Columnist Sarah Sakha made many excellent points in her column last Friday, “The Paradox of Princeton’s Publicity,” arguing that Princeton University tours shouldn’t aim to avoid discussing student activism because it is something the school should be proud of — and it might even help to attract prospective students. But because she allowed for some exceptions, such as Wilson, eating clubs and grade deflation, her posed argument was flawed. Her argument can, and should, be extended. The goal of tours to prospective students should be complete honesty and openness, as much as possible. And even our controversies over these other issues could be a positive to prospective students.
Princeton is marketing itself to recruit the best possible class by persuading as many high caliber students as possible to apply and then attend if admitted. Hence, the University naturally wants to convey only its best qualities. But the truth is that choosing to go to college here or elsewhere is a pretty big decision; it can drastically affect the lives of those who attend, for better or, if the social or academic scene isn’t a good fit, for worse. Students should thus be fully informed when making their choice, and one-sided propaganda that restricts their exposure to anything that might be construed as negative or imperfect doesn’t help at all. The University has a moral responsibility to portray itself honestly to prospective students, so that they can make the best choice for their own lives, not so the University can make what it thinks is the best choice for them.
Sarah claims that she “understand[s] censoring information on eating clubs, sugarcoating the elusiveness of high GPAs even after the reign of grade deflation or treating a culture of social climbing and exclusivity as taboo.” And I too understand why the University does so, since, as she says, “giving a tour is like selling a product, and to sell it effectively, one must present an appealing image.” But I disagree that Princeton should continue to do so.
Prospective students have the right to know about eating clubs, the good and the bad, and make their own minds up on whether they want to go to a school where that is a dominant social force. I know it can be hard for guides to talk openly about campus nightlife, but that doesn’t mean a better balance can’t be struck. Interestingly, I felt like I knew all about the eating clubs as a prospective student, knew I didn’t like them, and yet I still made the choice to come here for other reasons. That said, I do meet students who had no idea about them when they decided to come, or if they did know a bit, they didn’t understand to what extent they dominated the social scene here. Some ended up loving them, some didn’t, but they all should have had that information when choosing which college to attend. The same goes for grade deflation or student activism, be it around the Woodrow Wilson controversy or other issues. We should be explaining the full reality of being a student here, putting it in context of other colleges, as well as talking about how we’re openly discussing and tackling these issues.
Sarah makes an interesting point when she highlights how we ought to be “consider[ing] the kind of student we are looking to attract.” I couldn’t agree more, both with regard to students who want to engage actively to make Princeton and the world a better place and to students who are going to do well here because it is a good fit for them. Princeton should be interested in cultivating a diverse community where we all learn from each other. To do that, it needs to portray honestly what it's like to be a student here and do all it can to achieve that. The University should not depict itself as some whitewashed version of perfection that only serves to breed an unachievable ideal.
As Sarah acknowledged, I understand why tours, brochures and the like all portray Princeton as they do. It is selling a product to achieve the greatest opportunity to create the best possible class. All colleges behave in this self-interested way. But the reality is that the choice of attending Princeton not only affects the college — it arguably has an equal (if not greater) impact on the prospective student. Misleading students is not only bad for the University, but it’s bad for the prospective students, especially when obtaining other sources of information can be difficult for some without personal connections. This omission of important information is irresponsible and morally wrong.
These four years have a real, lasting impact on people’s lives. A Princeton education is wonderful for many, but it may not be right for everyone. For some, the real negatives will outweigh the real positives. Prospective students have a right to have access to the full picture and make an informed decision regarding what will be best for them.
Marni Morse is a politics major from Washington, D.C. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.