President Eisgruber Addresses Students at Prison Reform Teach-In

After meeting with student advocates for the Abolish the Box campaign in his office on Thursday afternoon, President Eisgruber addressed a crowd of students who had gathered outside Nassau Hall to publicly protest the University’s policy of asking applicants to reveal past involvement in the criminal justice system on its application.

“I agree with you about the really serious of injustice in our incarceration system,” Eisgruber said to approximately 100 students and faculty members seated on Cannon Green as part of a teach-in planned by the leaders of the Admissions Opportunity Campaign (AOC) at Princeton. AOC is Princeton’s chapter of the national Abolish the Box campaign that calls for universities to stop screening for criminal records because of the systemic racial and economic inequalities within the American prison system.

While Eisgruber expressed interest in the campaign, he voiced skepticism with regards to whether “abolishing the box” is the effective or appropriate response to the larger issues of societal injustice. In particular, Eisgruber argued that he sees little difference between the University’s interest in knowing whether an applicant failed a course or faced academic probation—other elements of the common application—and having a criminal record. “Someone who fails an examination and fails a course, maybe goes on to do something great in life, but that counts against their record,” he said.

While sounding unmoved about the possibility of eliminating the question from the application, Eisgruber did say that he sees room for common ground between the University and the student activists. “I do appreciate their arguments about how there can be aspects of the process that are discouraging,” he said, referring specifically to the argument that the issue with “the box” is not that it leads to rejection from admissions offices, but that it discourages students who would otherwise apply to college from submitting their application.

Eisgruber also noted that the work of SPEAR (Students for Prison Education and Reform) last year led the University to change its policies in hiring for staff positions. Previously, a criminal record question was one of the first asked of all job applicants, ultimately screening out candidates before they had even interviewed. Now, candidates are only asked that question at the tail end of the application process, once they have already been interviewed and reviewed by their potential employers. Eisgruber said that he would be interested in seeing whether such a policy could be used in the undergraduate applications process as well.

After speaking for ten minutes, Eisgruber engaged in a back and forth discussion with students who responded to his remarks. A central argument repeated by the students was that many high school students break laws, like drinking underage or smoking marijuana, but the criminal justice system only penalizes the most marginalized people while the rest get off free.

One student who spoke up said, that “no one here has a criminal record, I don’t think, but probably all of us have broken the law”

“Well I am sorry to hear that,” Eisgruber retorted, not missing a beat.

Another student told Eisgruber that by not “abolishing the box,” the university was complicit in the injustices of the American prison system. “The work has been done. We know that this is an issue,” she said. “It [not deleting the question] is saying that we are comfortable that these injustices exist and we are going to allow them to continue to exist.”

Soon after, Eisgruber was whisked away by his staff. But before he left he signaled that the door is open for future conversation. “I agree about our need to respond to injustices within society,” he said. “I know that this conversation will continue.”