Monday, 15 June 2009

Princeton Times I

Argh, I have so much to recount, and am so behind, and have been so I apologise in advance for the potential lengthiness of the next few posts, and/or the fact that they might appear in quick succession.

So. Where do I start? Last time I blogged, I was expecting Nick's visit, which has now sadly come and gone. But it was very fun, and very busy, and tinged with great Americana experiences...

The weekend of my birthday coincided with the Princeton Alumni Weekend. Unlike our Oxford gaudies, which have only a few years' worth of alumni turning up, this is an annual event that alumni from ALL years flock to - with special focus on those celebrating anniversaries (if that is even the right word) that are multiples of 5. So these masses of Ivy League elements descend upon the town, and each year (where year here is year of graduation rather than matriculation - why can't they all be like us I don't know) has a distinctive jacket/blazer type object which of course has to be orange and black, and possibly also incorporate a tiger. Much as I love the colour orange, and am guilty of its overuse in various aspects of fashion in the past, this is often rather vile even for my taste. But you get tons of then swarming about, wearing name tags, high-fiveing and hugging each other in various Princeton landmarks such as cafes and sandwich shops.

But the best is yet to come! In the afternoon, said jacketed alumni appear in the P-rade (get it? 'P'-rade? for 'P'rinceton? Hoho. So witty.) : each year marches down through campus, culminating in the class of the current year, and with the multiples-of-5s having a bigger float/band/similar. Oh.My.God. What a show. Full photographic evidence and commentary is available on an album at my Facebook page - be warned, there are over 80 photos, and we left in 1986 as we'd been there two hours and weren't sure we couldn't take any more!

This is just a small example of what we could see

Many thoughts arise from this event, above and beyond the inevitable comments of the effect of lots of black and orange patterns on the eye. In no particular order -

* the oldest alumnus was from 1925. 1925!! He was adorable. And rode in a golf cart. There were quite a few from the 30s, actually - mostly in golf carts, but some stoically walking with the golf cart following them anxiously - for the most part rather spry and lively. Very admirable.

* by far the most touching group was 1944, where a placard informed us that 89% of that class had served in WWII. And not all of them had returned - their family members were marching in their place, carrying signs telling us in what battle they had lost their life. It was very sad, and sort of made it hit home for us Europeans, seeing the names of familiar English or Italian places on the signs. I guess we forget that there was a time when US interventionism was really a rather good thing, and that despite the best efforts of one's partisan grandfathers, we probablly really needed the American helping hand (I simplify wildly obviously, but this was more or less the bottom line of my thinking). Also, it reminded us that the war started affecting the US a lot later than Europe, which one tends to forget - we were looking at the 40s groups wondering when the war would make an appearance, and were momentarily surprised when it took so long.

* on a lighter note, it was incredible to see the extent to which these grown men and women were willing to look ridiculous, from wearing tails to dressing like Barbie and all things in between. Really this goes hand in hand with the general degree of wild passion that the alumni clearly feel towards their old university - and this is what really got me. I had a great time in my college and I love Oxford and I am grateful for all the amazing opportunities it has given me. But I don't know if I love it to the extent that I would march in a parade 40 years later, wearing tiger ears or tails. And make all my children march with me, looking equally silly. More than one person has told me that Princeton is particularly renowned for having such adoring alumni. Obviously I can't really say what the reason is, not knowing what goes on behind the gilded doors (actually this is a bit harsh - the University is very good at sharing its events and resources with the general public), but clearly there is something very powerful at work there.

* and of course this feeds into a more important issue, namely that of alumni donations: clearly having such large and passionate alumni ensures that your endowment stays healthy, and explains why so many of the facilities are so spiffy. Oxford doesn't stand a chance to even match a fraction of American-style fundraising if it can't master the same kind of enthusiasm in us. And frankly, as long as my college's telethoners call me and say, upon me telling them that it isn't a good time to talk, "Great! Let's chat for a few minutes", my enthusiasm will remain rather lukewarm. They (the Princetonians, not Oxford) seem to have turned even donations into a competitive activity: many of the years marching had placards noting how much they had donated that year, that decade, since their existence, etc etc, with the clear intent of coming out top.

The day's events were concluded by a firework display set to music - it sounds cheesy but actually it worked really well, different kinds and colours of fireworks going off in time to the music - I am used to nice fireworks displays in Italy, but this was pretty amazing too.

And so endeth the first part. For more adventures, read here...


Rob Jubb said...

Well, if you think making immensely wealthy institutions which primarily benefit the best-off wealthier is a good thing to do, then I suppose one would be impressed by Princetonians having given to their alma mater. If, on the other hand, you thought that it strengthening institutions which at best do nothing to counter various secular trends towards inequality was kind of reprehensible, then you might find it quite depressing, if excusable under certain circumstances. I might be prepared to be nice about scholarships allocated on the basis of need - and only then because I suppose it's more effective than actually attempting to systematically insure that access to higher education isn't on the basis of wealth - but that's about it.

Rob Jubb said...

And then there's the effects on institutional policy that dependence on alumni (and other donors) has on policy: you think they even need to ask for anything in order for the desire to keep the tap of money on to dictate university policy?

superdinosaurboy said...

I have nothing to add to these comments...

Ra said...

Ok, I take your point and I agree that it is perhaps not-entirely-necessary money-grabbing, and I definitely am with you on the risk of university policy being skewed.
But the main point I was trying to make, or rather, the thing that struck me the most, was that I was amazed at the way an institution could generate such devotion in its alumni and I had never seen anything like it in the UK.

I am not saying it is a good thing that universities have to rely so much on alumni donations. But they do need to get the money from somewhere, and if the government isn't going to shell out, then what? Rather enthusiastic alumni than Rupert Murdoch or Said, methinks.