They were all gathered behind Nassau Hall, ready for their big moment: dozens of the most influential figures in higher education ready to shepherd a new brother into their ranks, all while dressed in just the silliest dangnabbed robes and hats. I know it’s not particularly clever or original to joke about the unconventional wardrobe associated with pomp and circumstance, but I really think it’s important to remember just how funky everyone looked while all this was going on. In academia, we eschew the slick suit and tie for the eccentric cap and gown, and I love it.
The role of academia was a popular subject for the next seventy-some minutes, as we were treated to seven speeches from every quarter of Princeton. Going in, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect—I knew we’d see the inaugural address of Christopher L. Eisgruber (let’s call him Chris), but I didn’t know what else the installation of this University’s 20th president might entail. The fashion suggested “high school graduation,” and at first I was afraid I was right.
After the initial procession was over and the assembled academics had taken their seats, USG president Shawon Jackson was called to the podium. His speech was technically sound, expertly mixing generalized praise with more personal anecdotes, and he delivered it flawlessly, with a warm and personable tone. If it had been given at a high school graduation, mothers would have turned to their husbands and mused, “Wow, that Shawon boy might really go far!” But to be honest I kind of zoned out—it didn’t do anything for me. It was good in precisely the way you’d expect it to be good, which I suppose I intend as the opposite of a backhanded compliment (a forehanded critique?). I was also rather rankled by his claim to speak for the entire undergraduate student body; I never gave anyone that authority, and I certainly didn’t know enough about Chris to confidently stand behind all of Shawon’s lavish adulation.
Focusing on these unsatisfying minutiae of his speech, I began to fear I was in for a long afternoon, and during the next speech (a short and sweet number from graduate student president Friederike Funk) I confess I started doing readings on my phone. But I quickly put my phone away when I realized just what was happening. For the first time in my collegiate career, all of Princeton was being represented in one space.
We got a speech representing the Alumni Association and one from the president of the Association of American Universities (who himself got a classics Ph.D here). Deborah Prentice, chair of the Psychology department, effectively used the humorous analogy of cats and cat-herders to discuss the faculty-administration relationship (she also won my heart by clarifying that she could not claim to speak for all the faculty, but only to offer one professor’s viewpoint—I hoped Shawon was taking notes). Sankar Suryanaryan, the University Counsel (whatever that is), gave an exhaustive (and mind-numbingly boring) list of all of the roles that the staff play in our lives, but then followed it with a powerful statement on their importance and passion—it can be easy for us scholarly types to think of the staff as somehow separate, but Sankar reminded me just how integral they are to our larger Princeton family.
And that’s what we are: a large Princeton family. I’ve been calling President Eisgruber “Chris,” and everyone else by their first name too—this may come across as the insolent irreverence of an entitled generation, but I mean it out of a genuine feeling of warmth and intimacy. It’s easy to think that the youthful energy and intellectual curiosity of the undergraduates is what drives this campus, and, in a sense, that’s true, but we’re just one part of a far-reaching orange and black ecosystem. The word “University” comes from a Latin word meaning “whole” or “aggregate”—it has the same root as “universe.” So I looked around my universe: my professor and his wife sat happily a few rows in front of me; a modest but not negligible number of undergrads had taken time out of their Sunday to sit or stand around Nassau Hall and listen to people talk about some middle-aged dude most would never meet; various university presidents from across the country, all of whom had once had some tie or another to Princeton, had returned to Jersey for the occasion; alumni, staff, and their families were scattered across the lawn. I looked around my universe and I felt love for it.
It seemed so silly that we would set up artificial divides. For example, I have never understood the peculiar disdain of Princeton undergrads for the graduates. I’ve had quite pleasant interactions with the grad students I’ve met personally, and hearing Friederike speak reminded me that this is their universe too. We do a disservice not only to them but to ourselves in perpetuating the misguided stereotype of the awkward oddball.
