University Affairs | Sept. 15

Success — and only success

Princeton president Christopher Eisgruber '83 has met few setbacks in his life, but his image is not his concern.

“There are all sorts of politicians who have colorful personal lives. I don’t.”

Christopher Eisgruber ’83 graduated at the top of the world’s best universities and climbed to the top of his favorite one. He is, by all accounts, a family-first husband and father, a role model even for his friends, a brilliant thinker, a dry wit and a kind soul. A former boss of his once wondered jokingly if he was so perfect that he was a fraud.

Eisgruber, when asked about his life struggles, mentioned receiving a C in freshman year physics.

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On Sunday, Christopher Eisgruber will be installed as president in a ceremony focused on him.

For the past 12 years, Shirley Tilghman talked frequently about her biography: the University’s first female president, and a woman who raised two children on her own. A scientist who had conducted groundbreaking research. A public service advocate who herself had volunteered two years teaching chemistry in Sierra Leone. Her personal story made her elevation to the presidency historic, and she talked about her experiences extensively in Nassau Hall.

As Eisgruber spends the upcoming school year meeting with students, faculty, alumni and staff, he will likely be asked about his path to the presidency, like Tilghman was. His biography will come under scrutiny for signals about the values and temperament of the 20th University president.

But a reconstruction of the 51-year-old’s life, based on interviews with 20 of his friends and colleagues, reveals a man who has had success — and only success — in nearly every aspect of his life and impressed nearly everyone he has met. He has encountered little ill will, setback or struggle.

Eisgruber’s story is so straightforward that it will be difficult to make his image exciting to the University community, higher education communications experts said. Randell Kennedy of Academy Communications said academics like Eisgruber are sometimes reluctant to share their non-academic background with others. Because the University’s external face matters, he said, that could hurt Eisgruber.

Eisgruber’s narrative may be hidden by his desire for privacy. Eisgruber said he is not interested in cultivating this image, and that he firmly believes that some elements of his biography and backstory are off-limits.

He declined a request by The Daily Princetonian to shadow him for parts of the summer, citing a busy summer schedule; he also declined a subsequent request for a series of three interviews, instead agreeing to a single, hour-long interview scheduled for more than three months after the initial request was sent. His office also said he had no events over the summer that the ‘Prince’ could attend and that he would not answer additional questions before or after the single interview.

Eisgruber’s wife, Lori Martin, who is a partner at the corporate law firm WilmerHale in New York, as well as his recently appointed top deputy University Provost David Lee GS ’99,  declined to comment.

“I think there are some aspects of my life that are boring, and I’m delighted about that,” Eisgruber said. “The fact that there’s a ‘Prince’ reporter who seems to have spent his summer talking to my childhood friends is astonishing to me, because I don’t think it’s very interesting,” he said.

Eisgruber celebrates Thanksgiving at University College, Oxford, in 1983.

Eisgruber celebrates Thanksgiving at University College, Oxford, in 1983.

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Corvallis, Ore.: population 55,000, home of Oregon State University and a Hewlett-Packard campus, a city with some of the most patents per capita in the country and once home to Ludwig and Eva Eisgruber.

The Eisgrubers, immigrants from Germany, were educated at Purdue in West Lafayette, Ind., where Princeton’s current president was born along with three younger sisters. But in seventh grade, Eisgruber left the gold-and-black walls in his room when his parents took faculty positions at Oregon State.

Corvallis was a “quiet place” and the siblings lived a “peaceful childhood,” full of the “normal things,” Ingrid Repins, Eisgruber’s younger sister, said.

“You can ride your bike to everywhere you want to go,” Repins said of her hometown. “You couldn’t really go any place without running into someone you knew or knew your parents.”

The Eisgrubers were well known in the college town, she said. Their father was chair of the university’s agricultural economics department and their mother — who, unusually for a woman at the time, had a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering — stayed at home to raise the children for most of their childhoods.

“She probably told us five times a day that you will never find a job unless you study science or engineering,” Repins said.

The parents, who are now both deceased, left an imprint on Eisgruber, who took AP Physics in high school and majored in physics at Princeton. His siblings studied it as well.

Raised during the Great Depression, Eisgruber’s parents were eager to teach their children the value of money and had their son deliver newspapers after school.

“That kind of idea, that we as kids should learn the value of money, that nothing is guaranteed and nothing is given to you, that really shaped our psyche growing up,” his sister said.

