Do you think they still have "bull sessions" at college? If you were a student in the 1960s or ’70s, you might recall the term, referring to highly informal but spirited conversations on virtually any subject. You would never get college credit for taking part in bull sessions (everyone knew the root of the word "bull" and it wasn’t a Papal bull). But most would agree that bull sessions were an important part of college life.
My guess is that they still do have bull sessions. But I’m also betting that they call them something else these days, and I am basing that on an employment ad I stumbled across in the October 9 issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly. Here’s how it begins:
Dialogue@Princeton, an initiative funded by the Bildner Family Foundation, that is intended to create institutional support for current and new projects to ensure honest, ongoing dialogue on many topics — race, ethnicity, gender, class, faith, class differences, social justice, and others — among Princeton students, faculty, staff, and members of the larger Princeton community.
Princeton’s coordinator will "investigate dialogue initiatives underway on other campuses, provide administrative support for existing groups, identify training consultants, coordinate the training of facilitators," and "lead efforts to expand and create linkages between dialogue groups."
This approach may seem more rigorous and disciplined than what you may have experienced as an occasional participant in old fashioned bull sessions, but remember that when bull sessions were in vogue, the word dialogue was just a noun. It had not yet gained status as a verb, as in "let’s dialogue with each other."
Moreover, especially at a place like Princeton University, there are lots of subjects about which to dialogue. Take that admissions office controversy: We wrote previously about the admissions officer who got into Yale’s virtually unprotected website, notified Yale of his entry (to Yale’s immediate disinterest), but then got hung out to dry along with his immediate superior, the dean of admissions. That incident provoked a six-page statement from the university’s president that was on the order of a Papal bull, in this case a Princeton bull.
And at an institution that holds itself up to the highest moral standards (without endorsing any single one of them), it just keeps getting deeper and thicker. Let’s dialogue about Meg Whitman, CEO of Ebay and a member of the Princeton Class of 1977. In February Whitman gave $30 million to her alma mater to fund the creation of another cluster of undergraduate dormitories — to be called Whitman College (as in Forbes College).
But more recently Whitman’s name came up on a Congressional list of 22 CEOs who were given early access to initial public offerings, making their fast money before the real public ever had a chance. The Daily Princetonian reported that Whitman acknowledged the trading in a private E-mail to her employees at Ebay. She called the report "painful" but emphasized that what she did was not illegal and denied that her personal investments had any bearing on her decisions with respect to Ebay.
"A fundamental tenet of my life is to conduct my personal and professional activities under the highest ethical standards," she was quoted as saying. "Given my experience yesterday, I plan to participate in the growing national debate about corporate governance and business ethics."
If we apply the same stringent standards to Whitman as the university did to the admissions office, we ought to have a spirited dialogue: Should the university give the money back? Should a panel of Princeton economists and alumni investment bankers be convened to determine what portion of Whitman’s riches came from pre-initial public offerings, and should that portion be returned?
Living up to any code of honor is not easy. Author (and occasional U.S. 1 contributor) Edward Tenner, Class of 1965, will speak next Wednesday, October 23, at 4:30 p.m. in the Computer Science building on the subject of Woodrow Wilson and the honor code at Princeton. That code is direct and simple — Princeton students pledge that they have neither given nor received information helpful on their exams, which are administered with no proctors. But through the years the code’s enforcement has been challenged in numerous ways.
No one is saying "honest, ongoing dialogue" on such charged subjects as race, class differences, and social justice will ever be easy. Exactly the reason why Princeton now searches for a coordinator of dialogue. We can imagine the "initiative" turning into a program and then an area of academic concentration. Someday it could be a full fledged academic department. Inevitably the question would arise: Should the new department lead to a B.A. degree, or a B.S.?