For the first time in four years, The Daily Princetonian sat down for an interview with
University President Christopher L. Eisgruber ’83. The interview, which took place on
Friday, Nov. 11, included topics such as student mental health, affirmative action in the
admissions policy, and the expansion of the facilities of the School of Engineering and
Applied Sciences. This Q&A has been broken down into five sections by topic, listed in menu
This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.
Expansion of STEM
The Daily Princetonian: You have recently been approved for at least another five years
at the helm of this institution. If you had to pick just one, what would you say is your top priority
for the next half-decade?
Christopher Eisgruber: If it's just one, it has to be rebuilding and fortifying our
School of Engineering and Applied Science. I think we’ve got a terrific group of faculty working in a
1962 building that looks depressingly like my high school. That’s not the set of facilities we need for
the 21st century, and you cannot be a great liberal arts university in the 21st century without having a
great school of engineering. So if I had to pick just one, we’re not going to get it all done during the
next five years, but we’ve got to make a lot of progress in that direction, basically, in filling in
those holes right now that are out there above Western Way [Ivy Lane].
“That’s not the set of facilities we need for the 21st
century, and you cannot be a great liberal arts university in the 21st century without having a great
school of engineering.”
DP: Staying on that same topic then, it seems like over the course of the past decade,
B.S.E. departments, like computer science, have expanded while humanities departments, like English,
have shrunk in popularity. For instance, engineering students outnumber
students in the humanities by more than two-to-one. You mentioned expanding the engineering school; but
at the same time, do you see the shrinking of the humanities at the school as a problem? Do you think it
changes the fabric of the school?
CE: We think the humanities are essential to the liberal arts education that we offer
at Princeton, and I frankly think they’re essential for every student. And I suspect that Dean Andrea
Goldsmith in the engineering school would agree that one of the great strengths of our engineering
school is the opportunities for our engineers to engage in this broader liberal arts education. So
you’re right; there’s a trend — that’s not a trend at Princeton, it’s a trend across the nation — where
we have fewer students who are majoring in the humanities. We are concerned about that, and we want to
continue to invest in the humanities. If you look out [Nassau Hall’s] windows, you have an extraordinary
project there to create a new Princeton University Art Museum that is important to the humanities. I’m
really proud that when we increased graduate stipends this past year we, unlike some campuses, did those
across the board, recognizing the importance of supporting students in the humanities, along
with students in other fields. We believe that it’s continuing to be important to invest in the
humanities, and we’re doing that.
DP: Still on the topic of the growing engineering school, do you see the expansion of
STEM playing a role in the University’s obligation to climate change research?
CE: Climate is obviously one of the existential threats, but there are concerns about
water, about biodiversity, about the air that we breathe, and, as our faculty have pointed out, these
things are all connected in complicated ways. So we think it’s very important to invest in that
research. Some of that will occur through the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and obviously
in the last campaign, we invested in the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment. But, it’s
really important that we’re also building new facilities for the environmental sciences above [Ivy
Lane]. That’s in addition to what we’re doing for the engineering school, and there are other important
priorities as well. We were thrilled to be able to rededicate
what used to be the Princeton Environmental Institute as the High Meadows Environmental Institute last
year, with a new endowment that we raised for it. The High Meadows Environmental Institute and its
leadership are really focused on the idea that this isn’t just about science and it isn’t just about
engineering. It’s also about public policy, social science, and the humanities. So if you look at the
High Meadows Environmental Institute and the affiliated and member faculties, that includes humanists,
and that connects back to our last question. We really see these problems as requiring integration
across the disciplines.
DP: Engineering also tends to be a male-dominated field. For instance, at Princeton’s
School of Engineering,
29 percent of graduate students and 20 percent of faculty are women. Do you foresee the expansion of the
engineering school aggravating these gender disparities, and is there a plan to address that issue?
