Upon reading the open letter published in the Daily Princetonian criticizing the choice of Marshawn Lynch as Class Day speaker, I felt compelled to respond. As a FLI student, I identify with many aspects of Mr. Lynch’s experiences that were not discussed or valued in the authors’ arguments. I hope this response sheds light on the value of those experiences as well as the implicit entitlement that I felt ran through the letter.
The main point of this response is to highlight the implied sense of entitlement that runs throughout the authors’ arguments. In demanding that students be able to — directly or indirectly — make a list of potential candidates, the assumption is that shortlisted speakers would almost certainly accept the invitation. In reality, why would a speaker ranked anywhere but first on the list accept an invitation while knowing they are a backup option? We should be grateful that any speaker, of any public stature, devotes their time each year to impart advice on us — without financial compensation — as we leave Princeton. This gratitude, of any kind, was a stark omission.
By not acknowledging the generosity of Mr. Lynch or the efforts of the Class Day Committee and administrators involved in the process, the authors display a sentiment which makes me deeply uncomfortable: that we are somehow deserving or entitled to more. This implication is rooted in a dangerous assumption that the University’s reputation bestows upon us a right to privileges such as public figures speaking to us at Class Day. It is precisely this reputation of elitism that has plagued the University, a reputation that the current administration and student body have fought hard to dispel. Unfortunately, the open letter has made it clear that we still have some strides to make.
The suggestion that Mr. Lynch’s lack of previous connection to Princeton renders him unable to be Class Day speaker is an argument that I find especially hard to accept. From growing up in a low-income community, to being a first-generation college student and student-athlete, Mr. Lynch in fact represents — to some degree or another — a large chunk of Princeton students. By claiming that his connection to Princeton is too weak, the authors sideline Mr. Lynch’s and others’ shared lived experiences.
On a personal level, during my time at Princeton I have often desired to hear more from those who come from a background similar to my own. While I of course appreciate that Mr. Lynch does not represent a relatable presence for all, which speaker would do so? To argue that Mr. Lynch does not represent the student body is to argue that the backgrounds of people like myself are not valuable. The background of Mr. Lynch not being that of a “typical” Princeton student is in fact one of the strongest reasons for my excitement at his acceptance of this role.
The insularity of Princeton’s campus and community is well documented. The Orange Bubble is both a blessing and a curse that reflects the scope of resources that Princeton provides as well as the fact that, for most students, there is not necessarily a need to engage with our surroundings beyond FitzRandolph Gate. Graduation, however, is the moment at which we both symbolically and literally go forth from this campus and forge our individual paths in the world. It is perhaps the time at which we are made to think most about our identities as both Princeton students but also as people belonging to a much wider world than this small New Jersey town. By contrasting Mr. Lynch’s apparent lack of connection to Princeton or New Jersey with those of Ms. Kemper and Mr. Booker, the authors suggest that a non-Princeton experience is somehow too foreign or not worth hearing. This is not only disparaging, but also not backed up by previous Class Day speaker choices. Stretching back to every Class Day speaker this millennium, one finds just six Princeton alumni.
Graduation is all about the graduating class leaving this campus and moving to a new chapter. I personally don’t particularly want to spend another hour listening to someone discuss their time at Princeton. While this is certainly a personal preference on my behalf, there can be no doubt that Class Day speakers with no obvious Princeton-related experience offer a rich, valuable perspective. Criticizing a choice of speaker for not having Princeton connections is, again, an embodiment of the entitlement that runs through the article. Mr. Lynch, just like any speaker, is not everybody’s cup of tea. Not being an alumnus, however, does not invalidate his words. In fact, as we embark on our journey outside of this campus, I argue that it makes his non-Princeton perspective all the more salient.
To Marshawn Lynch, the Class Day Committee, and the Princeton administrators and other students involved in organizing graduation: thank you.
Jack Tait is a senior in the politics department from London, United Kingdom. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.