25 Princetonians who are shaking up the world

Ten years ago, PAW asked a sweeping question: Who are the most influential people ever to have graduated from Princeton University? We assembled a panel that considered movers and shakers across the centuries and in all fields and selected 25 names. Luminaries James Madison 1771, Alan Turing *38, and Woodrow Wilson 1879 topped our list as the Most Influential Princetonians of All Time.

Michael Shane/The Verge

But “all time” is a long time. Returning to this topic a decade later, we decided to convene another panel and ask a somewhat different question: Who among Princeton’s living alumni are the most influential right now? Influence of the sort Madison and Turing exercised can take generations to be felt. Who, however, is doing the most to shape the world of 2018?

READERS RESPOND Picking the Most Influential Alumni — and Defining Influence

On a night in mid-October, we gathered for dinner at Prospect House to debate the question and, with luck, distill a dauntingly long list of strong candidates down to a few dozen true influencers. Our panelists were: Dean of the College Jill Dolan, a professor of English and theater; Peter Dougherty, who recently retired as director of Princeton University Press; Michael Gordin, history professor and director of the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts; Kevin Kruse, history professor; William Massey, professor of operations research and financial engineering; Jeff Nunokawa, professor of English; David Spergel ’82, astrophysics professor and member of NASA’s advisory council; and Sandra Sobieraj Westfall ’89, national political correspondent for People magazine and the chair of PAW’s advisory board. Ultimately, as you can see on page 38, our panel selected 25 Princetonians, distributing them among 18 positions: The panel could not resist the urge to group some alumni together. 

Today’s 25 Most Influential Alumni

No. 1

Jeff Bezos ’86
 

No. 2

Robert Mueller III ’66
 

No. 3 (tie)

Samuel Alito ’72
Sonia Sotomayor ’76
Elena Kagan ’81
 

No. 6

Eric Schmidt ’76
 

No. 7

Eric Lander ’78
 

No. 8

Michelle Obama ’85
 

No. 9

Michael Lewis ’82
 

No. 10 (tie)

David E. Kelley ’79
Jodi Picoult ’87
Jennifer Weiner ’91
 

No. 13

Terence Tao *96
 

No. 14

Anthony Romero ’87
 

No. 15

Wendy Kopp ’89
 

No. 16

David Remnick ’81
 

No. 17

Jim Lee ’86
 

No. 18

William Fung ’70
 

No. 19 (tie)

Robert Venturi ’47 *50
Gordon Wu ’58
 

No. 21 (tie)

George Will *68
Cornel West *80
 

No. 23 (tie)

Tom Bevan ’91
Josh Marshall ’91
 

No. 25

Jason Garrett ’89
 

Only living undergraduate and graduate alumni were eligible for our list. Why limit it to the quick and not the dead? One could easily argue that Madison, for example, remains one of the most influential Princetonians today because we still live under the Constitution he helped write, but we wanted to tease out a different list. We asked our panelists to choose without concern for balance by race, gender, age, or specialty. In other words: Put the list together and then see what it looked like and what it might tell us about Princeton and its place in the world today.

Influence. “It’s a difficult word, isn’t it?” observed Nunokawa — an English professor, obviously. “‘Influential’ has a descriptive and a prescriptive element. We want it to also mean inspirational.”  

What do we mean that someone is influential? Do we mean people whose influence is still keenly felt today even though they themselves are no longer very active? Paul Volcker ’49 stepped down as chairman of the Federal Reserve 30 years ago, but we still live in a low-inflation economy that he did much to build. Similarly, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ’54 was an architect of the Iraq War, and much of today’s chaos in the Middle East — from the rise of ISIS to the Syrian refugee crisis — reverberates from the fateful 2003 decision to topple Saddam Hussein. Both Volcker and Rumsfeld are largely retired from public life, but are they still influential? 

In one sense, of course they are. So is John Bogle ’51, who popularized the mutual fund, and former secretaries of state George Shultz ’42 and James Baker ’52, who shaped the post-Cold War world. But our panel narrowed its focus to alumni who are still actively shaping events.

There might seem to be certain obvious markers of current influence, such as high offices held or prestigious awards won. Our panel took these things into account, but they did not lead to automatic inclusion on our list. Several alumni have won a Nobel Prize, for example, and that is certainly a significant indicator of the recipient’s influence. But our panelists felt that such prizes were not an ideal measure, at least not a complete one, especially because prize committees have historically been biased against women. In a bit of a surprise, as it turned out, none of Princeton’s Nobel laureates made the final list.

If influence is uncertain looking backward, it is even murkier projecting forward. “As a nonscientist, the question about the test of time is complicated,” Dolan mused. “Because I think there are some people who will be enormously influential but aren’t quite there yet.” As one example, she cited playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins ’06, a recipient of the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” grant. “I think his influence will be felt in American theater and beyond for many years,” Dolan said. But ultimately the panel decided that neither he nor other artists — including composer Julia Wolfe *12, winner of both a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur award — would be included on our most-influential list. Check back in 10 years.