CE: I do not see it as aggravating; on the contrary, I see it as part of our commitment
to continue to diversify that field and every field. And one of the things that is fundamental to what
we do is a conviction that in order to be excellent, you have to be adding talent from every sector of
society. I think it is notable, for example, that right now, we not only have a female Dean of the
School of Engineering in Andrea Goldsmith, but we have a female Chair of Computer Science in Jen Rexford
and a female Chair of Civil and Environmental Engineering in Katherine Peters. One of the things that
growth helps you to do is to continue to focus on diversity. And we have leaders throughout the school
of engineering who realize how important that is. I point to someone like Professor Howard Stone, who’s
the Chair of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. He himself obviously is a white male but one of the
things that he’s really been cognizant of is the importance of this diversity to the future of the
discipline of engineering and to the future of his department, and you’ve seen significant gains as a
result of the work that he and his colleagues have done there. So I think as we continue to grow, we
will also continue to diversify. And it’s actually easier to do that when you're in a growth mode than
when you’re in stasis.
DP: To stay in the lane of diversity and focus on something that’s been in the news in
the past couple of weeks, the Supreme Court’s decision on the affirmative
action case — which might come out next spring — is unlikely to be favorable to the University’s
current policies. I was wondering how, if at all, the University is preparing for that reality?
CE: We are obviously watching very closely these cases, and we’re seriously concerned
about them. I remember encountering the affirmative action issue for the first time when I was in high
school, which is now a depressingly long time ago, over 40 years. If you had told me at that time that
40 years later, you and I would be sitting at a table, having a conversation about the same issues
again, I wouldn’t have believed it. I would have said: look, I believe in what my country is doing, and
we’re going to overcome the differences in education, policing, health care, and employment that have
made these policies necessary and important today, and I just can’t believe we’ll still be talking about
them 40 years later. But, we are talking about them because we haven’t made the progress we should make
as a society. So, to get the diversity and the talent and the excellence that we need, these policies
have proven important to what we do.
“So to get the diversity and the talent and the excellence
that we need, these policies have proven important to what we do.”
On the question of “how do we prepare,” we’re always looking for ways other than affirmative
action and other than the use of race in admission to achieve diversity. We were just talking about the
faculty, and when it comes to faculty hiring, we’re not able to take advantage of what the Fisher and Grutter decisions make available in the
area of admissions. We’re already in a world where we’re not permitted to use race as a factor in hiring
decisions. So we have to work on things like expanding the scope of the pools we use for hiring. We have
to be asking ourselves, are there criteria we may have habitually used as proxies for excellence? And if
we get better at this, can we find talent we weren't otherwise finding?
We’ve been able to make progress by doing that and by looking for other ways to take down barriers, and
so we’ve got to do that in the admissions area. We’ve got to be doing it even if affirmative action
remains available to us as a choice. But, for the reasons I was alluding to earlier, we have to
recognize that’s going to be hard to do in this era. And the evidence that it’s going to be hard to do
is what’s happened in Michigan
Those are universities that also care deeply about diversity and equality; they are universities led by
creative and competent people, and they haven’t been able to make it up. So that’s sobering, and we will
look at the options that are available to us. We will do our best to be creative within the limits of
the law. But we can’t pretend that it's going to be easy.
“We will do our best to be creative within the limits of
the law. But we can’t pretend that it's going to be easy.”
DP: It seems like the reality around this case is pretty stark. For instance, the ACLU
that a “decision blocking universities’ ability to consider race will almost certainly mean a
significant drop in the number of students of color.” I think back to Dobbs — many people expected the
decision to come down the way it did, but it still was a slap in the face when the actual decision was
handed down. I was wondering if that stark reality is present in conversations you’ve been having with
other University officials?
CE: Yes it is, and I think your question is insightful in the sense that we have to
recognize the things we may have taken for granted for roughly half a century might be about to change,
and therefore, we have to be thinking creatively and proactively.
I spent part of this week earlier reading the oral argument transcripts in the case and I think there
was a collection of the justices who may not be particularly sympathetic to affirmative action but also
realize that it gets very tricky to say that race, unlike anything else that gets considered in holistic
admission, can’t be considered in some way. So they seemed alert to some difficulties [that] I think
very serious. For example, the exchanges during the oral argument were about issues such as, “What if a
university has a question that asks students to reflect on experiences, disadvantages, prejudices, or
other things that may have affected either their application and the credentials in it or their ability
to contribute to the university community?” What happens if the university asks a question — like that
which is race-neutral on its face — and then somebody gives an answer that makes reference to race? Is
the university uniquely prohibited from considering that factor, or is it allowed to consider that
factor along with all others? That question is hard to answer if one goes in some reflexive, colorblind
direction, which I think is inconsistent with the Constitution itself.
