Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber, who was in India this week, spoke on a range of issues, from freedom of speech in universities to US Presidential elections. Here are some edited excerpts from the conversation:
What brings you to India?
This my first trip and, unfortunately, it’s the first trip in a long time for a Princeton President. The sixteenth President of the university, Robert Goheen, actually spent his first 14 years growing in up in India. He came over many times while he was Princeton’s President in the 1960s. He eventually became the United States Ambassador to India. Unfortunately, no Princeton president has come since then, which is too long a gap. Our reason for coming over is that we think India is important to Princeton’s future. We have growing number of students coming from India. We think that as we develop capacity to address problem through our research and teaching in an interconnected world that there are going to be important opportunities for partnership between the United States and India at all levels of our university.
You spoke about growing numbers of Indian students in Princeton University. Do you have any figures for this?
I do, but I should preface this by saying that we are a small university so our numbers are not particularly large. So just for background, we are 5,200 undergraduate students and 2,600 graduate students. Right now on campus we have roughly 55 Indian passport holders in the undergraduate student body and about 70 in the graduate student body. We’ve talked to several of our recent alumni members who graduated about 10 years ago and they recall classes where there were just one to three Indian passport holders. We’ve already admitted ten students from India in what we call our early cycle this year with another round of admissions to come.
Princeton University runs a bridge course for its students in which they spend nine months in Benaras. Are you looking to increase your footprint in India, maybe start a centre like Harvard Business School and Chicago University?
We have looked at the possibility of having brick-and-mortar internationalisation projects, whether they are campuses or centres, and decided that it’s not the right way forward for us. We do things differently. We believe in building relationships of networks of human beings. So, the Varanasi project is actually a great example of that. We also have a number of faculty members who have been here as part of academic projects with academic partners. So, for example, our recent Nobel Laureate Angus Deaton did some of his important work in economics here in India. One of our prominent people who has written about India, Gyan Prakash, is in the history department and wrote a book called ‘Mumbai Fables’. That’s the kind of work we do and we’re unlikely to come and build a large centre here or anywhere in the world.
What are your arguments against setting up off-shore campuses?
We are, as you may know, a university that has great strengths in the arts and humanities, the social sciences, natural sciences and engineering. We do not have a law school or a medical school or a business school. When you look at successful activities overseas, for example the centre that Chicago (University) has here in Delhi benefit from the activities of business schools. That’s not our core strength. We believe in building on the core strengths. We believe that the things that make our education strong. are hard to replicate if we build branch campuses.
What do you think of the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) experiment in the U.S. which India is about to emulate? To what extent can MOOCs replace brick-and-mortar education?
I don’t think it can (replace brick-and-mortar education), but online education is effective in certain kinds of niches and for certain kinds of purposes. In the United States, at least, it has been most successful as a kind of enrichment programme for those who have already graduated from college. It has been successful for technical masters degrees, for people who want a second degree that will help them move into a higher ranking job in whatever profession they’ve chosen. So far the experimentation with online education, either through MOOCs or other devices, has not been very successful with what we call undergraduate education. I think the reason that is so is that residential education is hard to replace. A lot of teaching depends on the teacher’s personal interaction with the student. It’s not simply about information transmission. Online technologies have been very disruptive of journalism because journalism is very much about information transmission. Your readers actually don’t have a personal relationship with you and might walk past you on the street without recognising you. Students have personal relationships with great teachers. And the teachers that matter to students tend to be teachers who are distinguished not simply by what they know about the subject, but by their willingness to get to know the student. So a huge part of teaching at virtually any level is a matter of motivating the students and human connection remains very important for that. There is a premium placed on that kind of proximity and interaction. India faces some problems in terms of expanding infrastructure. When the comparison is between online and not being able to provide education at all, online maybe very important.
