Princeton University, Sexual Misconduct and Title IX, and the 2019 Graduation Commencement.

Jessica Zheng
Sep 25 · 7 min read
Nassau Hall at Princeton University. Image Source: New Legends Magazine.

Within the context of Princeton itself, I have not been assaulted, harassed, or stalked. For that, I am grateful. The fact that I am grateful in itself is very sad to hear.

At least three women I know personally at Princeton have been sexually harassed or assaulted during their time at Princeton. I know many more at other elite universities (this problem is not just Princeton-specific) who are survivors. A strange pattern I have noticed (within my limited sample set) is that many survivors are women who have chosen to study computer science or electrical engineering. One of them, who bravely chose to go public with her case, was my data science TA Yeohee Im. She faced repeated unwanted advances from her graduate thesis advisor Professor Sergio Verdú, and you can read her story here.

The other day, I learned that ANOTHER one of my Princeton friends was a #metoo victim. I broke down and cried. That was what pushed me to write this essay — enough is ENOUGH.

Which of my friends haven’t been assaulted?

A major part of this is that people don’t know what goes on behind the scenes in these institutions. And as long as you are a part of the institution — whether as a student, employee, or faculty — the university has power and control over your actions. As an alumna, I’m in a position of privilege to be able to speak truthfully about what happened — Princeton can’t rescind my degree, after all. And if they’d like to sue me for defamation, shame on them. All I have done is present the facts of what has happened, which you can see for yourself.

It’s not even like I am upset at Princeton University in the sense that I did not perform well academically or professionally. I am infinitely grateful for the knowledge I have gained (in particular, to be a critical thinker), the classmates I have met, and the faculty I have worked with. But I am heavily disappointed in the administration, and it is clear that they could have done better.

Today, I’m here to write a bit from a student’s perspective on the Title IX protest during commencement, and how the administration and President Eisgruber repeatedly made poor choices around this issue.

First, we need some background context. Prior to commencement there were organized protests around Title IX at Princeton, which you can read more about here.

Students protesting for Title IX reform at Princeton University. Image Source: princetonixnow.com

As a whole, the administration’s response to the protests was disappointing. This included a generic email staying that they “appreciate and take seriously the concerns they have raised” and are using a committee system as a show of listening to the students’ concerns. Read it for yourself:

Email sent by Vice President Calhoun in response to the Title IX Protests. Sadly, I myself did not attend the discussion and protests as I was dealing with health issues at the time and was not able.

To me actions — not words — are what really counts. And the actions taken by the university shows their true stance on these issues.

The 2019 Princeton University commencement, especially the Baccalaureate address by George Will, was used as a political platform by the administration to criticize the students who advocated for the rights of Title IX victims wronged by the university, rather than as an opportunity to celebrate the accomplishments of the graduating class as it should have been.

The most appalling part of commencement was the decision to invite George Will ‘68, a conservative political commentator, as the baccalaureate speaker. Will has written extensively on his view towards sexual assault on college campuses. You can read more about his views on sexual assault in his column and the surrounding criticism here.

One of his most hurtful viewpoints is that somehow being a survivor is a “coveted status” — how could one want this title? It doesn’t make sense in any capacity. Wills argues that women who are assaulted actually wanted the assault to occur, and then lied about the assault in order to protect their “reputations.”

As a rape survivor myself, I cannot bring myself to agree with his views.

I want to lay out the facts and the evidence of what happened during commencement and his baccalaureate address, and leave people to form their own judgements.

George Wills during his Baccalaureate speech. Image Source: Princeton University.

The video of Will’s Baccalaureate Speech is here. Here is an accompanying transcript of “remarks as prepared.” Throughout the video, you can see students wearing purple and standing with their backs to Will. This was an organized silent protest against the university for choosing him to be our Baccalaureate speaker.

At 42:10, Will starts off his speech with an insensitive joke about how “brevity is the soul of lingerie.”

That pretty much sets the tone for his entire speech, where he talks about the “infantilization of America.” In particular, he likens the Title IX protestors — students who have taken precious time and effort away from their studies, school activities, and jobs to advocate for their rights and the rights of their peers— to children demanding for something unreasonable.

The requests of the Title IX protestors are entirely reasonable. Read them here.

I horrified as I listened to Will’s speech. I thought it couldn’t get any worse. And then came the ending at 53:50:

“I want to thank all of its members, including those who have helped, if inadvertently, to illustrate my points. ”

The tone in which his words was delivered (particularly the world “helped”) made his message — and Princeton University’s message — clear: as protestors who are bringing trouble and bad press to the university, you are not valued here and we do not care what you have to say.

I was in SHOCK. I could not believe my ears. Is this really happening, I thought? My friends sitting next to me were in disbelief too. President Eisgruber stood and applauded after George Will ended his speech.

I did not do the same.

Over the next two days of commencement multiple student leaders, including Student Body President Christ Umanzor, spoke out against Will’s remarks — to those individuals. Thank you Trisha Datta and Evan Wildenhain for proudly wearing the purple Title IX reform pin as you presented teaching awards during the Phi Beta Kappa ceremony. It was so amazing to see not only women, but men, advocate for Title IX Reform. After all, survivors are not only women, but anyone of any gender. Thank you for using your position of visibility to show your support. It means the world to me, and to all other survivors and Title IX protestors.

In response to the student body’s frustration with Will’s speech, the Princeton University spokesperson Ben Chang wrote:

“We are proud to have George Will, a distinguished alumnus, author, and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, as a member of the University community, and we are grateful for the innumerable contributions he has made, including his service as the Baccalaureate speaker for the Class of 2019. We respect the rights of students to share their views in a peaceful manner. We hope every student takes the time to consider the message of his remarks.”

To President Eisgruber, shame on you for continuing to praise Will both on Class Day and on Commencement Day. I remember as a sophomore, sitting across from you at the dinner for the Shapiro Prize for Academic Excellence. I looked up to you then as an inspirational leader.

How wrong I was.

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The final question people probably have is why? Why did Princeton University do this? How could they make such insensitive and hurtful choices, and double down on them?

I’m not an administrator so I cannot speak for them. But after much reflection, I realize that it’s because the university values its reputation above everything else — even the lives of its students. Admitting that they made a mistake would look horrible. And they do so because it is only through a clean reputation that the university will continue to receive generous donations and funding. At the end of the day, everything comes down to money, doesn’t it?

What a shame.

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So what can you do and how can you help?

You can raise awareness and get involved with Title IX Reform at Princeton.

Website: www.reformixnow.com

Facebook: facebook.com/reformixnow

List of demands can be found here.

Here is a petition you can sign to not participate in Alumni Giving until the university listens to students on Title IX reform.

And lastly this is something everyone can do — share and spread awareness. Do it not just for Princeton, but for the sake of all students at all universities.

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This was an incredibly painful and lengthy article for me to write, but I am glad I did so. I hope it helps to bring some much-needed change in the world. I sleep better at night by reminding myself that as long as we keep trying, things like this can change for the better in the future.

Thank you for reading, and I hope you have a wonderful day.

Jessica Zheng

Written by

Android SWE @ Google Play, Princeton ’19

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