Eisgruber’s mother also helped shepherd her son and his friends to various local chess tournaments in junior high school. In high school, his five-member team began to compete for state titles. Senior year, with Eisgruber as captain, it was time to make a bid for national glory, he said.

In preparation, Eisgruber said he practiced his “end game,” the stage of the game where few pieces are left on the board and where he thought he struggled, for three hours a day during his senior year.

“By the standards of the state of Oregon, I was a pretty serious, competitive player,” Eisgruber said in an interview. “For me, that was part of being on a team together with a group of other people who were also friends and competitors.”

The chess team cleaned parking lots and parked cars to fundraise for a trip out to the 1979 national championship in Philadelphia, though much of the funding came from their own pockets, said Arnold Larson, a childhood friend and a member of the team.

That spring, surprising nearly everyone, the team Eisgruber captained eked out a victory by half a point.

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Three decades later, Eisgruber would learn that what he thought was his heritage was a lie.

In a saga first reported by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz this summer, Eisgruber said he grew up believing his mother, born Eva Kalisch, left Berlin at age eight after her father made statements that offended the Nazis. The family fled to France and then arrived in the United States in May 1940. At Purdue in the 1950’s, Kalisch met Ludwig Eisgruber, a German exchange student, who she married in 1960.

Kalisch died in 2003 without telling her children the truth — her family didn’t flee the Nazis because of a political disagreement; they had fled Germany because they were Jewish.

Kalisch and her parents went to great efforts to shield Eisgruber and his sisters from the truth. Kalisch told her children she was raised Protestant and converted to Catholicism before marrying. Her husband, she told Eisgruber’s relatives, was an anti-Semite involved in Hitler Youth. The paper also reported that Kalisch told her Jewish relatives that she wanted no further contact with them.

The family named their eldest son after the Christian messiah, and the children were raised Catholic. When Eisgruber asked his mother or grandmother about their history, they would deflect the question and instruct Eisgruber not to intrusively ask about their hard times during the war.

The deception was only discovered five years after his mother died. In 2008, Eisgruber’s only child, Danny, then a fourth grader, was tasked with a class project to learn more about their ancestors that may have landed at Ellis Island. Using online archives, Danny and his father discovered the manifest for the ship that brought the Kalischs to America.

Next to his mother’s and grandparents’ names: “Hebrew.”

“We thought: ‘Oh, that must be a mistake,’ ” Repins told the ‘Prince’ about their initial reaction.

“When I first discovered this, there was certainly a sense of shock, I would say. Certainly a sense of being misled, a sense of loss as well,” Eisgruber said to the ‘Prince.’

He wasn’t angry though. Eisgruber said he understood his grandparents’ and mother’s decision to lie as a desire to assimilate in America.

“It was very important to my family that we be thought of American. There’s a certain sense of which — being an immigrant, of being an insider and outsider at the same time — is also something that’s very much a part of the Jewish experience,” Eisgruber explained. “Understanding that this loss and rediscovery of family can be understood through that lens has helped complete my understanding of myself and help complete my understanding of what my family’s experience was.”

He did say, however, that he wished he had discovered the truth when his grandmother or mother, an only child, were alive.

“If I had a chance to talk to my mother or, especially, I would say, my grandmother about this, I think I could have known them in a way that even now is self-evidently impossible for me to know,” he said.

Since Eisgruber unearthed his true history, he and his family have begun to connect with long-lost relatives in Israel. Eisgruber and his sisters, who do not identify as Jewish as he now does, gave the relatives part of the sum the Eisgruber family was able to recover in a Holocaust Claims Resolution Tribunal in 2009.

Eisgruber has since traveled to Israel twice, including a trip with his frequent co-author, University of Texas Law professor Lawrence Sager, last year. He also organized a family reunion at his home in Princeton about three years ago, his sister said.

“All in all, it’s been a very positive experience getting to know your family,” she said. “It did leave us with some questions that we can’t answer.”

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Eisgruber did not know his true heritage as he calmly dazzled others.

At Princeton, Oxford — where he was as a Rhodes Scholar — and the University of Chicago Law School, Eisgruber blew away the faculty and peers he interacted with. Friends and professors said repeatedly that Eisgruber was not just smart — all students at those schools were smart, they conceded — but rather brilliant.

“Chris is an order of magnitude more talented intellectually than the ordinary most-talented Princeton student — and we all felt that,” said Jeffrey Tulis, who taught politics and advised Eisgruber at Princeton. “I’ve never had an undergraduate student even come close to the talent he showed.”

