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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

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.

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