Federal authorities launched a sweeping probe of Princeton University after the Ivy League school acknowledged the role systemic racism has played on its campus, the school said Thursday.
The 274-year-old university published a letter from Department of Education Assistant Secretary Robert King saying that Princeton could be asked to return federal funds it has received — totaling $75 million since 2013 — when university President Christopher L. Eisgruber took office.
King focused on a Sept. 2 statement by Eisgruber announcing efforts Princeton would take to combat systemic racism.
"Based on its admitted racism, the U.S. Department of Education is concerned Princeton’s nondiscrimination and equal opportunity assurances in its Program Participation Agreements from at least 2013 to the present may have been false," King wrote. "The Department is further concerned Princeton perhaps knew, or should have known, these assurances were false at the time they were made."
The department's probe of Princeton is being viewed by some as an overt threat against schools seeking to rectify generations of racial bias on their campuses, higher education advocates said.
"They are trying to destabilize efforts to address this moment of racial reckoning," Association of American Colleges & Universities President Lynn Pasquerella told NBC News on Friday. "It seems to me an example of overreach on the part of the federal government."
Terry Hartle, a senior vice president at the American Council on Education, praised Princeton's efforts, especially given the school's uncomfortable ties to President Woodrow Wilson, who infamously backed segregationist policies throughout the early 20th century.
"This (federal investigation) is an unprecedented and unwarranted effort to undermine Princeton’s attempts to understand and address the role of race has played in its history," Hartle told NBC News. "To Princeton's great credit, they are asking themselves what they should they have done differently in the past and what will it do differently in the future to be more welcoming and inclusive."
In a statement on Thursday, Princeton defended itself, saying "honesty with the nation's history" shouldn't be penalized.
"It is unfortunate that the Department appears to believe that grappling honestly with the nation’s history and the current effects of systemic racism runs afoul of existing law," the university said. "The University disagrees and looks forward to furthering our educational mission by explaining why our statements and actions are consistent not only with the law, but also with the highest ideals and aspirations of this country."
The Department of Education demanded a series of documents and told the school to make university personnel available to answer questions under oath.
A department spokesman confirmed the letter published by Princeton but declined to make any further comment on Friday.
Institutions across America have been taking a fresh look at issues of systemic racism since the death of George Floyd while in custody of Minneapolis police on May 25.