether the small fraction of African-Americans on the faculty reflects discrimination on Princeton’s part. Writing in the Chronicle of Higher EducationHarvard law professor and former Princeton trustee Randall Kennedy noted that Princeton has made expansive—and expensive—efforts to recruit black professors. The real problem lies in the high poverty rates and low educational opportunities of African-Americans in our society, Kennedy argued, which does not generate enough qualified black candidates.

Ironically, Kennedy’s article might help Princeton rebut the Department of Education’s probe of racism there. But it probably won’t generate frank debate at our universities about the subject, which has been placed out of bounds.

Read entire article at Washington Monthly