NEW YORK — University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 defended the high percentage of legacy applicants that earn admission to Princeton on Monday evening in an address to University alumni at the midtown Sheraton Hotel that proved to be the most candid unveiling of his presidential platform to date.
The event was the first of 13 visits Eisgruber will make to alumni around the globe over the coming academic year and about 1,200 alumni — ranging from the Classes of 1945 to 2013 — attended the event.
In an hour-long onstage interview with former ABC World News anchor and current University Trustee Charlie Gibson ’65, Eisgruber also explained his worries with the University’s grade deflation policy, elaborated on his plans to expand the size of the student body and admitted to Gibson that he feels uncomfortable talking about himself. On Monday, the University also announced a committee to review the grade deflation policy.
Eisgruber also previewed a slogan that he hopes will define his presidency: “More students. More service. More socioeconomic diversity.”
He said these goals were preliminary and subject to change.
Frequently leveraging information Gibson said he knew due to his role as trustee since 2006, Gibson said at the outset of the interview that his objective was to get Eisgruber to say something controversial.
Asked whether it was fair that nearly 30 percent of legacies were admitted last year while the overall admission rate was 7.4 percent, Eisgruber said the higher admission rate for legacies was “about right.”
“It’s a recognition of a special bond that Princeton has with its alumni and it matters so much to the University,” Eisgruber said. “That preference is literally a tie-breaker in cases where credentials are about even.”
Eisgruber also elaborated on his decision to launch a review of the University’s grade deflation policy. The University President acknowledged that the grading policy may dampen the University’s admission yield and that it may affect students’ postgraduate opportunities. He cited an unnamed Harvard Business School study that, he said, “raised a lot of concerns.” He did, however, note that he “has not seen evidence” that demonstrates a deleterious effect.
Eisgruber has said the policy was the main gripe he heard on the listening tour he has conducted over the past few months, Gibson noted. Eisgruber, however, denied Gibson’s suggestion that Monday’s announcement was a “tacit admission that it’s failed.”
“It is an admission that, after 10 years of discussing a policy that I think has had two admirable objectives — and moved us in an appropriate direction with those objectives — we should be thinking about whether or not we can learn anything from the experience that we’ve had,” he said.
Eisgruber confirmed that Dean of Admission Janet Rapelye believes the grading policy is a reason why some students ultimately decide to turn down an offer at Princeton.
Another issue that arose on the President’s listening tour, he said, was the prospect of increasing the size of the University’s undergraduate student body. Starting with the Class of 2011 and the opening of Whitman College, the University increased the size of the each class from 1,200 to 1,300 students, following a report that recommended the construction of a sixth residential college.
Eisgruber noted the University would expand again at some point.
“Given the talent that’s available to us, we have a moral obligation as a university to educate more students if we can do so without diminishing the quality of the Princeton experience,” he said, and added that it is a question of when the University will expand, not if it will at all.
Eisgruber confirmed Gibson’s observation that the new President is not “terribly comfortable” talking about himself. Gibson then asked Eisgruber whether he considered himself a “person of faith.”
“Let me tell you what I believe and you can tell me whether you think I’m a person of faith,” he answered.
After explaining that he sees himself as a “non-theistic Jew” who believes that the world is “ethically ordered,” Gibson and Eisgruber agreed that the new president is a person of faith. Eisgruber’s parents never told him and his sisters that they were Jewish, and Eisgruber didn’t learn his true heritage until his forties.
Gibson’s first question was why Eisgruber believed he’d been chosen as the new president. When Eisgruber answered that he did not want to think about that, Gibson pressed Eisgruber bluntly: “Did you want the job?” Gibson pointed out that Eisgruber told The Daily Princetonian during the presidential search that he didn’t consider himself a candidate for the job. Then, Eisgruber had said he would have been very happy to remain on the faculty.
Another major policy conversation centered on the University’s efforts to improve campus socioeconomic and racial diversity. While Eisgruber argued the University has made great diversity gains within the undergraduate body, other populations — such as the faculty — haven’t shown the changes he would have liked to see.
“We need to redouble our efforts there, and we will,” he said.