The Interview Issue: Eisgruber is trying to reshape the meaning of a Princeton education even as his school, and higher ed as a whole, grapples with COVID-19 and racism

Christopher Eisgruber, president, Princeton University.

Princeton University has discussed plans to create an additional campus across Lake Carnegie — a campus that would potentially create an innovation center that could attract companies seeking the next great technological advancement. (More on that later.)

President Chris Eisgruber is just as excited to talk about the school’s commitment to a different kind of expansion: One that would increase the number of low-income and first-generation students attending the nation’s premier university.

“It’s just such a passion for me,” he said. “One of the things I’m proudest of is that we have become a national leader in terms of attracting students from low-income backgrounds and graduating them and seeing them go off and do spectacular things, with, I hope, many of them staying here in the state of New Jersey. 

“As we continue to look to elevate and nurture talent, it will be important to what Princeton University is doing going forward.”

Going forward is a relative phrase these days. Princeton — like all universities and much of society — is eager to just return to the way it was. Few parts of society were as impacted as greatly by COVID-19 as higher education.

Princeton will bring its students back to campus next semester — and do it with a rigorous testing system, while school officials await the day when everyone will be vaccinated. But, even then, Eisgruber knows the school will be different.

While the COVID-19 pandemic impacted how students learn, the murder of George Floyd led to a reexamination of how everyone thinks about racial equity and equality. At Princeton, that meant another look at the racist views of one of its former presidents, Woodrow Wilson, and the removal of his name from a number of prominent places.

Eisgruber discussed all of this and more in a recent chat for the Interview Issue, our annual year-end give-and-take with some of the most inspiring and intriguing people around the state.

Here’s a look at the conversation, edited for space and clarity.

ROI-NJ: We have to start with COVID-19. Give us an overview of how that has impacted Princeton?

Chris Eisgruber: Education depends on engagement and personal interaction; that’s what we try to provide. That’s the key to teaching that really inspires. But, the same kind of engagement and intimacy that’s so valuable to education is also what spreads this virus. So, we’ve had the problem that the thing that is at our core of education has suddenly become dangerous in the midst of this pandemic, and we’ve had to adapt to that. 

We made the tough decision to go online in the fall, and I’ve been so impressed by the way our staff and our students and our faculty have worked together to find possibilities for making online education real and meaningful. And then, we’ve been working hard to find ways to bring back people to campus and do it safely. I’m grateful to lots of people around this campus and to our alumni, who made it possible for us to set up a testing laboratory on the campus, so we can test our students twice a week, every week, even if the entire population looks asymptomatic. 

We are working to de-densify, so that, in our housing system, we’ll be able to have students one per room. We’ve established a culture of masking and social distancing. So, I’m confident that we can bring back students in the spring and bring them back safely. But I’m among the many people who are looking forward to the day when we can get everybody vaccinated and we can go back to the in-person elements that add so much more to our education.

ROI: We have to think that virtual learning will continue in some fashion. How could that work?

CE: I think it will vary from institution to institution. I do think, for all of us, this will give us additional arrows in our quiver. The obvious place is in terms of guest speakers or when students are studying abroad or when a faculty member has to travel someplace. It’s one thing when everything has to be on Zoom all the time. It’s another if you suddenly realize, ‘OK, distance doesn’t have to be a barrier.’ 

I still think in-person instruction will be the dominant mode of delivery, but, yes, you will still see (some virtual instruction) where we can’t deliver the in-person experience.

ROI: Let’s move to other big event of 2020, the killing of George Floyd and the long overdue discussion of racial equity, opportunity and justice that came about. The issue, of course, was reflected at Princeton in the removal of Woodrow Wilson’s name from a number of key spots. Talk about how Princeton attempted to address all of these issues. 

CE: I think we and other colleges and universities have a responsibility to be sites for honest confrontation with the right and wrongs of history and for conversations about very difficult subjects. And, obviously, race is a very hard subject to talk about in the United States and to talk about on our college campus. And we haven’t always done well with that. 

We’ve had to wrestle with Woodrow Wilson’s legacy. I will say, personally, that, when I took office, I wasn’t aware that he had resegregated the federal civil service. We talked about him on this campus in a way that didn’t recognize that or acknowledge it. And I think that has been part of this problem of indifference that’s held us back as a country and as a university as we reach for our highest aspirations.

ROI: How do we address this?

CE: This moment remains a moment of great challenge. These issues are so hard, and the problems have been so longstanding, but it also is a moment of opportunity for us. I think there is a greater and wider recognition of the need to do more affirmatively, even more than we’ve done. I know the state of New Jersey has been a leader in a lot of things. This university has tried to be a leader on a lot of things, but we need to do even more in order to reach our highest aspirations.

I assign a book to the incoming students every year. This year, it was a book by the historian Jill Lepore called “This America: The Case for the Nation,” which tries to tell the story of both the great triumphs and aspirations, but also the story of the failures. And she starts, to that end, with this quotation from W.E.B. Du Bois, which I now find myself quoting again and again to our students and alumni. In 1935, W.E.B. Du Bois said: ‘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?’ 

