Princeton is not a school known for its political activism. In fact, compared to peer institutions, it is markedly apathetic on political and social issues. While Columbia University made national headlines for protests during the Vietnam War, South African apartheid, and more recently regarding campus sexual assault, Princeton protests have been minor in comparison, if not non-existent. During the 1969 March on Washington, Princeton students carried a banner that read “Even Princeton.” As in, “Even Princeton cares about Vietnam” or “Even Princeton can mobilize when things get bad enough.” It’s exactly that feeling that is permeating campus now. Woodrow Wilson protests withstanding, there is a new a sense of urgency, of duty to resist, and of activism on Princeton’s campus. Initiatives once relegated to small rooms of particularly engaged students, often with a specific impetus for action, are now growing. Various pockets of students felt a need to act after Trump’s election, and an even heightened sense of urgency after policies like the immigration ban. Now, activist groups are convalescing, creating a stronger activist culture on campus than in any time in recent memory.
Princeton Junior Soraya Nuñez is one long time campus activist. She got involved with DREAM Team, an immigrant rights group, her freshman year. The group has had many small protests, but last November after the election, she noticed a change. “The defining movement for me was at the Sanctuary Campus Walk out last November,” she said. “More than three hundred people participated in support of making Princeton a Sanctuary Campus. I had never seen so many people. All I could think was ‘wow.’”
The walk-out wasn’t the only campus event in response to Trump’s election. The night after the election, a New Jersey activist group called Unidad Latina en Acción held a protest broadly against Trump right outside Nassau Hall. The protest’s message was unfocused, but there was a clear sense of anger and of urgency. As the group’s leader led chants and one local undocumented immigrant spoke, tears flowed and people cried out in anger at the state of American politics, and out of fear of what might come.
As the post-election dust settled, Princeton students and faculty began to take more directed action. The day after the election, Nick Wu, president of Princeton Asian American Students Association, texted some friends asking “Crap, what do we do now?” “Eventually all that anger and talking to everyone turned into an idea to actually do something instead of just posting on Facebook,” he said.
In late January, as Trump announced the Muslim Ban and began raids on undocumented immigrants, Wu reached out to the leaders of other undergraduate Princeton activist groups, such as Princeton Latinos and Amigos, DREAM Team, Muslim Advocates for Social Justice and Independent Dignity. They met in order to plan a new student initiative. In the first meeting, held in Tower Eating Club, a group of student leaders laid the foundation for Princeton Advocates for Justice (PAJ), “an intersectional student coalition advocating for the protection and advancement of basic human rights.” The group’s goal is to unite campus activists around specific issues. “We want to find a way to get all the different activist groups to talk and eventually coordinate,” said Wu. While efforts by specific groups often fail to reach large audiences, by banding together, campus activist groups can have greater reach and better results. The group plans on focusing on one issue at a time, according to Camila Viaño of DREAM Team. For instance, their first priority was immigration rights. They planned a letter writing and phone banking event that attracted about 500 students. Viaño says PAJ is still deciding what issue to tackle next.
The new action on campus begs a question: why is Princeton normally so apathetic to national political issues? The only USG referenda that have passed in the last handful of years have been ones dealing with campus issues: eating clubs, a campus pub, and winter break. Referenda on issues like prison reform, Israel and Palestine, and climate change have all failed. Nuñez says our inaction is due to a tendency to over-intellectualize national issues. “It’s very easy to throw out words. It’s really hard to materialize those words into concrete action,” she said.
Wu says that while certain student groups are active, the general political apathy on campus is due to a feeling of safety on campus. “There’s a feeling of security. People don’t feel a threat of any kind, so there is no impetus to organize around any issue.” That’s all changed since Trump has implemented policies that affect Princeton students.
While undergrads were meeting in Tower, graduate students were organizing in the Program on Science and Global Security’s space on Nassau Street. An initial meeting of about 40 graduate students eventually became Princeton Citizen Scientists, a group that seeks “to better understand the situation that we all expect to face in the coming few years and what actions we can take as the Princeton community to protect the ideals of equality, justice, compassion and fact-based public policies.”
In the first meeting, people “had strong emotions of anger and fear. People were really hurt by the nationalist and racist rhetoric. People also felt a sense of responsibility to do something,” according to Sébastien Philippe, who organized the first meeting. Philippe is a Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering PhD candidate whose research focuses on tracking nuclear weapons after non-proliferation treaties are signed. Given the public-policy-oriented nature of his research, he was a natural fit for organizing the meeting. He cares about civic issues, and the prospect of Trump having access to nuclear weapons scared him. Still, he was surprised by how many other people cared enough to come to a meeting. Philippe uses scientific terms to explain the turn out.