Sankar’s speech went along those lines, but regarding staff and the university at large. Deborah too argued a similar point, but about professors and administrators—settling for the cat/cat-herder dynamic is too pessimistic, she asserted. Chris himself discussed the university’s place in society—our universe’s place within its parent-verse, if you will—affirming that funding for us leads to greater worldwide benefit, that you can’t help the one without helping the other, that there is always a connection. Clearly I was not the only one thinking this way: the whole is greater than the sum of its components; the university is at its peak when it is united.
I don’t want the sort of Tiger pride I extoll to be misconstrued as conventional “school spirit.” Our universe is flawed and imperfect and just because a magazine says it is the best does not mean that we should be complacent, nor even that we cannot learn and grow from other universes. No, I am not here to spew overenthusiastic Princeton propaganda—alumnus Nancy Newman took care of that.
Nancy is the president of the Alumni Association and let me tell you, she is well-suited for her post. She sure does like Princeton! She said “orange and black” at least four times, which maybe doesn’t sound like a lot, but it is. I absolutely love it here, but I was still hesitant to use the phrase even just that one time four paragraphs ago. Nancy broke out an orange and black boa halfway through, and ended with a bizarre series of promises to “Brother Chris” that the alumni would do whatever was necessary to ensure the University continues to thrive. (Fair is fair—I did appreciate that one promise was to disagree with Chris when they felt he was in the wrong. At least her support is not completely blind, although it certainly seemed a tad myopic.) I can forgive her, though; her heart seemed in the right place, and it was an exciting day for me too.
All this thought about universities was given ultimate validation in AAU President Hunter Rawlings III’s address. You can find the video of the whole event on Princeton’s website, and I highly recommend watching at least this one speech. It’s a rousing sermon on the value of a liberal arts education, a condemnation of those who see the worth of college only in how well it prepares one for the workplace, an endorsement of and an ode to that transcendent pleasure of learning. This universe—this type of universe—matters. I realize he was preaching to the choir, but boy could he preach. There were multiple instances of applause from the whole crowd, and at least one of applause from just me. I was enthused about academia. But some of my goosebumps were from the weather, not the rhetoric, so I was happy to reach the end of the agenda.
Chris was sworn in quickly and easily (although the oath itself was kind of weird. Two-thirds of it involved swearing to uphold the US Constitution and the laws of New Jersey, which is nice and all but seemed kind of irrelevant). “Welcome to the Eis Age,” I wish someone had said.
And then in shortly more than an hour Chris was Eis-groovin’ along to Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. While a startling number of mainly undergraduates wasted their time standing in line for pizza and ice cream (I admit I waited for nectarine sorbet), the real magic was closer to the stage. Chris was up there with his wife and a mix of students (also mainly undergrads), adults, and even children, all merry and invigorated by the music. I was somewhat disappointed that Chris had, in fact, gone with the suit-and-tie look, but I was too buoyant to dwell on it.
My roommate observed how much nicer—more “family-friendly”—this was than Lawnparties, and I couldn’t help but agree. The most glaring difference was Grace Potter herself, an awesome stage presence whose lively spirit and constant energy were in stark contrast to T-Pain, who periodically had to sit down in the middle of his performance and told us frankly, between songs, “I’m really tired.” Not to mention that, as I soon discovered, her and the Nocturnals’ most recent album (The Lion The Beast The Beat) is really freaking good.
But I think what my roommate was getting at were the people not on stage. Lawnparties is about the undergrads getting together and (for many, at least) getting drunk, and for what it is it’s a good time. The installation, however, was about our whole universe. It’s more meaningful to exist inside of that system than apart, more fulfilling to, in the words of Grace Potter, “let the beast out” than drink the Beast in. It takes all sorts of people to make a University, but there’s little more beautiful than a bunch of humans working towards a common goal. So today I look forward to not just two more years but a lifetime of running wild with the Tigers, the beast, the beat.