Princeton’s biggest victory: Preserving true student-athlete experience

Eisgruber is proud of school’s many triumphs (including men’s basketball’s run to Sweet 16), but says bigger impact will come later in life with lessons learned

Princeton celebrates its upset win.

Chris Eisgruber, the president of Princeton University and a scholar of the highest regard, certainly was proud of the recent athletic success connected to the university in the past few weeks:

  • The wrestler who won an NCAA national championship;
  • The pole vaulter who won an indoor national title while tying a collegiate record;
  • The women’s basketball team, which won the Ivy League title — and then recorded a first-round upset in the NCAA Tournament.

And, oh yeah, the men’s basketball team is playing Friday night on national TV in the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Tournament.

Chris Eisgruber. (File photo)

Don’t be confused. Eisgruber isn’t downplaying the success of the school’s Cinderella story as a No. 15 seed in the tourney, he’s just keeping it in perspective. That’s what you do at Princeton, which prides itself on having true student-athletes — and which measures its success in more than just wins and losses.

“At Princeton, and this is true of all of our universities in the Ivy League, we regard intercollegiate athletics as part of our educational program,” he told ROI-NJ.

“The students on our teams are, first and foremost, students. So, we celebrate their success. But, what we really believe is important is that, by participating in intercollegiate athletics, they get a special experience that is going to help them to make a difference in the world later on in their lives.

“We’re committed to enabling them to have that experience at a high level, while also making sure that they have the other experiences that are a critical part of our curriculum and of being a college student at a place like Princeton.”

Eisgruber needs to go back no further than two weeks ago — at the men’s and women’s Ivy League basketball championships — to find evidence of the value of the Princeton student-athlete experience.

“My wife and I were attending a reception with some of the former players, and we started talking to two members of our (2015) undefeated women’s team,” he said. “One of them was a documentary filmmaker, the other one was beginning a residency in neurosurgery.

“I found myself thinking, ‘This is what it’s all about.’ It’s all about having these fantastic students who are also exceptional athletes, who are learning and benefiting by playing with one another, and learning the discipline and the teamwork that goes with being on one of these extraordinary teams — and then going on to use that in the world along with what they’re learning in the classroom.

“That’s the original vision of college athletics. And it is so important that we preserve it.”

Such preservation is easier said than done.

Like everyone involved in college athletics, Eisgruber knows the games are changing. Whether it’s the relaxed transfer rules that allow athletes to move from school to school each year, or the new rules involving name, image and likeness rights that allow athletes to personally cash in — some reportedly for more than $1 million a year.

The Ivy League was notable as being the only conference that did not grant athletes who missed their spring season in 2020 because of COVID an extra year of eligibility. It was a move that aligns with the mantra that athletics are just one part of the student experience — not the defining aspect of college life.

Eisgruber said the conference is firmly behind that ideal moving forward.

“I think this is a matter of agreement among the institutions in the Ivy League that we have to conduct our programs with integrity and a commitment to their value to the students who participate in them and to the educational purposes of our institutions,” he said.

“And, speaking personally, and for Princeton on this, that’s the commitment we have: To go forward with integrity, and in a way that that continues to treat our athletic programs as part of the overall educational program of this university. We want our students to have the ability to compete at the national level. And we think and hope that we can continue to do that, even in this complicated environment.

“This process, I think, shows that, at least for now, that’s possible. But, we always have to be asking that question. And our commitment is, first and foremost, to the educational principles that underlie these programs.”

Winning, of course, is OK, too. As long as it’s part of the experience, Eisgruber said.

“We ask people to aim for the stars here in whatever it is that they do — to have really high aspirations and to have those aspirations combined with a set of values that include a deep commitment to learning and a regard for public service,” he said.

“And we love it when our extraordinary young people on the campus surprise some folks with their ability to remain committed to the right value of intercollegiate athletics and perform at the highest levels.”