In the end, the panelists focused on immediacy. From that standpoint, they quickly decided that Jeff Bezos ’86 is doing more than any other living Princeton alum to shape the world in which we live. Indeed, Bezos has achieved a level of influence over the world economy perhaps not seen since John D. Rockefeller. The scope of his activity is vast: As founder and CEO of Amazon.com, Bezos is revolutionizing the way we buy everything from books to groceries, how stores stock their shelves, and how goods are delivered. He also owns The Washington Post, one of the most influential newspapers in the country, which has seen subscriptions surge since the presidential election. (Bezos is also one of only two Princeton alumni to be recognized as Time magazine’s Person of the Year, in 1999. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles 1908 was the other, in 1954.) 

Another tech giant, Eric Schmidt ’76, the executive chairman of Alphabet Inc., the parent company of Google, came in at the No. 6 position. As Westfall noted with deliberate understatement: “It’s really hard to live without Google.” So why rank Schmidt lower than fellow tech-titan Bezos? For one thing, Bezos founded his company, while Schmidt did not. As Gordin put it, while the two men share certain characteristics, they are quite different: “Bezos is transforming a mode of commerce. And journalism. And publishing. He’s using tech to do it, but it’s different from what Schmidt is doing.” 

In our panel’s opinion, Bezos’ only rival for the title of Today’s Most Influential Princetonian was former FBI director and current special counsel Robert Mueller III ’66. Mueller’s investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with the Russian effort could expose the biggest political scandal since Watergate. If anything, Mueller’s influence may be growing; our panel met a few weeks before he filed his first indictments, against former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort and his associate, Rick Gates.

Of course it is impossible to tell just where Mueller’s investigation might go or whether he will be permitted to finish it. Still, Gordin ventured a prediction: “The most influential person in the United States in January 2018, when this is published in PAW, will be Robert Mueller, because he will determine whether the presidency exists or doesn’t.”

“Not the presidency, the president,” Westfall corrected. 

That assumes, Kruse chimed in, that President Trump does not try to fire Mueller first, in which case the matter would likely go to the U.S. Supreme Court. This thought led our panel to the next three Princetonians on our list.

Coming in as Princeton’s third-most-influential alums were Supreme Court justices Samuel Alito ’72, Sonia Sotomayor ’76, and Elena Kagan ’81. The panel decided to consider them collectively rather than try to tease out their relative influence. Although Sotomayor keeps the largest public profile of the three, speaking often in oral argument and writing a best-selling memoir, among other things, it would be hard to say if one of them has a greater influence on the court’s jurisprudence than the others. After all, each justice, it was pointed out, gets a single vote.

Brian Smith

Given that our panel was ranking alumni who are influential in the moment, it is not surprising that its selections turned heavily toward names in the news. Although former first ladies often see their influence dissipate rapidly when they leave the White House, our panel thought that Michelle Obama ’85 (No. 8) remains influential — and would continue to do so as a role model for young women and African Americans, as a figurehead within the Democratic Party, and perhaps even as a candidate for office herself someday. Meanwhile, Anthony Romero ’87, head of the resurgent American Civil Liberties Union, which has seen its membership level rise to record numbers, took the No. 14 position.

Mike Coppola/Getty Images for MTV

Q scores — a measurement of popularity — weren’t everything, however. Two of the 10 most influential Princetonians may not be known to the public at large, but they should be. MIT professor Eric Lander ’78 (No. 7) was a leader of the Human Genome Project, one of the greatest scientific breakthroughs of the 20th century, which is revolutionizing the treatment of disease. Founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard (a leading genetic-research center), and another MacArthur winner, Lander also chaired President Obama’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology. “The fruits of the Human Genome Project are going to have a tremendous impact on science and society,” observed Spergel in a follow-up interview. “But Lander has also been very influential in shaping national science policy. The current administration does not listen to people like him, and we will all be the poorer for it.”

Terence Tao *96 (No. 13) is just 42 years old (he began learning calculus when he was 7 and received his Princeton Ph.D. at 20), but he has been called the Mozart of Math and perhaps the world’s greatest living mathematician. Tao, a professor at UCLA, has won both the prestigious Fields Medal and the $3 million Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics. “His influence has been incredibly broad-based, from number theory to analytics,” said Spergel. “He is like a doctor who can do open heart surgery and brain surgery and fix your knee as well.” When he won the Fields Medal in 2006, Tao was asked about the value that theoretical mathematics gives to society, and he pointed to the future: “Mathematicians often work on pure problems that do not have any applications for 20 years, and then a physicist or computer scientist or engineer has a real-life problem that requires the solution of a mathematical problem, and finds that someone already solved it 20 years ago.” 