What do you think of initiatives like the Peter Thiel fellowship which pays people to drop out of college and start an enterprise? Are college degrees antiquated? I ask this because here in India we are witnessing a start-up boom that is powered by many college dropouts…
I’m going to talk about the United States where I know the numbers. What applies in India I can’t say, but in the United States college degrees are the best investment most people will make in their lifetime. There is study after study (on this). One of the most neutral ones that I would like to quote is that of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, because it’s not a think tank on either side of the spectrum. They show that a college degree measured purely in economic value, even if you take into account nothing else, is more valuable now than it has been in any point in its history. And that’s looking at its effect on lifetime earnings even after discounting for tuition and lost earnings while you are in college. The estimates for the compound annual return of a four-year college degree in the United States range from 7 per cent at the low end to 15 per cent at the high end. That’s an extraordinary investment. Some people might say that the earnings of college graduates are down by comparison with what they were eight years ago. But if you can get into a time machine, go back eight years and get a college degree and get the benefit of a different economy, that might be a good thing to do. But that’s not the choice you have.
What is your view on the fellowship?
It’s a terrible idea. It’s one of the most irresponsible ideas that I have seen in a long time. For the kids who get selected for the fellowship, they are superstars. They’ve got a lot of talent and they’re going to go off, take that fellowship, try something new, but they’ve got an insurance policy in their back pockets. They can go back to college when they want. For the vast majority of kids dropping out of college, this idea is a recipe for reducing their lifetime earnings in a very serious way. So it’s not irresponsible for people who win, but for people who look at it and say ‘my economic future is going to be better if I drop out and start a company’. In the United States economy, that is a really bad decision. My general view about education is that its a way of investing for the long term. The point of a college degree is to prepare you for a future where that education provides you with a reservoir of intellectual capital which you are going to use over a space of a lifetime. One of the advantages that contribute to the economic strength of a college degree in the United States is that you can adapt if the economy shifts. One of our candidates (Marco Rubeo) for the Presidency, in an unusual election we are seeing right now in the United States, made a comparison between the wages for plumbers and wages for liberal arts graduates and philosophy graduates, in particular. I think he was wrong about that comparison. One of the things that his argument has to presuppose is that there’s never going to be a technological advance that renders plumbing obsolete. If that (plumbing) is what you’ve got as a skill set it’s not going to help you adapt in a way that a liberal arts degree can.
Moreover, you don’t have to leave college to be entrepreneur. Princeton’s list of entrepreneurs includes Jeff Bezos who runs Amazon and Eric Schmidt who is CEO at Google. They all agree that you need a solid liberal arts foundation to be an entrepreneur. The most useful thing for a student is to have the ability to think diagonally and imaginatively and react in ways that other people in the market cannot.
For more than a year, Princeton—like many other colleges in the U.S.—has been the site of intense debate about racial injustice. One of the most sensitive and controversial issues pertains to Woodrow Wilson’s legacy on the campus. What are your views on dissent and free speech on campus?
I think free speech, and I will talk here about American campuses and our campus in particular, is fundamental to what a university campus is and does. You say accurately that we have had contestation about racial justice on our campus. Students occupied my office for about 33 hours. I do wish they hadn’t done that (smiles). I think there were other ways to make the point, but on the other hand, I’m glad that we are having engaged and passionate discussions about racial justice because we have once again been reminded in the United States about the racial inequalities that persist and the urgency of addressing it. So, what has come out of the protests, and particularly around Wilson’s legacy which is a very sensitive subject, is the creation of a Trustee committee and a set of discussions involving anyone on our campus and in our alumni body. We’ve asked a set of historians to write letters of not more than 12 pages. Nine of the leading historians in the United states responded to this. We have posted those letters publicly assessing Wilson’s legacy. In some sense what this protest has generated is a kind of international seminar within the Princeton community on the questions of both Wilson’s legacy and racial justice more generally. I’ve been proud of the civil character of that discussion.
What role should a university play in encouraging debate and dissent.
There are two ways in which we have to encourage robust discussion. Our faculty, with my enthusiastic support, has adopted a statement that had originated at the University of Chicago on free speech principles. That statement declares very vigorously that Princeton is committed to tolerating speech even when it’s offensive, even when it seems unjust to people and when it’s wrong. There are possible exceptions for things like targeted threats. If there is one person directing insult at another, that would be a possible exception. But arguments of political character have to be allowed even when they are offensive and wrong. The second is we want our faculty to be disagreeing actively. We want them to be engaged around topics of justice.
I am sure you must have observed the whole controversy surrounding the Afzal Guru commemoration event in JNU. What kind of legal or disciplinary action could a JNU-like protest invite in your university?
