This past week, reports broke that Robert Menendez, the Democratic incumbent senator who has represented New Jersey since 2006, is neck and neck in polls with a challenger whose name has rung loud throughout the campus community: current University Trustee, and graduate of Princeton University, Robert Hugin.
What Hugin represents in a national political sense seems almost run-of-the-mill at this point: a conservative challenger in a longtime blue state, a representation of general dissatisfaction with the establishment and the exasperation that comes with it, a promise for something new, whatever form it takes.
While races like this one are nearly routine in our political moment, its critical nature for New Jersey’s future as a blue state has inspired immense attention from various local news outlets, with particular emphasis being placed on Hugin’s controversial comments over the years. Anecdotes from former classmates of the candidate and official court materials have been circulated that paint a picture of a backwards bigot: Following the 1992 Supreme Court case which ruled that Tiger Inn would have to admit women into the former all-male eating club, Hugin responded by proclaiming that egalitarian efforts such as abolishing gender discrimination in social institutions at Princeton were examples of “politically correct fascism.” In addition to fighting bitterly to keep women out in the first place long after leaving Princeton, Hugin expressed homophobic and misogynistic opinions while still a student here.
This stirring of information of Hugin’s past, which had largely been swept under the rug during years of political dormancy, has inspired scrutiny over the validity of Hugin’s position as a University Trustee. After all, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to presume that if one espouses a worldview so obviously at odds with the values consistently advertised by the University itself, they might be passed over, or at least received with caution, when the University is handing out a seat at the table.
A former graduate student at Princeton, Eve Niedergang ’89, outlined many of these grievances in a recent letter to the editor in the Daily Princetonian, ultimately ending in a strong call to the University: Do away with Hugin as a representative of this University. Niedergang’s article joined a chorus of voices chiming in on the issue, culminating in President Eisgruber himself commenting on the situation when asked about it at a meeting for the Council of the Princeton University Community (CPUC): “Hugin is a terrific trustee for this University,” Eisgruber was reported as saying in the Prince. He went on to say that Hugin was “an important ally on many different issues, including issues with respect to diversity.”
Sanctimonious praise aside, there’s something unmistakably eerie about doubling down over Hugin’s character in defense of his trustee seat. It would be one thing for Eisgruber to address Hugin’s comments and actions, concede to valid concerns over whether, in light of such comments and actions, he can reliably help form University policies that reflect our supposed institutional values, and grapple with the reconciliation of the potentially regrettable views of those given enormous power over Princeton with the values that the University pledges to stand behind, both for itself and its students.
But he did none of that. Instead, he bowed behind the trustee system and, for all intents and purposes, avoided the question. Not long after this meeting, the Prince published an editorial which reflected on the events of the days leading up to the meeting and Hugin’s past with regard to marginalized groups at Princeton, ultimately coming to a remarkably benign call for action, asking that Hugin “prove his supposedly evolved views by releasing detailed policy proposals for the women he would like to represent.”
In the editorial—and in Eisgruber’s reported speech at the CPUC meeting—there’s an implicit doublespeak. On one hand, the editorial board claims that “Princeton needs trustees and leaders who are aware of [the long struggle for equality for marginalized groups on campus], sensitive to those it has affected, and capable of effecting change.” On the other hand, like Eisgruber’s defense of the status quo of the trustee board, the editorial board prioritizes the trustee board in its current form, with Hugin as an active member, over the safety, health, and long-term security of the marginalized groups with which the Prince purports to empathize, and for whom Hugin on several occasions has attempted to make Princeton a more hostile place. The editorial says, in a sense, that Hugin is here to stay: rather than challenge his place in light of what we now know of him, let’s ask him to say something nice so we can rest easy.
Eisgruber’s case, while morally objectionable, is at least understandable in light of his position as University president. As one who answers to several conflicted parties, he must at times make concessions that, while consistently appealing to the least satisfying intersection of opposing parties, keep at least some subset of people happy.
The Prince, unlike Eisgruber, is (supposedly) not a spokesperson for the University. In fact, nowhere in its mission statement is there even a remote imperative to keep the peace of the University. The Prince may feel that it is contributing nuance, or maintaining a level head in mediating issues of identity politics and how they interface University politics by calling for constructive measures (the production of new platform documents, for example, as opposed to the removal of Hugin from the board of trustees). Instead, it is blindly conceding to power structures at Princeton as they stand, taking them at face value rather than assessing them critically or challenging them.
Hugin is not owed his current position just because it is now his. He has no demonstrable track record of fighting for minority voices; his biggest claim to fame, second to his foray into politics, in fact, is acting as a top executive at Celgene, a pharmaceutical company, around the time it hiked up prices of necessary cancer therapeutics for no reason other than maintaining steady profits. Suppose he were to provide the documents that the Prince deems sufficient to demonstrate his newfound egalitarian politics. Then what? Would we be content to go on about our lives here knowing that someone with an unmistakably tarnished track record sits at the helm of one of the most prestigious universities in North America, if only because he said he cared about a vital component of the University community when asked?
If Hugin does what the Prince calls for, does what is arguably most convenient for him in this moment, does it erase all that he has done in the past or do anything to make us more comfortable with having him as a trustee in the future?
My gut answer is no. And, even if it did, as Niedergang astutely points out, such an artificially cleaned record doesn’t automatically justify Hugin’s position of power in Princeton. Broadly speaking, we have a choice over who we put in power (in this case, we the student body do not, but in general). We have a choice over whether or not we answer to those in power who are morally objectionable; if we challenge their stature or complacently accept their positions of power as matters of fact. Sure, people can change, but why give pedestals to people who need to change?
And that’s the crux of all of this: It’s the root of the disappointment in Eisgruber’s reaction to questions about Hugin’s comments and the root of the utter failure of the Prince’s editorial piece. These two responses—espoused amidst conflicting imperatives to fight for those Hugin apparently deems worthless—idolize, promote, and engender systems of power whose current states are a product of a similar cycle of inherited reverence.
The Prince ought not to make it the editorial opinion that things, as they are, will be accepted the moment a small concession by the offending party is made. Doing so betrays a fundamental issue in the basic assumptions made by those behind the editorials: that calling for something beyond the scope of respectability (although in this case, that scope is unclear, as for many, the only respectable thing is to remove Hugin from the Board of Trustees) is out of the question. Instead, the assumption goes, better to figure out ways to make things as they are palpable for all involved.
But assumptions like these ones, contrary to what the Prince seems to believe, do not push Princeton forward, do not continue the fight to make Princeton a more equal place. Instead, they tilt the battle further uphill.
The Prince, the paper of record, has two choices in penning its editorials. On one hand, it can choose to act as the collective voice of the students attending this University, to be the voice that, even when pressed up against powers much larger than itself, sees through artifice and calls for change, radical as it may be.
Alternatively, the Prince can do what countless iterations of it have done before: sit content with the status quo amid the flux, call for minimal or nearly meaningless change, and idly receive the pointless symbolic gestures it demands from people too insulated by arbitrary power structures to possibly be criticized.
In this case, the Prince has unfortunately gone with something closer to the latter.