I think it’s going to be very hard to figure out exactly how we respond until we know how the Supreme
Court works out some of these really hard questions that would be posed if they mistakenly reverse 40
years of well established precedent that do a good job of implementing the ideals of our Constitution.
DP: At your address to alumni at Reunions this year, you discussed the mental health
crisis impacting students nationally and in our community. The mental health task force has made a
variety of recommendations
that will be implemented soon — for instance, expanding CPS [Counseling and Psychological Services],
more funding for outside counseling, and improving awareness of mental health resources for first-year
students. Ultimately, those resources are sometimes termed by psychologists as “aftercare.” Do you see
the University playing a role in preventing crises from happening in the first place? Do you see there
being a tension between the rigor and productivity demanded of Princeton students and student mental
CE: First of all, on the question of preventing crises, we’re addressing what I would
call a mental health epidemic in the country. I think it is important for us to be working together with
our researchers and with researchers at other institutions that may have capacities we don’t to
understand the foundations of that epidemic and, where it’s possible, either for us to implement changes
or to help in the research of those changes.
I think it’s important to understand what it is we are facing. It is a phenomenon that is affecting an
entire generation right now. It is affecting all college-age students and is affecting high school-age
students, and I emphasize college-age because it’s not as though this phenomenon is restricted to a few
colleges or to colleges in general. In fact, the evidence I’ve seen suggests it may be even more severe
outside of colleges.
So we’re dealing with a societal phenomenon I think is important for us as a country — and probably more
broadly than that because I don’t think the United States is unique — to find ways to address that. To
do that, I think we need better diagnoses and understanding of what’s happening than we have right now.
I think those diagnoses and understandings need to be data-driven. You talk to people about this and you
get a lot of different anecdotes, and often those anecdotes focus on agendas or issues that people may
be interested in. But very rarely are they actually responsive to the breadth of this very troubling
To go to the second part of your question, I think high aspiration environments, and that includes academically rigorous environments, are fully consistent with and helpful to mental health. I think part of what
creates meaning and connection in our lives is engagement and demanding collective enterprises. Again, I
think we need to be driven by data on these kinds of issues, but I don’t see any reason to think that
high academic standards and the desire to achieve and be excellent is anything but consistent with
strong mental health. Whatever it is people are doing, we need to provide the right support, and that’s
what that report from the [Undergraduate Student Government] and our Campus Life team and others who
participated is all about. But as I said, I think high aspiration environments are consistent with
mental health and I don’t see any evidence that academic laxness or academic mediocrity would somehow be
better from the standpoint of mental health.
“I think high aspiration environments, and that includes academically rigorous environments, are fully consistent with and helpful to mental health.”
DP: Something that’s also unfortunately pertinent to this
year is grieving
among students on campus. Would you say the University has an obligation to help students who are
grieving, and if so how can that support be provided?
CE: We want to support our students in all aspects of their life and a large part of
what our residential life teams — including but not limited to our Office of Religious Life, for example
— do is find ways to support students as they deal with the challenges of life in many different
All of us have felt deeply the losses that have occurred on this campus over the past year. One of the
strengths we have as a campus is our ability to respond personally and communally to those losses. We
also know that students may be grieving individually or personally even when the campus as a whole is
not. There are times as people go through their experiences at Princeton they may suffer very great
losses in their own family and may feel lonelier under those circumstances because the people around
them are not experiencing the same thing, and we want to be able to support students under all of those
circumstances. People grieve in different ways and we have to recognize that as they do so.
“People grieve in different ways and we have to recognize that as they do so.”
DP: I’m thinking more from a logistical sense — for instance, if a student is grieving
and has to take time off class. Beyond the Office of Religious Life, do you see the University needing
to play a more significant role in accommodating such scenarios?
“We want to be able to be supportive and respectful and
recognize the different ways in which people need to respond and the needs they have under those
CE: I think we have a program of accommodations designed to recognize the set of
challenges that students face in any period going through the University. Different students will face
those challenges in different ways, and that structure is designed to respond to that. So I think that’s
going to be dependent on individual circumstances.
As I said, all of us in the course of our lives and in the course of our time as students are going to
face these challenges. We want to be able to be supportive and respectful and recognize the different
ways in which people need to respond and the needs they have under those circumstances. But I think
those supports and accommodations are there in the way that they should be.
