PRINCETON'S BIG FAILURE
2020 August 15

Dear Princetonians,

With deep regret and sadness, I write to update you about our plans for the fall, and, in particular, to explain why Princeton has decided that its undergraduate program must be fully remote in the coming semester. In brief, the pandemic’s impact in New Jersey has led us to conclude that we cannot provide a genuinely meaningful on-campus experience for our undergraduate students this fall in a manner that is respectful of public health concerns and consistent with state regulations and guidance.

When I last communicated with you, just over a month ago, we anticipated welcoming undergraduates from the Classes of 2022 and 2024 to campus in late August. We noted at the time, however, that we would continue to monitor the course of the pandemic, and that we might have to change our plans if it worsened. In the weeks that followed, infection rates soared around much of the country, with nearly 2 million new cases reported over the last month. This development had two serious adverse consequences for Princeton’s ability to provide undergraduates with a positive and safe on-campus experience in the fall.

First, the health risks to the campus and surrounding populations appear greater now than they did just a month ago. Reopening efforts in New Jersey and elsewhere have demonstrated how difficult it is to contain the disease. Where schools and universities have started to bring back students, COVID cases have rapidly followed.

People throughout this University have done outstanding work to prepare the campus to receive students safely, but the risk of widespread contagion and serious illness remains. Moreover, even if we successfully controlled on-campus spread of the disease, transmission rates might rise statewide or in our region. We might then have to send undergraduate students home again or impose exceptionally severe restrictions on their mobility and interaction with one another.

Second, the persistent spread of COVID-19 compelled New Jersey to preserve and augment restrictions that it expected to ease. New Jersey, like most states, has instituted a phased approach to managing public activities during the pandemic. In early July, New Jersey had reached stage 2 of its reopening plan, and officials were optimistic that we could soon move to stage 3. The state, however, had to pause its plan to avoid the spikes of infection that occurred in other states as they reopened.

Instead of loosening regulations, New Jersey justifiably imposed some new ones. For example, over the past month New Jersey has roughly tripled (from 12 to 34) the number of states whose residents must quarantine for 14 days after arriving in New Jersey. We believe that Governor Philip Murphy and his administration have skillfully and responsibly managed the extraordinary challenges of COVID-19 and the risks it poses to New Jersey, and we appreciate their attention both to the pandemic and to the complex needs of the higher education sector.

New Jersey’s careful approach has helped to keep the pandemic in check, but public health principles and state guidance still limit very substantially what we can do on campus. For example, they prevent or severely constrain our ability to provide several key elements of residential life, including indoor dining, student gatherings, and access to indoor common spaces and gyms. Colleges and universities have not yet received general authorization to teach in-person classes. Moreover, many out-of-state students now face strict quarantine requirements upon their arrival in New Jersey.

This combination of health concerns and restrictions will significantly diminish the educational value of the on-campus experience. It will also render that experience confining and unpleasant for most students.

In light of the diminished benefits and increased risks currently associated with residential education amid New Jersey’s battle against the pandemic, we have decided that our undergraduate program should be fully remote in the fall semester of 2020. We will continue to accommodate on campus those students whose situations make it extremely difficult or impossible for them to return to or study from home. We will also accommodate a very limited number of students with previously approved exceptions recognizing their need to be on campus for specific aspects of their senior thesis research or other work essential to their degree programs.

We continue to hope that we will be able to welcome undergraduate students back to campus in the spring. If we are able to do so, our highest priority will be to bring back seniors in the Class of 2021. We hope we will also be able to bring back additional students. We cannot, however, make any guarantees. We will communicate with you about the spring semester in the weeks and months ahead. Please know that we are doing everything we can to make possible a residential semester in the spring.

In the meantime, we remain committed to offering the best possible undergraduate education consistent with the difficult conditions imposed by the COVID pandemic. Princeton’s faculty and staff across campus have been working for months to develop new and engaging online offerings, knowing that much of our program would have to be virtual even if some of our students were on campus. Though we wish we could restore a residential component to our teaching program, we will now focus even more intensely on making the virtual academic and co-curricular programs as strong as they can be.

Because of their different instructional and residential programs, it will still be possible for Princeton’s graduate students, including incoming first-year graduate students, to be on campus for the upcoming semester. Most programs are also able to offer remote options for incoming first-year graduate students for the fall term as needed. The Graduate School will continue to provide information about this topic.

We appreciate that you undoubtedly have many questions not answered by this letter. We have updated our https://fall2020.princeton.edu/ FAQs for all students, parents, and other members of the community , and we will continue to do so in the days ahead.

I understand, as do my colleagues, that the news contained in this letter will be disheartening and disappointing. We know that our students very much wanted to be back on this campus. We very much wanted to have you here: you are the life of this place, and we miss you tremendously.

We will continue to do everything we can to welcome students back as soon as possible to a campus experience that is both safe and meaningful. We look forward to that day, and until then we will work together with all of you to sustain this special community in the face of the unprecedented challenges we’re confronting together.