“There is a concept in thermodynamics called activation energy,” he said. “Sometimes you just need enough energy to pass a threshold to engage in something, and I think this last election pushed a lot of people past that threshold.”
Philippe’s group had one original goal: to train scientists on how to communicate the importance of scientific issues in politics. In addition, they formed task forces to write papers on issues like the environment and nuclear weapons. The Citizen Scientists also started a petition advocating for a “Teach-In,” in which students and faculty would voluntarily skip class in order to learn about pressing political and scientific issues. They didn’t expect to get as much support as they did. At the beginning we thought if we get something like 50 faculty and two or three hundred students we’ll think about what we’re going to do, but that got so much bigger so quickly that we thought, we can do a full day.” Now they have more than 1000 signatures, with more than one hundred from faculty, including people from almost every department.
As support for the Teach-In has grown, so have the Citizen Scientists’ ambitions. Now, the Teach-In will be held throughout all of Frist all day on March 6th. It will feature speakers like Cornel West, Princeton Physicist Michael Oppenheimer, and Iranian Ambassador Seyed Hossein Mousavian.
In planning for the event, the Citizen Scientists found an unlikely ally—the University Administration. While in recent years the administration has been the brunt of activism on campus, President Eisgruber has taken on a role in the national spotlight as a voice against Trump’s immigration policy. Along with University of Pennsylvania President, Amy Gutmann, he wrote a letter to President Trump, co-signed by 47 other University presidents. Campus activists have been supportive of the administration’s response, and the administration has largely been supportive of activists. DREAM Team member Viaño said, “After the sanctuary campus protests, I was really disappointed with Eisgruber’s response to us, but since then I’ve been very happy with his responses to Trump’s executive order. It’s proven that he will act and stand strong against Trump. I don’t think I could ask for more.”
While the administration has not officially endorsed any of PAJ or the Citizen Scientist’s initiatives, they’ve worked with the groups to ensure their success. Vice President for Student Life Rochelle Calhoun said she met with the Citizen Scientists to help plan logistics. Calhoun says she also encouraged the group to “broaden their perspective,” and to reach out to groups like the Princeton Open Campus Coalition to make sure their perspective was understood.
The administration sees itself as acting in resistance to Trump’s travel ban in more substantial ways too. Most notably, they had to ensure that students from the countries listed in Trump’s Muslim Ban could re-enter the company. Six students and scholars from the seven countries were out of the country at the time of the ban, according to Vice Provost for International Affairs, Anastasia Vrachnos. “The Davis International Center has done Herculean work” to make sure everyone can reenter, Vrachnos said. They worked with each student and scholar, providing resources, consultations with immigration attorneys where necessary, and ensuring attorneys were prepared to file briefs or go to the airport as needed to support students and scholars who might need assistance upon re-entry.
The Davis Center and the new Immigration Response Working Group, made up of professors and administrators, is also working to make sure the more than 50 students and scholars who could be affected by Trump’s ban have all the help they need. In addition to providing information, they have helped find students who are nervous to leave the country new internships and housing in the US during breaks.
President Eisgruber’s letter to Trump has led the University to take on an activist role nationally as well. President Eisgruber co-wrote a letter to Trump, signed by 47 other University presidents, in opposition of the travel ban. The University has also signed on to two amicus briefs filed against the Trump administration “Our University has stepped up unequivocally to say that these values of the exchange of ideas and scholars across borders are seminal to the university,” said Vrachnos.
Vice President Calhoun says that the University community was not politically apathetic before, but that political activity on campus has become more focused and more active since Trump’s election. As a community people are moved by the targeting of members of our community. PAJ leader Wu says the Pace Center, Princeton’s center for civic engagement, “treads the line between service and activism.”
As student movements have grown, they have also converged. Princeton Advocates for Justice planned an Immigrant Day of Action in February that the Citizen Scientists co-sponsored, providing man-power for the letter-writing and phone banking event, while also using the event for their own publicity. PAJ will host an activities fair for social justice groups on campus at the Teach-In on March 6th.
The symbiotic relationship regarding activism between undergrads, graduate students, and the administration is new to Princeton. It is not common for all three groups to be on the same page. However, Trump has created a political climate so universally intolerable that all three groups have found common ground.
While this moment in Princeton’s political history may not be entirely novel, it is a fire bell in the collective memory of the current University community. The movements feel new and exciting. People who have never engaged in activism work are taking on new roles. As the Trump administration goes on, it’s in the hands of these activists to breathe life to campus politics and give “Even Princeton” new meaning.