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This article by Richard K. Rein was prepared for the June 4, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
On Princeton University
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
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
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.
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