Published in the January 8, 2020 issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly.
Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber, Princeton alumna María Perales Sánchez, and Microsoft President and University Trustee Brad Smith gather on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court on November 12 after attending oral arguments on challenges to the termination of the DACA program.
Ben Chang, Office of Communications
On the morning of November 12, I saw the Supreme Court in a way that I never had before: as a litigant. I was there with our alumna, María Perales Sánchez ’18, and the president of Microsoft, Brad Smith ’81, to hear arguments about our suit to preserve the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA). María, Princeton, and Microsoft had won twice in the trial court, the government appealed, and the Supreme Court granted review.
I have spent much of my life studying the Court, and I clerked for Justice John Paul Stevens in 1989-90. Being there as a litigant is different. For one thing, you realize how small the courtroom is, especially for a history-making case like ours. Getting a ticket is next to impossible. Two of Princeton’s lawyers, General Counsel Ramona Romero and Associate University Counsel Wes Markham, solved the problem by arranging to be sworn into the Supreme Court bar on the day of the argument. Ramona made me her “plus one” for the ceremony.
You also realize just how awe-inspiring and even intimidating the courtroom is. It is designed that way, with lots of marble and heavy red velvet drapes, to convey the majesty of the law and the gravity of the Court’s business. I doubt anybody needed those reminders for the DACA case, which might decide the future of more than 700,000 people, including María and other Princetonians, who have made their homes in the United States since childhood. Princeton rarely sues the government or pursues a case to the Supreme Court. We filed this case for two reasons. The first was to protect students like María who enrolled at
Princeton as beneficiaries of the DACA program. They are leaders on our campus who make Princeton a better place and will continue to contribute tremendously to this country if given the chance.
The second was to defend the free flow of talent that is essential to Princeton’s mission. We are an exceptionally international place. For example, more than 30% of our current faculty consists of foreign nationals. Add in those who are naturalized citizens, or who (like me) are the children of refugees and immigrants, and the number grows even larger. Princeton’s excellence has depended throughout its history on infusions of talent from overseas, as exemplified by the likes of John Witherspoon, Albert Einstein, and countless faculty and students on our campus today.
We filed the suit only after careful deliberation about its relationship to our mission. Princeton is a teaching and research institution. That mission limits the circumstances under which we should take sides in political controversies: it is important that the University be, and be seen as, an impartial forum for the scholarly examination of contested questions. I therefore often decline, for example, to sign petitions that circulate among university presidents—not because I disagree with them, but because I think Princeton should not take an official stand on the topics they address.
We make an exception to this policy, however, for issues that affect Princeton and other leading research universities differently from the rest of the country. The most obvious of such questions pertain to funding for basic research and the regulation of higher education: we benefit from the advocacy of allies on those topics, but we also need to make the case ourselves.
For the reasons I mentioned a moment ago, policy questions about who can live, work, and study in this country affect Princeton in distinctive ways. The United States is a nation of immigrants, but universities are strikingly international places. We need to tell the story of how important immigration has been to America’s universities, and to the innovation and creativity so essential to our country’s prosperity and security.
Though Princeton may be more selective than most universities about which issues warrant our intervention, we are also willing to act especially vigorously when we decide to engage. We have taken the lead, for example, in organizing multiple letters on immigration policy issues affecting universities. We were also the only private university to file suit to challenge DACA’s recision, and we were proud to stand with María and with Microsoft, the only company to join the suit.
Ever since that cold morning when María, Brad, and I stood together on the steps of the Court, people have asked me what I think the Court will do. It’s a fair question, but I do not have a crystal ball. I have confidence, though, in the quality of our case, and even more confidence that María, her fellow DACA beneficiaries, and many other immigrants will enhance our University and our country if given the opportunity. What they need most is a path to citizenship, a result that requires congressional action, regardless of what the Court does in our case. We will fight like Tigers on their behalf.