Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Allison Berger on Princeton, the Madison Program, and Viewpoint Diversity at Princeton and Beyond

When Allison Berger was graduated from Princeton, she was honored by the University with a "Spirit of Princeton" award for her outstanding contributions to campus life. Ms. Berger returned to Princeton recently to participate in a panel discussion hosted by the James Madison Program in connection with the University's "She Roars!" alumnae reunion. Other speakers at the reunion included Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. I am posting Allison's remarks here because I believe she makes important points that are relevant to campus life everywhere--not just at Princeton. -- Robert George

Remarks of Allison Berger

    I was not planning to attend "She Roars!" until the Madison Program stepped in to make this weekend representative and inclusive of Princeton women of all political beliefs, so the Madison Program’s efforts to host this morning's events are already one example of why Princeton is so special.

And this is really a very special treat for me personally - the Madison Program was a primary reason that I applied to Princeton as my first choice college, remarkably now five years ago, and the first “out of class” lecture that I attended my freshman fall was a lecture hosted by the Madison Program with Philip Hamburger asking whether administrative law is unlawful. So I feel like things have really come full circle with being here today.

I want to start by talking about a few ways in which Princeton is not special when it comes to viewpoint diversity. Figure it is best to get the bad news out of the way first and I also think these shortcomings serve to highlight just how impressive and important the strengths Princeton does have are.

The fact of the matter is that on a social and interpersonal level among students, it is not easy to be an outspoken conservative. There are many people who will not be very nice to you at all. A few examples.

My freshman spring, I wrote an opinion piece for our campus conservative magazine, The Princeton Tory. It happened to be about the importance of open and civil discourse on college campuses. A few days after the magazines were distributed to every dorm room on campus, I came back to my room on the third floor of Forbes College and found a copy of the Tory shoved through and hanging off the handle of my doorknob. I pulled it off the knob and found that it was open to the article I had written. To be clear about what happened here, someone read or saw my article in the Tory and in response decided to look up where I lived on campus and send some sort of message to me by piercing my article through my door handle.

Two years later, during my junior spring, I was confronted by a belligerent, intoxicated male student while standing on Prospect Avenue outside my eating club. He looked at me and said “hey, you’re that girl who does all the conservative bleep,” and in a further expletive ridden tirade, yelled at me about how everyone hates me and all the conservatives on campus and that we should just shut up and go away. Substitute any other identity for “conservative” in that stream of abuse and that individual could very well have found himself the subject of a diversity and equity investigation.

In the Princeton ‘meme’ Facebook group, which is a collection of student-generated images captioned with inside jokes about campus life, conservative events and groups I was involved with were the subject of ridicule on at least four occasions, two times of which my full name appeared in the post.

Sometimes students would get into big Facebook political debates, spanning hundreds of comments, typically prompted by a conservative student posting an opinion noncontroversial to at least 50% of America but that was wildly disturbing to most students in the Orange Bubble. On more than one occasion during these online debates, students from the campus left wrote that they were going to screenshot and save the comments that conservatives posted with the threat they would forward the comments to future employers or reporters if anyone ran for or was nominated for public office. So don’t be surprised if 36 years from now, scribbles in high school yearbooks have been replaced by the Facebook comment wars waged by procrastinating Princetonians.

And the disturbing examples continue, from concerted and coordinated efforts by progressive upperclassmen to hose [exclude, black ball] conservative underclassmen from their eating clubs simply for the sin of speaking openly about their views to the vicious ad hominem attacks and accusations of racism or sexism hurled against students who publish conservative articles in campus publications. And there are many more examples but which are not my story to tell.

These things get to you. It is very upsetting to be called a racist or a sexist, or in my case as a woman, a traitor to my gender. The result is that there were many instances during my time at Princeton when my conservative friends and I would be discussing issues and someone would say they wanted to post something on Facebook or write an article or make a certain point at dinner, but in the next breath add that it was not worth dealing with the outrage that would follow or the risk to their campus reputation as simply a good person.

This is bad. And by the way - many people in the broader conservative mediasphere often dismiss campus leftists as “snowflakes” who cannot handle engaging with opposing views. But I don’t think this gives these students enough credit for what their goals are. Yes many demonstrate an inability to engage substantively and respectfully with different opinions, but many also demonstrate zero interest in doing so. Their goal is rather to intimidate conservatives into staying quiet and not adding their voices to the marketplace of ideas, where they could very well change some hearts and minds.

The Princeton administration and all University stakeholders should care about fixing this. The University is fundamentally failing in fostering free and open discourse if the learning that is meant to take place here in and out of the classroom is not as diverse and robust as it could be because some conservatives are too intimidated by the social repercussions that result from voicing their opinions.

