“Unfortunately, I haven’t gotten a chance to get back on campus,” she said. “But I’m going to make that happen.”
The comment, mentioned in between thank-you’s and laughter-drawing lines, belied the seemingly lukewarm relationship between Obama and her alma mater, a place she said made her feel, as a student, like she didn’t belong.
But the remark also called attention to an unrecognized aspect of the relationship between Obama and her alma mater — the University’s concerted, but not centralized, efforts to bring perhaps its most famous modern alumna back into the Princeton fold.
Over the past seven years, as her husband rose to national prominence, University officials made at least six direct overtures to Obama to return to Princeton or speak at Princeton-affiliated events. In all but one case, Obama has rebuffed the University’s advances, often citing a busy schedule.
The White House did not respond to requests for comment.
The nature of the relationship between Obama and the University was publicly exemplified when the first lady declined to attend her 25th Reunion in May 2010. White House visitor logs show that four months before Reunions, President Shirley Tilghman and Director of Government Affairs Joyce Rechtschaffen ’75 met with the first lady’s chief of staff in the White House. It’s not clear whether the purpose of the meeting was related to Reunions.
The outreach has occurred as recently as last year, when student members of the Class Day committee proposed inviting the first lady to speak. The University administration turned down that request, according to one student involved in the process. The University disputed that account.
The series of overtures, mostly conducted out of the public eye, sheds new light on the complicated — and perhaps changing — relationship between Obama and the University she has generally stayed away from since she graduated.
Obama’s undergraduate experience
Speculation about Obama’s satisfaction with her undergraduate experience began when her senior thesis came under public scrutiny during her husband’s first presidential campaign in 2008.
Her sociology thesis, titled, “Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community,” surveyed 89 black alumni and hypothesized that attending the University caused them to identify less with the black community.
“I have found that at Princeton, no matter how liberal and open-minded some of my White professors and classmates try to be toward me, I sometimes feel like a visitor on campus; as if I really don’t belong,” she wrote in the introduction to her thesis. “Regardless of the circumstances under which I interact with Whites at Princeton, it often seems as if, to them, I will always be Black first and a student second.”
Within the Orange Bubble, revelations about Obama’s thesis drew attention to the University’s treatment of minorities in 1980s. In the years since the election, Princetonians have continued to ruminate on the first lady’s attitude toward her alma mater, but there have been few public signs of a rekindled relationship. According to an Aug. 29 Politico report, before the September fundraiser Obama had only returned to the area once or twice since graduating.
Senator’s wife: 2005-08
After her husband’s famous address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Michelle Obama’s rising national profile attracted attention.
In 2005, the sociology department invited her to join its advisory council, a small committee composed of faculty and outside members that meets periodically to advise the department on its program and activities. According to professor emeritus Howard Taylor, he and the late professor emeritus Marvin Bressler simultaneously had the idea of asking Obama to sit on the council.
Taylor said both he and Bressler remembered the young Michelle Obama — who then went by her maiden name Robinson — for her impressive academic performance and senior thesis, which received the African American Studies thesis prize in 1985.
As Obama’s thesis adviser and director of the AAS program in which she received a certificate, Taylor interacted frequently with Obama throughout her senior year. He also recalled teaching her in a pre-freshman seminar for minorities and disadvantaged whites in 1981. After her graduation in 1985, however, neither Bressler nor Taylor saw Obama again.
“Then, years later, it develops that she, Michelle Robinson, marries this guy named Obama, and then Obama gives this fabulous speech in 2004,” Taylor said, noting that this speech was what inspired him to invite her to join the advisory council. “It was 2005 when we ... Professor Bressler and I, went, ‘Hey!... Let us invite Michelle Robinson Obama onto the advisory council of the SOC department.’ ”
That year, Taylor and Bressler separately called Obama about the invitation multiple times, and she ultimately accepted. According to Taylor, Obama responded positively to the invitation.