Activism and Service
DP: Going back to the issue of climate change, some have credited news of the
University dissociating from several fossil fuel companies to decades of student activism on campus. To
what extent do you see student and alumni activism as having played a role in the University’s decision?
“I think one thing that is really important to understand
about Princeton’s process, which is quite strikingly different from what goes on on other campuses, is that the crux of it is
reaching a community judgement about a kind of campus viewpoint or consensus.”
CE: It certainly played a role in the University’s decision. I don’t think it’s my
responsibility or that it would be appropriate for me to come up with a scorecard and say, “Well, it was
to this extent these people and to that extent, those people.” I’m not going to give grades or credit in
this. I think one thing that is really important to understand about Princeton’s process, which is quite
strikingly different from what goes on on other campuses, is that the crux of it is reaching a community judgement about a kind of campus viewpoint or consensus. It doesn’t mean everybody agrees, and they clearly do not — there are people
who think we went too far and there are people who think we didn’t go far enough. But it does mean that
we spend a lot of time through the [Council of the Princeton University Community] and the CPUC
Resources Committee having these conversations on campus to understand where the campus community as a
whole is [on a topic].
If we were to do something in response to a particular group on campus without it reflecting the
deliberations of the entire community, including those who disagree with that group, then we would be
unfaithful to this process and to our set of norms around this. There’s no doubt that the activists
played a significant and important role in contributing to these conversations. I think the most important
contributions come when reasons are supplied to those discussions — this is intended to be and, to be
successful, has to be, a reason-driven process. I’m really grateful to everybody who contributed reasons
I look at other universities and I feel like [Princeton’s process] is so different, and in my view,
better, than the processes that go on there. At least as I understand the Harvard process, if you want
to call it that, there was suddenly an announcement that came down ex cathedra and unexplained.
I think it’s better to have the commitments we do and have the discussions we do and I’m really grateful
for all the people who paid attention and took this seriously and made their voices known. I think it’s
really important that people feel they can speak up when they want to speak up in the voice of activism.
I also think it’s really important that people feel they can speak up when they want to disagree with
activists, and I think our process has to include all of those voices.
“There’s no doubt that the activists played a significant and important
role in contributing to these conversations. I think the most important contributions come when reasons
are supplied to those discussions.”
DP: Shifting gears again, the University often boasts about graduates such as Alan
Turing ’38, Elena Kagan ’81, Sonia Sotomayor ’76, and James Madison. However, it seems relatively rare
that Princeton graduates go on to lead such distinguished lives of public service. Specifically, for
instance, the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) 2022 Annual Report noted
that only seven percent of graduates planned to work in the public sector. To you, how does that
statistic square with Princeton’s informal motto of “In the nation’s service and the service of
humanity”? More broadly, what specifically is it about a Princeton education that instills values of
CE: I don’t think you even mentioned Maria Ressa ’86, who is my latest favorite example
— people say “What good is a Princeton English degree?” and I say, “Uh, well, let me tell you.”
To go to your question, of course she’s not typical — most of us are not going to win Nobel
prizes. But what strikes me about Princeton alumni is how many of them have stories about
different ways in which they are giving back and paying forward the benefits of their education. During
the pandemic, I would point to the Tigers Helping
website. Lots of these contributions weren’t ones that were going to be celebrated on the front page of
The New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, they weren’t going to be the recipients of major awards,
but they were made by people making a difference in their professions and communities.
And that connects to what I think is the way in which Princetonians make a difference across different
disciplines. All of us are blessed to have a place on this campus — and I have felt blessed in my life
to have been a student and a faculty member here. That gives you opportunities that are rare in the
world. And I think your obligation as somebody who has experienced those rare blessings is to ask “How
do I pay it forward? How do I make a difference in the world for the better with what I’ve done?”
You can do that in just about any profession. It’s not a matter of “Do you go to the public sector? Do
you go to the Peace Corps? Is this profession OK? Is that one better?” It’s how you do those jobs. And
you can go into public interest jobs, government, or the public sector and do bad things, either in the
way you execute your job or in the way you treat the people around you. You can become the CEO, for
example, of a corporation and when you pay attention to what impact your operations have on the
environment, how you’re opening up opportunities for talent in your company, how you treat the people
who work for you, you’re “in the nation’s service and you’re in the service of humanity.”
