Imagine you are the head of Princeton’s biggest company, an organization with a worldwide reputation and a strong community presence. In an economy that is almost free of inflation, you nevertheless increased your prices this year by 5 percent. The result was an even greater demand for your product. In fact, for every one widget you create, you now have about 10 qualified buyers standing in line to buy it.
That’s the position that Princeton University president Shirley Tilghman enjoys this gloomy May and early June, basking in the light of another successful academic year and sending 1,117 newly minted Princeton graduates out into the real world. And that of course frees up another 1,100 places or so for the incoming freshman class, the Class of 2007.
And it gets even better: The trustees have authorized the expansion of the undergraduate student body by some 100 students per class. Just think of the increase in net revenues: At annul tuition, room, and board of $38,000, and with 50 percent of the students paying full freight, that’s nearly $7 million a year, assuming that the other 50 percent pay absolutely nothing. Of course those students need housing and that surely will cost money. Yes, and alumna Meg Whitman of E-bay already has anted up the capital for the future Whitman College.
But of course nothing is ever that easy. Walking around the Princeton campus last weekend, on the occasion of my 34th college reunion, I got a glimpse of some of the challenges that must occasionally keep Tilghman up at night.
Take that price tag, for example. While most organizations would be delighted to find that 50 percent of its customers can pay cash for a $38,000 item (imagine how happy a car dealer would be if he could just take your check and ignore all that loan or lease paperwork), Princeton has a different agenda. That 50 percent rate suggests that fully half of the students who walk in the door have had a silver spoon in their mouth since as long as they can remember.
Meanwhile the other half of the world (perhaps more accurately the other 95 percent of the real world), faces the $38,000 sticker shock. Inevitably some deserving and eminently qualified high school students do not apply because they do not realize that a.) the Princeton admissions process is need-blind, and b.) enormous scholarship resources are available to help students from the poorest families get through all four years without even resorting to a student loan.
Princeton keeps trying to shake the rich, white, country club image. Just look at the people who get honorary degrees: Every year, along with the usual cast of politicians (such as Bill Clinton in 1996) and academicians (Aaron Lemonick in 2001) come some distinguished individuals with decidedly non-Ivy League pedigrees: Bob Dylan back in 1970 when "the locusts sang;" producer Joe Papp in 1979; sculptor Frank Stella in 1984; director Martin Scorsese in 1991; baseball player Larry Doby in 1997; filmmaker Spike Lee in 2001, and television hostess Oprah Winfrey last year.
The list has gone on and on. But this year — to borrow a phrase from the vernacular of last year’s recipient Cal Ripken Jr. — Princeton struck out in the honorary degree department. No doubt because the university assiduously avoids conferring a degree on someone who fails to attend the ceremony, the dais on the front lawn of Nassau Hall was decidedly old school: Natalie Zemon Davis, a retired history professor at Princeton; Richard J. Goldstone, a constitutional law expert from South Africa; Claude M. Steele, a professor of psychology at Stanford; Joan Steitz, a molecular biochemist at Yale; and Lawrence H. Summers, the president of Harvard. Hey, doesn’t that guy already have a ton of doctoral degrees?
But the honorary degrees are not enough. And the university does not help itself by trying to take whatever is indigenous to Princeton — Reunions, for one prime example — and bottle it and package it like a precious perfume.
If I were trying to sell Princeton to some smart kid from Binghamton, New York, for example, or Queens (or wherever Spike Lee grew up), I would have produced a low-budget videotape of a little picnic that was held this past Saturday behind 48 University Place. It was a gathering of alumni who had been undergraduate editors and managers of the Daily Princetonian. The group that was crowded under a small tent to avoid the cold rain included one of the world’s leading genome experts, a national correspondent for the Washington Post, a civil rights attorney, and the editor of a sports industry newsletter who was the national source for information when Nike signed Lebron James to his $90 million contract.
The person in the center of the tent was Larry DuPraz, the octogenarian who has spent more than a half century making sure that everyone at the Prince starts out on equal ground, with silver spoons, if any, checked at the door. Memo from Rein to Tilghman: Honorary doctorate to DuPraz in 2004.