University President Christopher Eisgruber '83 responded to criticism of the inclusion of a controversial book on a course syllabus on Wednesday after Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) sent a public letter urging the book be removed. Eisgruber defended academic freedom and made the case that it could coexist with a welcoming environment for students. In a separate statement to faculty, he also urged faculty to reach out to the administration when under attack from "social media storms."
Gottheimer is the latest public figure to criticize the book, titled "The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability" which is on the syllabus for NES 301: The Healing Humanities — Decolonizing Trauma Studies from the Global South taught by Professor Satyel Larson. It has also been criticized by the Center for Jewish Life's Rabbi Gil Steinlauf '91 and an Israeli minister. A description of the book describes it as arguing that Israel "relies on liberal frameworks of disability to obscure and enable the mass debilitation of Palestinian bodies."
Gottheimer's letter, sent on Sep. 10 — which criticizes the book for veering into "antisemitic blood libel" and claiming "false" abuses by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) — calls on the University to "reconsider allowing the work of an author like Jasbir Puar, who is known to traffic in vile antisemitic tropes, to appear on school-sanctioned reading lists."
Gotthiemer, a centrist Democrat, represents a district in Northern New Jersey which he flipped from Republican Scott Garrett in 2016. This is not the first time that he has criticized institutions of higher education for "promoting antisemitism."
On the same day as his letter to Eisgruber, Gottheimer sent a letter to University of Pennsylvania president Elizabeth Magill condemning the university's hosting of singer Roger Waters and former news commentator Marc Lamont Hill at a university-sponsored Palestinian literature and culture festival this September.
In February 2023, Gottheimer urged the U.S. Department of Education (ED) to ensure that Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects religious freedom on college campuses, after a George Washington University (GWU) faculty member was accused of "target[ing] Jewish and Israeli students with antisemitic speech."
Later, in June 2023, Gottheimer urged the U.S. ED's Office of Civil Rights to investigate whether City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law's commencement speech violated Title VI due to its "antisemitic and anti-Israel" components.
The University had, until this point, not responded publicly to public criticism of the book.
Eisgruber spoke on academic freedom in his opening remarks to a faculty meeting earlier this week in a statement that seemed to invoke the ongoing situation. "It has unfortunately become common for university faculty members here and elsewhere to become the target of viral social media storms focused on controversial materials that they assign or teach," Eisgruber said. After defending the right to assign works, Eisgruber continued, "the Dean of the Faculty and I want you to know that if you or a colleague get targeted by one of these social media storms, we hope that you will reach out to his office so that we can provide support where appropriate."
In his letter, Gottheimer referred to Professor Larson's support of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which calls on institutions to disassociate from Israel. In 2016, the State Assembly of New Jersey passed an anti-boycott bill which required the state to divest pension funds from any company actively involved in BDS efforts, a law that Gottheimer cites in his letter. He warns the University that under this law and the University's anti-discrimination policies, the University is "obliged to safeguard its students."
Gottheimer listed other events as evidence of antisemitism on campus, including the invitation of Palestinian writer Mohammed El-Kurd to campus in February 2023 and Princeton's Undergraduate Student Government deciding not to put forward a Senate-sponsored referendum defining antisemitism in November 2022.
In his response to Gottheimer, Eisgruber started by invoking his commitment to the safety of Jewish students on campus and citing his personal connection to Judaism. "I am the son of a Holocaust refugee; I am a scholar of religious freedom; and my last scholarly publication before accepting the presidency was a defense of Zionism," Eisgruber wrote.
Eisgruber also echoed previous statements in defending free speech: "We can achieve our mission, as a polity or a university, only if people of all backgrounds feel welcome, respected, and free to express their opinions. At Princeton, and at other great colleges and universities, we promote inclusivity and belonging in many ways, but never by censoring speech, syllabi, or courses."
"Your letter concludes by asserting that colleges 'must protect all students, including Jewish students' from being 'made to feel unsafe by curricula.' That assertion misunderstands the role of a university, where students inevitably encounter controversial and sometimes disturbing ideas. As I said earlier, Princeton will work vigorously to ensure that all students can thrive here, but not by censoring our curriculum. Your assertion also underestimates the strength and resilience of Princeton students," Eisgruber continued.
Under Rules and Procedures of the Faculty, each department is responsible for managing their curriculum. Any changes to this curriculum, including the addition and removal of new courses to the permanent curriculum or any "substantive changes to existing courses or departmental programs of study" are reviewed by the University-wide Committee on the Course of Study. After such changes receive positive recommendations from the committee, they are voted on at the monthly faculty meetings.