I have received hundreds of emails from the administration of Princeton University and its agents, and of these, two have stuck in my mind.
The first came in June of 2009, shortly after my matriculation, and stated that there was a gunman on campus. “This is a real emergency,” it said. Less than an hour later, a follow-up email informed me that all was clear, closing with the soothing suggestion, “RESUME NORMAL ACTIVITIES.” In the fall I would learn a student had been spotted carrying a prop machine gun across campus, with no malicious intent.
The second came that September in response to the elaborate sidewalk chalk advertisements a number of a cappella groups had been using promote their upcoming open houses. In no uncertain terms, the email stated that the use of sidewalk chalk on campus walkways amounted to vandalism of university property. Shortly thereafter, the walkways were cleansed of the offending chalk.
I was reminded of this latter incident early this semester when I came across a sidewalk chalk advertisement for SVC imPACT, the student volunteer tutoring group, in front of Frist Campus Center. The ad was expansive, colorful, and featured a variety superhero emblems for its lettering. The names of young adult novels and children’s books radiated outward from it, punctuating the path to McCosh hall. Its elaborate design evinced it as the product of the sort of constructive flow state reserved for the creation of sidewalk chalk drawings, Lego constructions, and crayon sketches on restaurant placemats. This was the first significant use of sidewalk chalk I’d seen on Princeton’s campus since September of 2009, and I took an extra moment to try to commit it to memory. The next day, the ad had been replaced by a large wet patch, quickly evaporating. Farther down the path, a grounds worker sprayed pressurized water to wash away the last of the chalk.
In my three years to date at Princeton I have left one notable permanent physical mark on the university, when my freshman year roommate and I carved our initials into the wood fireplace of our Blair Hall double. I have taken a Sharpie to a stall or wall here and there, but these are painted over easily enough. In my current room, I have driven nails through the concrete to hang a framed print; when I move out for good I will fill the holes with either spackle or toothpaste, depending on how I feel at the time. If I fail to do this, or fail to adequately remove the mounting putty from my wall, I will incur a significant fine. Section 1.3.7 of the 2012 Rights, Rules, Responsibilities handbook considers “the deliberate defacement of library materials, buildings, sidewalks (including chalking), walls, or trees” as “serious” offenses. The only cosmetic alterations to our rooms the university permits are those which can be entirely erased come May.
Let’s set aside for a time questions of the morality of vandalism and the necessity of respect for property, and consider the question in terms of the university’s interests. Every act of physical deformation of Princeton’s campus personalizes the university while chipping away at the desirable timelessness of the institution. Every hole illicitly drilled in the wall incrementally establishes the room as “yours,” in as much as you were the one who drilled that hole, in order to hang your print, even though it’s only “yours” for less than a year, for a monthly price roughly on par with a cheap Brooklyn sublet. And any way you make a room as “yours” detracts from the extent to which the next occupants of the room will be able to make it “theirs,” which, from the university’s perspective, is ideally not at all, or at least not in any permanent way, because there are occupants after them, and occupants after them, too.
In a sense, to damage a room is to dig your heels in, refusing to fully evacuate after your housing contract expires. Because the town of Princeton will never be amenable to off-campus student living barring some sort of housing crisis among the well-to-do, university-owned dorms are and will most likely be, overwhelmingly, the primary living space for every class for the foreseeable future. This in turn means that any space in which you live in your four years here must be, like so many aspects of Princeton’s culture, indefinitely reiterative, accumulating only the psychic residue of a decades-long succession of sleeping adolescent bodies.
The same is true of the campus writ large. An individually-inflicted blemish on the university’s physical landscape says to the tour group that sees it, “This is my university,” rather than, “This is a university which will one day be yours.” Level against this the mundane argument that such a blemish denotes sloppiness on the part of the grounds or facilities managers and therefore reflects negatively on the university. At its root, though, this argument strikes at exactly the same idea I’ve been foisting: physical deformation represents a failure of the apparatuses put in place to maintain Princeton’s time-independent stasis. For a place that sells itself as much on history, tradition, and past excellence as it does its contemporary undergraduate experience, change is very hard to distinguish from decay. Take a stroll through the letters to the editors in Princeton Alumni Weekly to see this failure of discernment multifariously expressed.