With very best wishes,

Christopher L. Eisgruber

 
     I got this letter (also shown in smaller print on left) about Princeton's decision not to offer on-campus classes in 2020 Fall Semester. I believe this is a colossal breach of trust on a scale beyond anything I have seen from a University whose breaches of trust have been a way of life since I knew them in 1974. Maybe the grown-ups should have said "no" a long time ago, if there are any grown-ups in the academic university universe.

     The premise of having universities in general, and Princeton University in particular, is that the classroom and dormitory experiences are an important part of growing up for smart people, that it makes them better and more-useful people. I happen to agree and I feel it was important for me. The classroom interaction with occasionally-brilliant professors and often-smart classmates and the social interaction with the same community was a joy to me.

     Princeton University did a lot to make that experience wonderful for many who might otherwise be excluded. There were student-run musical groups of all flavors performing in the various archways and other venues. They created a Third World Center (not a great name, in my opinion) for non-white students to congregate. Jewish students were offered a small worship area when I was there which has grown to a full-fledged Princeton Hillel, Center for Jewish Life. Unique to Princeton (as far as I know) is a kosher eating facility for those students who follow Jewish dietary law.

     The quality of that environment was severely diluted by both large and small deviations from decency on the part of Princeton's administration. I don't claim Princeton was uniquely destructive, only that it was my alma mater that was doing it. Princeton has whined about racism in the world and, recently, in its own history while maintaining huge differences in standards for different skin colors. Princeton caved to pressure for equality of the sexes in sports not by expanding the opportunities for women but by eliminating opportunities for men, the intercollegiate men's wrestling program in particular. Double standards and hypocrisy in administration were a frustrating part of my experience.

     As hypocritical and politically-divisive as all the administrative horseshit may have been, it never jeopardized the wonder and joy of Princeton's high-end classroom experience as this oafish blunder does. It's one thing to tell fearful students it's okay to stay home and to come back later when they're no longer afraid, but it's not okay to end the rare gem of Princeton's campus experience.

     One of my recurrent themes in discussing these sorts of political issues is, "It shouldn't take a Princeton degree to understand it," and I'm invoking that here. Just the naked fact that a disease is a political entity should tell us enough that it shouldn't take a Princeton degree to figure out things aren't right. The number of claimed casualties of this corona virus divided by its mortality rate given significant sickness gives us a ratio of about twenty Americans for every case of somebody flu-level sick with this disease and one out of 2000 dead from it. Never mind the reports from the news, does the Ivy League college community come close to those numbers? Does Princeton come close to those numbers?

     Okay, maybe Princeton took what history has judged as the wrong side on eugenics, an impending ice age, acid rain, mercury in tuna fish, the ozone layer, and, most recently, global warming, but this whole disease thing is just too obvious. The published death rates are obviously low enough not to be worth canceling concerts over, much less classes, and the anecdotally-observed rates of illness and death are about one hundred times lower than these claims would indicate. Just in case that's not enough, I would hope Princeton's engineering data scientists would look hard enough at the CDC data to notice that the disease death rates for 2020 are lower than 2019 or 2018.

     I would prefer Princeton University not take political sides. My second choice is that they make sure our students know there are two sides to these issues and to respect the other side. If Princeton can't see both sides, then it would be nice if they picked a side supported by history, science, and fact. If Princeton can't do that, then at least they can protect our students so their classrooms continue to teach them useful, good stuff.

     Princeton University, the burden of proof is on you. We have a university that has delivered a rich, positive classroom experience since 1746, even with the corruptions noted above, and you're going to take it away because somebody might get sick. I appreciate your concerns, but students have the option of staying home if you're open and they don't have the option of attending classes if you're closed. Since both our own experience and CDC data severely mitigate your fears, it's not a hard case that this is the wrong decision. As Americans we have the right to assemble peacefully and, even in the most confrontational classroom arguments, this is a peaceful assembly of people for the purpose of learning. As an American steeped deeply in American values, I would hope we would defend this with deadly force if the government tries to shut us down, but I'll settle for opening the doors as far as the law allows.

     At best this is a serious breach of contract. We are far short of meeting burden of proof that we are in grave danger with our classroom doors open. (Didn't we fight our American Revolution during a smallpox epidemic? I know somebody who had smallbox and it's a lot worse than what we're afraid of here.) You were paid tuition for the classroom experience. Annual Giving donations are for the purpose of offering "The Princeton Experience" to new generations of students at Old Nassau. Princeton also has taken government money for the commitment that, come what may, that experience and education, along with its associated research environment, will be offered. I would hope Princeton would refund tuition for all classes missed, Annual Giving revenues for at least the past decade, and all government money for the past twenty-five years as a token restitution for what has been lost due to this breach.

     There are deeper issues having to do with the threat of having a government taking away the rights we're losing to the fear of COVID-19. Standing up here and now with the power and reputation of Princeton University is a path to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness for future generations. I have discussed those issues elsewhere and they are relevant here. This is the kind of thinking that a Princeton education offers us. I would go a step further and say that this is the kind of thinking that Princeton University and its community owes us for all the support they get.

     In summary, this is a terribly wrong decision from the perpective of history, bad for the students, and a terrible breach of Princeton's contract with both its academic community, its country, the United States of America, and those who have been paying its bills.

    

    

    

If you like what you read here (Hah!), then here are my other American-issues essays.

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