“We had a very pleasant talk, and then I asked her, and then she responded, as I recall, almost immediately: ‘Yes, I’d be happy to be on that advisory council,’ ” he said. “There wasn’t any hesitation.”
Obama’s appointment to the advisory council became effective in 2006, Taylor said, but as Barack Obama’s presidential campaign started up it became apparent that election-related business would prevent her from attending council meetings. To Taylor’s knowledge, Obama never attended a meeting or participated in the council’s work, but he said that was understandable given her busy schedule.
Former sociology department chair Robert Wuthnow confirmed that Obama had been a member of the council but said her membership ended when she became first lady. He also said she never attended any of the council’s meetings.
The University’s Office of Government Affairs, which acts as a liaison between Princeton and lawmakers in Washington, also took notice of Obama’s rising profile. But when former OGA director Diane Auer Jones reached out to her, Jones received a very different response.
According to Jones, Obama rebuffed the University’s attempt to establish a relationship in the years before she became first lady. Jones added that Obama did not seem to have an interest in reconnecting with Princeton and pointed out that many other alumni who were prominent in national politics at the time, such as former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld ’54 and former White House chief of staff Joshua Bolten ’76, remained connected with the University.
New first lady: 2009-11
After the 2008 election, students, professors and administrators continued to reach out to the new first lady on behalf of the University with invitations to speak at and attend special events.
Makeba Clay, former director of the Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding from 2003 to 2011, said she was involved in three separate attempts to bring Obama to University-related events during her tenure.
During her undergraduate years, Obama served on the governing board of the Fields Center — then known as the Third World Center — which served as an umbrella organization for minority groups on campus.
One overture occurred in late May 2009 when Clay — in her capacity as director of the Fields Center — invited Obama to attend a July reception in honor of Princeton alumni living and working in Ghana, which took place during the Obama family’s scheduled trip to the West African nation.
At the time, Clay was teaching a global seminar in Ghana. Clay explained that she and her students had hoped to see Obama while she was also in the country but were told by the first lady’s office that she would be unable to attend due to the brevity of her trip in the region. According to press reports from the time, the Obamas attended scheduled events in Ghana over the course of a single day.
In 2009 and in 2011, students working with Clay on a committee responsible for coordinating the Pan-African Graduation ceremonies invited Obama to give the keynote address. The Pan-African Graduation — which honors the achievements of Princeton graduates from the African Diaspora — is sponsored by the Fields Center.
The office of University Vice President and Secretary Robert Durkee ’69 handled both requests, Clay said. According to Clay, both offers were turned down by the first lady’s office, which cited scheduling difficulties.
“I didn’t take it as anything personal against Princeton,” Clay said of the repeated rejections. “I really took it as she’s a busy person. It didn’t work out, and we just moved on.”
Durkee declined to be interviewed for this article.
In addition to these invitations, in the most direct interaction between Nassau Hall and the White House, Rechtschaffen, who succeeded Jones as director of government affairs, and Tilghman met with Obama’s then-chief of staff, Susan Sher, in the East Wing on Feb. 2, 2010, according to White House records.
Rechtschaffen declined to be interviewed about the White House visit but said simply that it was a very good meeting. University Spokesperson Martin Mbugua indicated that the University had nothing to add beyond Rechtschaffen’s response.
Tilghman and Sher both declined to comment about the meeting, with a spokesperson for each saying that she did not have time in her schedule for an interview.
The meeting occurred several months before Obama’s 25th Reunion, which she did not attend. Before the Reunion, the first lady’s scheduling office sent a formal letter of regret to the University explaining that Obama would be unable to attend as a result of her busy schedule.
According to alumni organizers of the Class of 1985’s 25th Reunion, all classmates were equally recruited to return to campus and Obama did not receive a special invitation.
Outreach for routine alumni events fell to the Princeton Club of Chicago when the Obamas lived in the city’s South Side.