In a huge way, Princeton’s power and its draw comes from being, on a physical level, a paint-by-numbers collegiate scene onto which individual potential can be projected. Princeton must always be Princeton so that it can attract students to come to Princeton, but once those students are Princeton students, they have no more claim to the physical landscape than any student before them. As soon as you hop across the gulch of matriculation, your right to personalize Princeton infringes on rights of alumni to see Princeton exactly as they remember it and of pre-pre-frosh to see Princeton exactly as they would like it to be.
With all this hanging over you, it’s hard not to see campus as a queerly evacuated space, with every surface covered by a transparent sheen of institutional teflon. After my class, and your class, graduates, the university will clean the campus with one big easy wipe and mold the gunk into a plaque on Nassau Hall. It’s hard not to be unknowingly infected with this mindset. I find myself sitting on the overstuffed chairs in Chancellor Green gingerly, as though I will be reprimanded if spotted being overly familiar in my lounging. I don’t think I’m alone in this. How do we account for the care put into, and the joy derived from, personalizing a senior carrell? By nature we crave our own spaces; we’re most at ease in them. Any personal space at Princeton, though, will be someone else’s in a matter of months. The one space that seems to be treated with any kind of consequence-free deformability is Terrace F. Club, which exists in a constant state of flux: improvement by its membership, destruction by the elements and the liquored-up callousness of other students.
How are you supposed to act towards the physical manifestation of an institution that takes pains to remind you that you are a transient? Even squatters leave more stains when they’re eventually driven off. Ultimately, only alumni have the right to shape Princeton physically, through the purchase of a name-branded building, club renovations, or even a bench. Show me any lasting evidence of last year’s much-mocked student colony and I’ll dial back my polemic.
At this point in the university’s life cycle, student change is meant to happen through university-sanctioned institutions, and the university-sanctioned student government. A cappella groups and some student publications have rooms for their own, but most groups must make use of overbooked Frist classrooms or lecture halls. Unlike many schools, there are no student run cafés or coffee houses. There are no fraternity or sorority houses, no language or culture houses. Eating club officers are stewards much more than tenants. There is one co-op with its own building, but the university treats its rooms as fair game for housing draw. So the death of any given group is enfolded as easily into the institution as the trash from reunions, leaving no trace for future generations to stumble upon, literally as much as figuratively. Even an a cappella room, for all its stolen road signs, could be as easily repurposed as a dorm is; a few more years of overestimated yield and who knows what spaces will be appropriated.
(A topical addendum: After this article was written and submitted, two particularly pertinent Prince articles were published on the same day. One outlined a new and mandatory $50 fee for co-op members for use of University facilities. The decision was approved by the board of trustees per the recommendation of the appropriately titled University’s Priorities Committee, a decision made without consulting co-op leaders. The other detailed the dismantling of the Cyclab, the nonprofit student-run bicycle repair co-op, which lost administrative support and its campus space after the university announced plans to demolish the building as part of construction of the Arts and Transit Neighborhood.)
Am I suggesting taking a sledgehammer to the corner of West College? Hell, no. Vandalism is personalization, but it’s still vandalism. But chalk isn’t vandalism. It’s the very mildest attempt at staking out a bit of temporal space for yourself outside of closed doors at an institution that cannot survive as such if you pass through it like anything more violent than a breeze. A university that rejects even that gesture is one that would very much like for its students not to really exist, one that operates essentially mechanically, as a series of abstract investments and returns, rather than a space unto itself. Under this model, the physical Princeton is just another aspect like its US News and World Report ranking or list of famous alumni, attractive but not functional, fetishized beyond its use-value, a model home selling a lifestyle.
A few years after I graduate, my Princeton email address will be shut down, and I will need to have backed up any emails I’ll want to save. I would like to save that second email, about the sidewalk chalk, but when I tried to track it down to write this piece, I discovered that I’d deleted it, probably to stay below my inbox quota. Classmates I asked had done the same.
At our 25th reunions, we will walk the campus and recall the names of buildings, where we lived, where we slept over, where we passed out, but they will not be our spaces. They never were.