And that’s what I think we have tried to hold ourselves to do. And it is incredibly hard. And depending on who the audience is, they may hear or want to hear only one side of this. I think we have to tell it all, and that’s the challenge.

Eisgruber’s favorite New Jerseyan

“Oswald Veblen. He was a mathematician here in the early 20th century. And he basically transformed the math and physics departments in this university and helped to start the Institute for Advanced Study. He’s not well known, but he should be. He realized early on what was happening in Nazi Germany and helped to bring over a number of Jewish refugees who otherwise would have perished. I think he’s one of the unsung heroes. He just stands for so many things, from academic excellence to being a great citizen of the university to being somebody who helps the refugee in a time of need. So, he gets my vote.”

Eisgruber’s favorite thing about New Jersey

“Its humanity: One of the things that I love about New Jersey is that the people are real and they’re not pretentious.”

If you were business czar for a day, what would you do?

“One of the things we’re really going to want after this pandemic is to bring back the restaurants that have been badly affected. That’s going to matter to attracting young talent and keeping it here. One thing that stands in the way of aspiring chefs that might want to start interesting places that are cool and attractive to young people are the state’s liquor laws — in particular, the difficulty that restaurants have in getting licenses in the state. I think it puts us at a real competitive disadvantage, by comparison to New York and Pennsylvania. So, I’m going to put in a plug for our restaurant industry on that, and for the importance of having cool places that attract young people.”

ROI: This challenge reaches all areas of the university. Sometimes in good ways. Princeton has had some successes in fundraising this year — one was a gift from Mellody Hobson, a businesswomen, philanthropist and alumna that will have significance beyond the dollars and cents. Talk about her gift.

CE: Fundamentally, the process of fundraising at Princeton is about a desire of our friends and our alumni to pay it forward to future generations — to do things that will make a difference at the university and beyond it. What we want to do right now, as we think about our current capital campaign, is to enable more students from more backgrounds to make a difference for the better in the world. And I think that message continues to resonate with our alumni. 

One of our happiest moments during this difficult year was when we were able to announce the gift that will create Mellody Hobson College on the site where Wilson College was previously located. And I know, for many of our alumni and many of our students, the idea that they would be able to identify with an alum like Mellody Hobson, with her story of coming from Chicago as a first-generation Black student to Princeton University, then going on to this career of extraordinary national significance, means a lot. I think it’s a symbol for us. It’s a symbol for students who will make a difference later in their lives. And it’s a symbol for higher education. 

ROI: We are a business journal at heart. So, let’s talk about how the university is connected to the business community in the state.

CE: Increasing Princeton’s connection to the New Jersey economic environment is important for us — and the state of New Jersey — because of its connections to our teaching and research mission. This is a change from the days when Albert Einstein was kind of the paradigmatic Princeton professor, thinking thoughts to win Nobel Prizes, but thoughts that didn’t have immediate application in the business world. Nowadays, my top researchers, some of them who get whispered about in terms of winning Nobel Prizes, say their research is going to be better if they have more connection to the applied world, because they’re going to learn more about which problems need their attention, or where the really interesting issues are. And they want their research to have an application to the world. 

One example of that, which really connects directly back to Einstein, is around quantum computing. We have an initiative in quantum computing. Some of our faculty are associated with a multiuniversity partnership that has a lot of government funding behind it. The Plasma Physics Laboratory is working on expanding into the area of nanochip technology. This is applying some of the most theoretical and worldly ideas that Einstein thought about. It is now the critical technology in terms of the next advances in computing. We would love to see all of that happen right here in central New Jersey. If we could be recognized as the place to go when it comes to quantum computing, that’s going to be really good for the intellectual environment around Princeton University and really good for the state of New Jersey. 

I think we’ve got the edge in terms of having the talent and the fundamentals here. And I think there are a number of other areas, like what we’re doing in bioengineering, what we’re doing in computer science. So, we’ve been really pleased that the New Jersey business community seems to have responded well to that. It’s been a priority for Gov. (Phil) Murphy’s administration. And we hope that these initiatives will continue to grow.

ROI: Like the Princeton campus. This takes us back to an expansion across the lake.

CE: We want to expand gradually, because we want to make sure that we’re preserving the character of a Princeton education. So, one of the things we’re doing as we’re building these two new residential colleges is making sure that, as we start renovating some of our existing space, we will have the capacity to expand down the line. 

We have land across the lake that is as large as our current campus. And part of what we have started to do is to put in place a general development plan for that land. Our belief is that the campus, as it develops over time, can be an important site for innovation and entrepreneurship. And part of what we’re thinking about is that the campus should develop with a character on the other side of the lake that provides a home to joint ventures of a sort that we can’t quite imagine yet. 

The example that I always give folks is, back in the ’80s, Microsoft came to Cambridge University in England and said, ‘We’re interested in doing something jointly with your computer science department.’ And Cambridge, which has a lot of similarities to Princeton, was able to say ‘Yes,’ because they had the equivalent of our land across the lake and they were ready to go and they were able to green-light it. 

We want to be able to do that in New Jersey. If we get the right kind of project that advances our mission, and that could be good here for the innovation ecosystem, we want to be able to say, ‘Yes,’ and that is one of the reasons why we are moving forward with planning for that.