After the 2016 presidential election, this campus went into a state of shock, like most campuses around the country did. My classmates could not believe that Donald Trump had won, most likely because they had never talked to or heard of anyone planning to vote for Trump. I never heard students who voted for Trump tell anyone other than a handful of like-minded friends that they had done so, let alone have a full and robust discussion about why. So it is no wonder that students were so shocked when Trump won. And no wonder it was so easy for many of them to respond by characterizing all Trump voters as white supremacist deplorables, rather than including the guy or girl who lives on your floor, brushes his or her teeth next to you each morning in the hall bathroom, and is also concerned about lowering taxes, protecting the unborn, and nominating originalists to the Supreme Court.

Now here’s the good news. The situation I just described could be worse. A lot worse. And it is a lot worse at most other universities around the country. While the treatment of Princeton conservatives is not fair, not right, and not pleasant, to my knowledge it has never turned violent. That seems like a low bar but it is a bar that Middlebury Professor Allison Stanger, still suffering the effects of injuries sustained when Charles Murray spoke at Middlebury in March 2017, would wish her campus had met. To my knowledge there has never been a speaker prevented from speaking on Princeton’s campus or shouted down when they arrived. Berkeley and Brown are among the institutions that have had such incidents.

So despite all of the social challenges I mentioned, there is a strong and vibrant conservative minority at Princeton and there is a strong and vibrant contingent of liberal students who engage respectfully and substantively with conservatives and maintain the basic assumption that we are decent people of goodwill.

Why is it that Princeton has succeeded in this regard when so many of our peers have failed?

One of the answers is Professor George and the James Madison Program. Professor George and the scholars he brings to campus through the Visiting Fellows program serve as excellent role models to campus conservatives of the best way to discuss our views in a respectful and courteous way. Professor George was always available as a mentor and guide to offer advice about the best way to respond to difficult campus events, which helped Princeton conservatives raise our game and go high when the progressives went low.

The lectures that the Madison Program hosts always feature robust Q&A sessions and provide an example to all students, conservative and liberal alike, for how to grapple with difficult issues in a thoughtful way. These lectures on American ideals and institutions also serve as an important reminder that celebrating the achievements of oft-vilified “dead white men” like Madison, Jefferson, and Hamilton is still a worthy and indeed essential academic pursuit.

The Madison Program also serves a social and community building function. Some of my favorite afternoons and evenings as an undergraduate were spent attending one of the teas or dinners that the Madison Program hosted with visiting speakers or scholars. These were attended by students of all backgrounds, class years and political beliefs and were another way for students to connect and engage. I am not one to believe in so-called “safe spaces,” but this campus should be welcoming and respectful of all students, and the work of the Madison Program is essential to ensuring that Princeton ‘be made safe for discourse,’ to borrow the phrasing of the also vilified Woodrow Wilson.

The example the Madison Program sets has been spreading around campus and is best exemplified in the book selection that Professor Eisgruber made for this year’s “pre-read,” a tradition he began of assigning each incoming freshman to read a book over the summer that would be discussed during Orientation. This year’s book, titled “Speak Freely,” is by Princeton Professor Keith Whittington and argues for the importance of open discourse. For the first time, the pre-read was distributed to all Princeton students, not just the incoming freshmen, which reflects that President Eisgruber understands how important this is to the lifeblood of the University. In my opinion, this should be the pre-read book every year. If tradition dictates that a new book be chosen each year, it should be replaced by a session during Orientation on the importance of campus discourse. I have to say, I was a Peer Academic Advisor for 3 years and so was involved with Orientation each of those years. It is a busy week but if the school can set aside time for all students, including religious and abstinent students, to learn how to respectfully ‘exile’ their roommate for the night, it can also set aside time for all students to learn how to respectfully engage their peers in discourse for the rest of their lives.

In closing, I would sum up my time as an outspoken Princeton conservative by saying what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. There were some very unpleasant times, but many more incredibly rewarding ones, like one day last year when a freshman came up to me while I was walking to class, introduced himself, and told me that I was the reason he had decided to attend Princeton, because he had heard me speak at a debate our campus political union, Whig-Clio, held during visiting weekend and wanted to attend a school where people felt free to speak their minds like I had.

I left college as conservative as I was when I arrived but now even more confident in why I hold the opinions I do and in my ability to defend and articulate those beliefs. I learned so much from constantly being challenged by people who disagree with me. I can only conclude that it is a real shame that many of my liberal classmates were so successful in preventing themselves from having the same learning experience I did.


| Permalink