We think it’s very important for people be able to say what it is they want to say even if it’s offensive to the government or offensive to some of the other people on campus. Students have a lot of freedom to organise protests (in Princeton) without permission of any kind. We expect that to happen on campus. If they were following the rules there would be no punishment at all. We have a set of rules that, for example, prohibit the disruption of classes or other speakers. Where students disrupt classes there is a possibility of disciplinary sanctions. If you go back and look in our history, the disciplinary sanction for a first offence is a kind of probation. But whether students are breaking rules does not depend on the content of what they are saying.
So punishment does not depend on the content of what students are saying or the nature of the programme on campus?
That’s correct. If you are talking about political speech, that’s correct. If you’re talking about academic theoretical arguments, that’s correct. The one exception I want to be clear about is if you are directing a threat at another person or a targeted expression of hate.
An argument thrown at the JNU students, including by a Union minister, was that if even in a country like US the authorities will never allow students to commemorate Osama bin Laden inside a US university campus like they commemorated Guru in JNU. Am just getting curious here. Hypothetically, if some of your students call for a function to commemorate Osama or any such convicted terrorist in the name of human rights or even as a protest to drone killings,will you allow it in Princeton in the name of freedom of expression?
We would permit that and there would be no disciplinary action of any kind against those students. That’s unambiguous. It could be very offensive. I might be called upon depending on what the students said or did. Under some circumstances, I might have to speak out and indicate my disagreement as President (of Princeton) and say that what the students were expressing were not consistent with views of the university. I expect in the circumstances you are describing there would be a number of people who would call on me to take action. I get people writing to me saying you must discipline a speaker. We don’t do it even when the views are very offensive.
We at Princeton believe that it is a fundamental advantage for university to be able to tolerate even offensive kinds of speech and to respond to bad arguments when they are made with more speech rather than with disciplinary actions. We think that the university, as we conceive at Princeton, is founded on the idea that overall you are better off letting offensive ideas be stated even when they are very offensive rather than stepping in and censoring speech in one way or another.
I think most great universities would (uphold this). I would like to believe that most of those universities will join us in saying that it is fundamental to insist on the importance of free speech. Most of them have, in one way or another, adopted some version of a statement like the one that Princeton has done. That statement originated at Chicago (University). It has also been adopted at Purdue University in Indiana.
Yale University has set of principles called the ‘Woodward Principles’ that came out of an earlier controversy.
In the US, we are facing the certainty of a real estate baron who has openly insulted and keeps openly insulting women, the differently-abled, minorities and the media bagging the Republican candidature for Presidency. How is your university reading this?
Now you’re asking me a question beyond my expertise (smiles). Like many observers I’ve been surprised by this season of American politics. The best I can say in response to that is I think it’s very important for universities to stand for equal respect for people from different backgrounds, from all religions, all races, military veterans and people with disabilities. It will be even more important for us to do so going forward.
Do you think a United States, under President Trump, will have the moral authority any more to send fact-finding missions or delegations of U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to countries like India?
As a constitutional theorist, I would prefer to comment on the Constitutional structure of the country and what it means without speaking about a specific Presidential candidate. I think one of the things our Constitution is designed to do is recognise that an enlightened statesman will not always be at the helm of the country. So it provides a set of institutions, and i think this is true of the Indian constitution as well, capable of guiding us in better directions and preserving the authority of the State and dignity of the people under circumstances where leaders are not what we hope they would be. My hope as a constitutionalist would be that the commitment of the United States to religious freedom will not become contingent upon a particular individual who occupies office. But rather that the constitutional principles and the separation of powers will ensure and guide our continuing commitment.
How do you look at laws like Sedition and Section 377, which are put into practice in India. Do you think a country can be a superpower while putting up with such legal practices that hark back to pre-colonial days?
I have great respect for the transition that countries have to make under different circumstances. As I look at American history, I am very sensitive to the fact we got our independence and moved through our continuing constitutional evolution. It took us far too long to repudiate the institution of slavery that disgraced our country its early decades. It’s taken us even longer to address the problem of racial inequality. I am reluctant to make any criticism of other countries when I’m so conscious of the issues we still need to address in the US.