Eisgruber majored in physics but was always attracted to its philosophical underpinnings; he particularly admired Princeton theoretical physicist John Wheeler, Tulis said, because Wheeler approached physics questions as questions of philosophy.

Toward the middle of his college career, Eisgruber took more and more politics courses. By the end, he had effectively double-majored in physics and politics, and his 100-page physics thesis, “The Global Implications of Local Violations of the Energy Conditions,” cited Immanuel Kant in its references.

After Princeton he went on to Oxford, where he spent two years seriously studying constitutionalism. Dissatisfied with the tutorial system, friends said, Eisgruber organized his own discussion group on constitutional philosophy.

“He had a scientific demeanor and approach,” Richard Klingler, a Rhodes Scholar at the same time as Eisgruber, said. “He had a touching and inspiring belief if you discuss things you’ll get closer to an answer or to an understanding.”

At the University of Chicago, his academic achievements continued — number one in his class; editor-in-chief of the Law Review; a potential clerk sought after by the nation’s top judges.

Judge Patrick Higginbotham, of the U.S. Court of Appeals’ Fifth Circuit, hired Eisgruber straight out of law school as one of his three clerks for the 1988-89 judicial year.

“This guy’s either brilliant or a fraud,” Higginbotham said he thought when reading Eisgruber’s resume.

There was more of the same at his second clerkship with Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens.

“He’s brilliant,” Marina Hsieh, who clerked for Stevens alongside Eisgruber, said.

Nearly everyone interviewed referenced Eisgruber’s intelligence as his most salient characteristic. His intelligence helped him move up the ranks unencumbered.

Five years after clerking for Stevens, and before his 34th birthday, Eisgruber was a full tenured professor at NYU teaching constitutional law. Five years after that, he was back at Princeton. And five years after that, he was second-in-command to Shirley Tilghman, and the favorite to replace her.

Eisgruber did say however that his educational and professional life involved struggles, pointing in particular to a difficult freshman year physics course in which he received a C.

“One of the things that helps you as a teacher is to understand what it is to be in a classroom and be struggling,” Eisgruber said. “There are a lot of faculty colleagues who have never been in a situation in a classroom where they found themselves struggling.”

After graduating from U. Chicago Law School at the top of his class and clerking twice on the nation’s highest courts, Eisgruber also said he faced difficulty landing a job on a law school’s faculty. Eisgruber was offered two jobs — at the University of Texas and NYU, choosing the latter even though it was an opening in contract law rather than constitutional law.

NYU President John Sexton, who as dean of NYU Law School hired Eisgruber in 1990, said Stevens had identified Eisgruber as the most promising clerk from the court in the past couple of years. Sexton said the law school in turn had identified Eisgruber as the top entering law professor.

“He sounds like Superman,” Higginbotham noted.

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He’s not only brilliant, though.

Christopher Eisgruber is extremely decent, people say.

When David Frederick, his friend from Oxford, had his 50th birthday party, Eisgruber brought him a bottle of wine from 1983 — the year they became friends. While Ph.D student Mariah Zeisberg GS ’06 was worried about her non-academic background affecting her thesis performance, Eisgruber displayed surprising warmth that she said wasn’t common in academia.

Christopher Eisgruber is open-minded and analytical, people say.

When Hyam Kramer ’83 ended a debate with Eisgruber on good terms, Kramer said he left it wishing all the world’s debates ended similarly. Academic mentors and colleagues repeatedly noted how he disliked dogmatism and how even-handed Eisgruber could be in comprehending a topic: Eisgruber did not support or oppose eating clubs, Tulis, his Princeton professor, said. “The question for him was, ‘What kind of eating club could be good?’ ” Tulis said.

Christopher Eisgruber has a dry, smart sense of humor, people say.

When Gregory Mark, a fellow editor on Law Review, got drunk on wine at a U. Chicago professor’s wine tasting, Eisgruber looked over and quipped: “I think the neoclassical economists are wrong. There is such a thing as a utility monster.”

But many of these same friends and mentors could not name a single weakness that they thought might humanize him. Chris Eisgruber is not the kind of guy who has foibles, they said.

“Chris Eisgruber is a mensch,” Sortirios Barber, a constitutional law professor at Notre Dame, said. “I don’t know of anyone who has ever had a negative impression of Chris is any context.”

“It’s hard for me to see anything ill about him, because really there was nothing ill about him,” Kramer, his college roommate, said.