So, to answer your question specifically, I don’t think the question of being “in the nation’s service
or in the service of humanity” is about the percentage of SPIA graduates going in one direction or
another. I think those of us who are physics majors are [just] as capable of contributing to the
nation’s service and the service of humanity.
The education here — from the courses you take, to the mentor relationships you have, to your
extracurriculars — should imbue you with that concern, that question of “Alright, I’ve been blessed in
my life in various ways, how do I pay it forward?” So if you’re a software engineer, and you’re
producing outstanding code, you should also be thinking about what that code means for the world. How is
it affecting people? How am I affecting people in my relationships? Hopefully that will come out of your
liberal arts education.
“I think your obligation as somebody who has experienced
those rare blessings is to ask ‘How do I pay it forward? How do I make a difference in the world for the
better with what I’ve done?’”
Equity and Inclusion
DP: I want to discuss with you what’s been a key priority for your administration,
which is expanding financial aid. The latest announcement
on this front puts Princeton far ahead of its peers in terms of material aid. To look at this priority
through a new lens, what do you see as the University’s role in making the Princeton experience more
equitable for low and middle income students once they’re here?
CE: One of the reasons we made the improvements of financial aid we did is that we
think some of those changes will enhance students’ ability to thrive. So, we eliminated the student’s
earnings requirement, for example, because we think that will give students more choices that are
important to have, both for their time on campus and for the summer, even though campus jobs have their
But your question is one that we’re always asking ourselves. One of the reasons we established the Emma
Bloomberg Center for Access and Opportunity and worked so closely with Khristina Gonzalez [Bob Peck ’88
Director of the Emma Bloomberg Center for Access and Opportunity] is that we know, as we’re bringing on
super talented students who may not have had the advantages in preparation that some of their peers have
had, we have to make sure we’re providing the kinds of opportunities that will enable them to succeed
and flourish in all the ways they should. Part of what the Emma Bloomberg Center does is research where
there are opportunities to do more on our campus, where we can learn from other campuses, and where they
might be able to learn from us.
“As we’re bringing on super talented students who may not
have had the advantages in preparation that some of their peers have had, we have to make sure we’re
providing the kinds of opportunities that will enable them to succeed and flourish in all the ways they
DP: I want to finish by discussing the University’s commitment to diversity inclusion.
According to the 2021 DEIB report, 76 percent of tenured or tenure-track faculty members were White.
Asian and Black faculty members’ numbers were at 11 and four percent, respectively. Does the University
plan to recruit more non-white faculty members in the coming years and if so, what specific steps will
CE: So one of the major commitments that that we made in the wake of the national
reckoning with racism after the murder
of George Floyd was to redouble our efforts to diversify our faculty. Here I’m going to underscore again
what I said earlier: we are subject to legal limits in how we do that and everything we do needs to be
within the scope of those legal limits. So we can work hard to diversify our pools. For example, we can
ask questions about where there are structural barriers we need to address or remove. Are we using
certain kinds of credentials as a proxy for research productivity when we really care about the quality
and caliber of research? So we can ask all those kinds of questions, but we can never set a quota or say
simply that we’re going to recruit more people from a particular group.
In the wake of that reckoning with racism, it was really the faculty who came forward and said, “We need
to do something about this. We’re not making progress at the speed we can.” At the end of the day, I
have no capacity to search in chemistry, the chemistry department has to care about searching, they have
to be able to answer the questions that I just put forward because they’re the ones who can find the
great chemists from all backgrounds. Likewise, in every single department, every group of faculty has to
be asking themselves, “What is it we can do to diversify our ranks with the quality and the excellence
upon which we insist?”
And so we set an aspirational target — these numbers aren’t good enough, but let’s see if we can
increase the number of underrepresented minorities by 50 percent over a period of five years by doing
the things that we’re allowed to do. We have been making progress as a result of that, and I credit
people top to bottom within the University on that. You cited the 2021 report. In the 2022 report, I
think we’re expecting it in December, the numbers will show significant progress over the last couple of
“Every single department, every group of faculty has to
be asking themselves, ‘What is it we can do to diversify our ranks with the quality and the excellence
upon which we insist?’”
Sandeep Mangat is an Associate News Editor for the ‘Prince.’ Please direct any correction requests to
Associate Podcast Editor Eden Teshome contributed audio editing to this piece.