According to the club’s head of the Distinguished Service Awards committee Peter Baugher ’70, Obama would have been reached out to annually in the letter or email sent out to every graduate living in the Chicagoland area. To the best of his knowledge, she has not attended any of the club’s events.
According to Baugher, Obama’s name comes up annually in discussion for the Distinguished Service Award given by the club. “The only reason she hasn’t been accepted is because she’s out in Washington,” he said.
Class Day controversy
Students said they approached the University over the past five years about inviting Obama to the high-profile speaking engagement of Class Day.
The Class of 2008 did not consider Obama to be a speaker because the committees were told to avoid inviting campaigning politicians to speak, according to 2008 Class Treasurer Kyle Super ’08.
But that attitude changed once the president was elected. Students in charge of planning graduation ceremonies said that Michelle Obama was brought up as a potential speaker.
According to two graduates in 2009 with knowledge of the selection process, Obama’s name was on a list of 10 potential speakers to give the Class Day address. The list was forwarded to the administration, who makes the final decision on whom to invite. It’s not clear whether the administration extended the offer to the first lady.
A year later, Obama’s name again came up in preliminary discussions for Class Day speaker but the committee quickly ruled her out as infeasible, according to the Class of 2010 Social Chair Jacob Kosior ’10.
“I had lots of people telling me to put her on the list,” Kosior said. “But it would’ve put Obama in an awkward position of potentially turning down her alma mater.”
Kosior said the committee perceived the Memorial Day weekend timing of Class Day as a potential conflict for Obama. According to a White House schedule, the Obamas spent Memorial Day that year in Chicago.
Obama was not considered as a speaker for Class Day or Baccalaureate in 2011, according to Class of 2011 president Alex Rosen ’11, who worked with both the committees that were charged with selecting speakers.
In 2012, Obama was again initially on the short list of speakers for Class Day compiled by the student committee. She was later ruled out from the official shortlist that contains the names of those who the administration considers for an invitation.
“The administration has to approve any potential Class Day speakers,” co-chair of the committee Chris Green ’12 said. “Michelle Obama was initially one of our top choices, but the administration did not approve us to get in contact with her, so she was removed from our official shortlist.”
The Class Day committee lists are overseen by Associate Dean of Undergraduate Students Thomas Dunne. Dunne disputed Green’s account, saying that Obama’s name was not formally submitted.
Class president in 2012 Lindy Li ’12 said Obama was not on the short list of potential speakers for Baccalaureate last year.
Baccalaureate lists are forwarded to Dean of Religious Life Alison Boden, who then gives the names to Tilghman, who ultimately extends the invitation. According to Boden, the University tries not to invite sitting heads of state until after their terms of service have concluded.
Fighting for another term: 2012
In September, Obama made a rare visit to the town of her college days to speak at a fundraiser for her husband’s reelection campaign. The fundraiser, which took place at the home of Princeton University Investment Company President Andrew Golden, was attended by campaign donors as well as University alumni, students, faculty and staff.
The diversity of ethnic groups, ages and affiliations at the fundraiser represented a far different Princeton than the one Obama experienced as a student in the 1980s.
Brittany Hardy ’14, who was personally invited to the event by Tilghman, described Obama’s interactions with the attendees as “very genuine and warm.” She said she saw no evidence of the reportedly distant relationship between Obama and her alma mater.
“I didn’t see any hostility toward Princeton,” Hardy said. “It almost seemed like — not necessarily a burden lifted off of her, but it just seemed like, like a homecoming ... Everyone was just so happy, and they welcomed her in with open arms.”
Though she speaks nostalgically about her time in “college” in speeches, she rarely identifies her alma mater by name. Obama’s upbeat remarks about returning to Princeton offered a rare public statement of her attitude toward the University.
Correction: Due to a reporting error, a previous version of this article misstated the cases in which the University generally does not extend invitations for Baccalaureate addresses. Dean of Religious Life Alison Boden said that the University prefers not to invite sitting heads of state. The 'Prince' regrets the error.