“That’s the problem with this guy. He’s a rebuke to all of us who suffer original sin,” Sexton, NYU’s president, said.

Eisgruber, when asked in the interview to point out a few weaknesses, originally questioned the validity of the question and declined to comment.

“I’m not going to answer that particular application essay,” he said.

When asked again, Eisgruber later said he often is too dismissive toward criticism and that he sometimes doesn’t open himself to points of view from people he disagrees with.

“There’s something to what they’re saying, even if there’s a whole lot of chaff amidst the wheat,” Eisgruber said.

Similarly, Eisgruber said he could be too combative toward other scholars; he said he now understands the best response to scholarship is not to criticize it, but to ask the question that highlights the viewpoint’s insight.

It’s clear when Eisgruber sees little merit in opposing positions, multiple individuals close to the new University president said, noting that he “doesn’t suffer fools gladly.”

Roger Crew ’83, a friend of Eisgruber’s beginning in freshman year, said the two frequently sparred in political debates and as a result, were sometimes at each other’s throats.

“He was relentlessly polite, but he was relentlessly polite while he was shredding your argument to pieces,” he said. “He wasn’t shy about ripping into people if your position lacked merit.”

In law school, Eisgruber was seldom intimidated by faculty, said Erin Enright ’82, who worked with Eisgruber on the law review. He would stand his ground and press professors; this aggression made him disliked by some of his professors, Enright said.

At Oxford, Eisgruber was amused by the pretentiousness of the school and its “buffoons,” said Frederick, his Oxford friend.

“People that act in foolish ways are not going to make it very far with him,” Frederick said. “You better be prepared when you go in and talk to him.”

His Supreme Court colleague Hsieh noted that, “he never minced words about anything.” She explained, however, that this harshness was not because he wasn’t kind — which he was — but more because he has high expectations.

For the most part, Eisgruber acknowledges that he may have been too biting with people in his past, but he has changed.

“If we’re talking about my senior year exchanges with my roommates, I think it’s a pretty accurate characterization,” Eisgruber said. “I think that one of the things I’ve done over the 30 years that have intervened since then is developed more of an appreciation for the circumstances where I just have to hold my peace.”

Eisgruber noted that he has been able to achieve some consensus on divisive issues already as provost.

People close to him also said Eisgruber, the man with a wiry frame, glasses and a tendency to animate when discussing his academic work, was kind of shy and bookish.

“This is a guy who was on the chess team, not the football team,” Repins, his sister, said.

At Elm Club, Eisgruber was known as fairly serious and though he had friends, he wasn’t well-known around the club, according to Sarah Macaluso ’83, a friend of Eisgruber at the time. More than one friend from Elm at his 30th Reunion pulled Macaluso aside and whispered something that she said surprised her.

“Did we know Chris?” they said.

Eisgruber was in the club during junior year but dropped Elm and became an independent in Spelman during senior year. Friends at Princeton said he was well-liked, even if not well-known.

“Even just getting to know him, I thought I had him pegged: focused guy, looks nerdy, spends a lot of the time in the library,” Kramer said. “At first meeting, I wasn’t expecting someone I would find fascinating and challenging and engaging.” But he did.

Eisgruber said he enjoyed public speaking occasions and did not say whether he considered himself extroverted.

“I guess you could talk to our psychology department about whether or not that’s a metric,” he said.

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During the interview, Eisgruber was reluctant to discuss his personal attributes. What’s important, he says, is not his past but the University’s future; attempts to ask about him as a person was at times met with defensiveness.

In the interview, Eisgruber said he planned to open himself up to the student body to a similar extent that Tilghman did.

“I’ve been happy to talk to people about aspects of my career that I think are directly relevant to what it is that I’m doing at Princeton,” he said. “I don’t think that every aspect of my personal life is relevant, but nor did Shirley.”

The University leader said his biography is relevant, but trivia — such as the fact that he cooks and is the primary caregiver in their two-career household — is “quite irrelevant.”

“I think people are interested in lots of things about other people,” Eisgruber said. “That’s why we have gossip magazines and why some journalists write for them, but that doesn’t mean that it’s relevant to how people do their jobs.”

He eschewed the notion that he should be building a presidential “image” and declined to comment on how he thinks the University community will generally perceive him.

“Different people will use different words to describe other people, and a lot of that will be dependent on their perspective and what aspects of the person they’re interested in,” he noted.

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