Saturday, October 17, 2009

"Barbarians", oops, Women at the Gate

For many old Princetonians, accepting women to their beloved Princeton was and remains an invasion by the "barbarians" not dissimilar to the uncouth, uncivilized corporate raiders that inspired that book title "Barbarians At the Gate".

The book documents the famous takeover battle that made famous (or infamous) the recently deceased investment banker Bruce Wasserstein, the still thriving private equity firm KKR and a number of others who have long gone into obscurity.

This series of interviews here put together by a Princetonian commemorates the 40th anniversary of Princeton becoming coed. The first year women entered as freshmen was 1969.

To many less emotional alumni and others interested in higher education, 1969 was as good as any other watershed year marking Princeton taking a giant step towards becoming a first rate university that it is today. Accepting women was one of several other "game changing" moves Princeton made in the sixties, and probably the most difficult one emotionally and institutionally for the fourth oldest in America founded in 1746.

The university has always been most solicitous of the views of its well-heeled and loyal alumni who have over nearly three centuries given generously to their alma mater. Back then accepting women did not go down well with its all male alumni. But Princeton to its credit pushed ahead.

Princeton has the highest alumni giving rate at close to 70% that is a couple of thousand basis points above Harvard and Yale, two of its fiercest collegiate rivals.

The move was not entirely made on grounds of higher values.

The sixties were years of great changes in cultural morales in America, and indeed, around the world. Sex, a long taboo subject, was being flaunted by the young. "Make Love Not War" was a battle cry. The Age of Aquarius. LSD. Hippies.

Not being coed was putting Princeton at a disadvantage when its applicants could opt for say Harvard that had gone coed in 1968. Princeton wanted to fight for the same applicant pool to one day join the nation's ruling elite.

Two Princeton graduates in particular have shown that Old Nassau was wise in that fateful decision: First Lady Michelle Obama and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor both hail from Old Nassau.

Historically being the northern-most southern college, Princeton was primarily a gentleman's "finishing" school for the privileged, especially from the south, to prepare for a professional career in law or business, mostly the latter. In those days of "Gone with the Wind", young Princeton gentlemen brought their slaves from their vast family cotton fields to make their 4 years at Princeton more comfortable.

Princeton, the small town, had a separate area for those slaves. At commencement some of the matriculated would free one or two of their favorite slaves to mark their newly gained enlightenment.

Historically it was the only university that prepared more graduates to enter the military than any other in the Ivy League. Princeton was sometimes described by its collegiate rivals, somewhat condescendingly as a war college for its military orientation. The South is also the single largest breeding ground for America's military leadership and its lower ranks.

And so Princeton, the coed college for the past 40 years, has good reasons to commemorate. It also has the reputation of having more pretty coeds than any other Ivies.

This blog plus the recent postings on Harvard mark the beginning of a series on elite education in the US.

No comments: