By Theodore Furchtgott
Last weekend, I had the opportunity to attend a Model UN conference at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. For those of you who have never experienced such events, they generally involve groups of college students aggressively befriending each other in the hopes of gaining support for their various resolutions. Before too long, I became known as “the Princeton guy.”
I found myself bombarded with concerning comments from my peers. “Is it true that some Princeton students are normal and not very wealthy?” asked a confused-looking Duke freshman. Declared a dismissive Hispanic student from Florida International University: “I’m guessing that your delegation is mostly white males” (I was, in fact, the only delegate from Princeton who could accurately be characterized as a “white male”). I had quickly become defined by what I was, rather than who I was.
Although these awkward questions were merely attempts at building a rapport, they revealed a hostility towards Ivy League institutions and their pupils. My school, rather than my arguments, had labeled me as an outsider, as if I was a representative of a different stratum of American society – automatically non-relatable to these other students’ lives. Given the fact that only about 0.4 percent of all college undergraduates go to an Ivy League school, this may be no surprise. Yet, it was remarkable how quick my MUN co-committee members were to define me based on a single characteristic - my school.
It is not secret that Ivy League graduates have outsized influence in American society. Former Ivy-leaguers make up almost 20 percent of the 114th congress. This is partly because Ivy League institutions offer the perfect fundraising network for a budding politicians. Every year dozens of seniors head off to Goldman Sachs or JP Morgan with near six-figure salaries. Every friend living a comfortable life on Wall Street translates into a future potential four-figure check or fundraiser in the Hamptons.
This easy access to wealth and fundraising networks comes at a steep price for those seeking public office.With the United States’ increasingly populist political environment, economic inequality is starting to a form an “us versus them” mentality, as evidenced by comments on both sides of the aisle from liberals such as Elizabeth Warren and conservatives such as Mitt Romney (who are coincidentally both Ivy League grads themselves). When thousands of college graduates nationwide are still struggling to find jobs, it is only natural that these Ivy Leaguers’ quick crossovers into the league of the rich and well-connected could spur negative images of our institutions, especially considering our country’s economic polarization.
At the end of the day, regardless of their own personal background, an Ivy League grad will appear out of touch with Americans living paycheck-to-paycheck when their degree has a two hundred thousand dollar price tag. Just as I was seen as an outsider at UNC, an elite institution in its own right, Ivy League graduates seeking political office must grapple with the Ivy League’s image problem. One only has to look at the 2014 Alaska Senate election to see an Ivy League degree being used as a sign of remoteness or even a symbol of carpet bagging. The Ivy League affiliations of Republican candidates Dan Sullivan (Harvard), Mead Treadwell (Harvard and Yale), and Joe Miller (Yale) were all seen as huge liabilities, used to reinforce existing narratives about their lack of Alaskan ties.
While Princeton may flaunt its low admissions rate and top-notch faculty, the American electorate does not recognize Ivy League graduates as being necessarily better informed on issues. When President Barack Obama ran for Congress in 2000, Congressman Bobby Rush slammed him as an Ivy League elitist, claiming Harvard had turned him into “an educated fool.” Rush went on to say that “Barack is a person who read about the civil-rights protests and thinks he knows all about it.”
This is not only true in the working class precincts of inner-city Chicago. LA Governor Bobby Jindal, once an up-and-coming Republican politician ready for the national stage, was widely panned by the national press when he made unsubstantiated claims about yet-undiscovered no-go zones in European cities controlled by Arab immigrants. Nobody defended Jindal on the basis of his being a Rhodes scholar and Brown graduate. Instead, Jindal’s credentials were used to dismiss his argument. Clearly Jindal’s “remarks were not a mistake, but rather part of a calculated strategy,” since an Ivy Leaguer would never think such things, the thinking goes.
Still, ambitious Princetonians need not despair. In the end, Sullivan was elected to the Senate, Obama ended up in the White House, and it is far too early to count Jindal out. Maybe there are limits to the influence of populism. Maybe the fundraisers hosted by your classmate in the Hamptons will generate enough money to advertise your true Mississippi roots and disdain for the Eastern elite. While we may fret about the need to restore our image, the Ivy League will be a tough political sell as long as it maintains the benefits and prestige that allow so many of its alumni to succeed. Those of us running for office would do well to remember that flaunting a degree from Princeton might have better results in a McKinsey interview than a campaign stop in rural Nebraska. In the modern political environment, a Princeton degree has both advantages and disadvantages. Striking the right balance is a difficult challenge, but one that can yield spectacular results.
Theodore Furchtgott is a freshman fromChevy Chase, Md. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.