Over a year ago, I pointed out in this space that all you have to do is look around to see that students with green hair do not come here in great numbers. I added that I was depressed by the president’s failure in this regard. The result was an uncharacteristically large amount of negative mail from alumni.
Now the president has announced that she will be stepping down at the end of the academic year. At the risk of laying myself open to further criticism, I want to put hair color back on the agenda of things anyone who wishes to succeed her should think about.
Consider the most depressing reaction that I received to my support for green hair. It came in the form of an email message from a recent graduate, an intelligent, witty, conservative young man who, like me, favors preppy clothing (but, unlike me, looks the part: think tall, thin and blond). Here’s what he wrote, in its entirety: “There’s being different and then there’s being different — I would be extremely disappointed if Princeton attracted the sort of people who dye their hair green on the grounds that this usually betokens an unpleasant interest in drugs, postmodernism and Jack Kerouac. Can you seriously imagine someone with green hair reading Latin?”
I wrote back to him that “green hair” was to some extent a metaphor — but yes, I have indeed known people with green hair to read Latin well. (I have also known blond people to read Latin badly. And I have never believed that knowing Latin is the key to life’s mysteries or claimed that it is more important than being able to solve a partial differential equation or paint a watercolor or explain the background to the Tet Offensive.) I also said that, in my (limited) experience, heavy drug use was more prevalent among people who resemble him and me than among the green-haired set — and, by the way, that I had long been interested in postmodernism. (I confessed that I wasn’t crazy about Kerouac either but didn’t think that should be held against us.)
Last November, just over a month after this exchange, I found myself in Palo Alto at the final performance in the Bay Area by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, which disbanded on New Year’s Eve. There on stage was Silas Riener ’06, a world-class dancer who has since been nominated for two 2012 Bessie Awards (the winners will be announced this evening) and who, not all that many years before, memorably attended my lectures in McCosh 28 — with blue hair. I don’t think Riener knows Latin, but he’s a whole lot more talented than I am. The same can be said of Alex Barnard ’09, whose orange mohawk did not prevent him from sharing the Pyne Prize at graduation or heading off to Oxford on the Sachs Scholarship.
Jump to the end of last month, when the annual Creative Arts and Humanities Symposium took place on campus: a chance for nearly 100 high-school seniors from around the country to get a taste of Princeton for the weekend. On the Friday night, Caryl Emerson, one of Riener’s (and everyone else’s) favorite professors, enthralled the students — most of whom looked right at home here — with a wonderful lecture on the multiracial, gender-bending production of “Boris Godunov” that Princeton put on to great acclaim in 2007. And the next night, Riener danced for them, brilliantly. The symposium presented a Princeton as it can indeed often be but not always is.
To be clear: I am not advocating that the Office of Admission arrange in advance to admit three or eight or two dozen dancers with garish hair. In fact, I fall squarely on the side of those who would minimize the number of students whose primary route to admission is anything other than demonstrated scholastic achievement. (That’s a complicated and controversial topic for another time.) But I also believe that President Tilghman has been right to try, not always successfully, to make Princeton more attractive to those who do not obviously conform to the University’s tenacious profile as a gathering place of J. Crew- and J. Press-wearing Jay Gatsbys. We should encourage members of underrepresented groups to apply, we should admit those who are the most academically qualified and we should do what we can to increase their yield.
I have no reason to believe that green-haired 18-year-olds are, on average, smarter and more deserving of being here than those of more traditional mien — but I also have no reason to believe that they are less so. I hope the next president agrees.
Joshua Katz is a professor in the Department of Classics. He can be reached at email@example.com.