Another alum you may not know is William Fung ’70, the chairman of Hong Kong-based Li & Fung Limited, who took the 18th position on our list. His company is the world’s largest sourcing and logistics company for consumer goods, connecting stores, catalogs, and e-commerce sites with manufacturers around the globe, and thus influences not only what gets made but who makes it. (Fung is also the benefactor behind the Princeton-Fung Global Forum and the Fung Global Fellows Program, but the panelists didn’t mention that fact.) 

As the discussion continued, Dolan made it clear that she was uncomfortable with the idea of ranking people at all and proposed that the group simply name 25 influential alumni and call it a day. “I do think that there are inherent biases when you start ranking,” she said. “An anointing happens in this process, and that’s what I’m nervous about.” 

“People love rankings!” countered Dougherty. He’s known for his acumen publishing scholarly books, but having published a few best-sellers, he’s an expert on mainstream tastes, too. 

“I know they do,” Dolan maintained, “but we could suggest otherwise.” (See an essay by Dolan on this topic.

This discussion came to a head when the panel began to consider Princeton’s many alumni writers. PAW’s 2008 panel had some initial uncertainty as to whether writers really exert broad public influence. Ten years later, however, the panelists needed no convincing that writers play an important role in shaping society. Their question was slightly different: How does one measure a writer’s influence? Is it simply the number of books sold? Prizes won? Or something more ineffable?

Michael Lewis ’82 (No. 9) scores on all measures, which made him an easy choice. He is the author of many best sellers, including Liar’s Poker, Moneyball, The Blind Side, and The Big Short; his books often introduce the public to important current topics, such as the roots of the subprime mortgage crisis or the statistical revolution in baseball, in an engaging but informative way. Hollywood has made several of Lewis’ books into movies. 

“Any topic he handles shoots across the landscape,” Westfall observed. Gordin agreed: “Most of us only understand asset-backed securities because we have seen The Big Short.” 

Three other writers followed right behind Lewis. Jodi Picoult ’87 has written 23 novels — many covering difficult topics such as the death penalty, neonaticide, and dysfunctional families — the last nine of which have debuted at the top spot on The New York Times best-seller list. Jennifer Weiner ’91 also has written best-selling novels and emerged as a powerful voice of feminism. David E. Kelley ’79 created such hit TV shows as Picket Fences, Ally McBeal, Chicago Hope, and most recently Big Little Lies. (Despite the importance of television and film in American culture, Kelley was the only figure from TV or the movies to make the list.) Picoult, Weiner, and Kelley shared the No. 10 slot.

Still, are those three more influential than writer and professor John McPhee ’53, a 1999 Pulitzer Prize winner for Annals of the Former World and a four-time Pulitzer finalist? A longtime New Yorker contributor, McPhee has also shaped generations of students in the popular course he teaches on creative nonfiction, much of which he has summarized in a new book, Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process. Dolan tried to complicate McPhee’s case.

“Jodi Picoult has sold millions and millions of best-selling novels,” she reminded her fellow panelists. “If we were to rank McPhee ahead of her, we’re treading the line between an elite versus popular [conception of influence]. We can do that. I think we just have to admit to it.”

McPhee received serious consideration, but did not make the list. Our panel continued to walk the tightrope between those who write for popular and more specialized audiences. David Remnick ’81, editor of The New Yorker, was included (No. 16), followed by artist Jim Lee ’86, whose first installment of the X-Men series is the best-selling comic book of all time. Lee is now co-publisher of DC Comics.

Wendy Kopp ’89 (No. 15) was chosen a decade ago as one of the most influential Princetonians of all time for founding Teach for America, an organization that began as a senior-thesis project and has since placed more than 50,000 new college graduates as teachers in low-income neighborhoods. Our recent panel also selected Kopp, and for the same reason.

The 19th spot on our list was also shared, this time by two very different types of “builders.” Gordon Wu ’58, the chair of Hopewell Holdings Ltd. and a major Princeton donor (Wu Hall, among much else), has been a driving force behind some of the largest construction projects in Asia. Robert Venturi ’47 *50, one of the most celebrated architects of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, once captured his design aesthetic with the celebrated expression, “Less is a bore.” As Gordin put it, “The architecture of much of the world we live in, most of everything we see, is Venturi-inflected.” (Venturi designed Wu Hall and Princeton’s Schultz and Thomas laboratories.)

Perhaps our panel’s oddest pairing came next. Author and columnist George F. Will *68 shared the 21st slot with author, professor, and activist Cornel West *80. If you can think of anything else that connects them, please speak up. Though both are eloquent writers, they exist at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Will left the Republican Party in 2016 to protest its turn from Burkean conservatism toward Bannonite ethno-nationalism; West worked for fringe candidate Jill Stein and excoriated Barack Obama as a sellout. Ten years ago, our equally mischievous panel paired Rumsfeld and Ralph Nader ’55. 

Two alumni — and classmates — have built websites that are essential reading for political junkies. RealClearPolitics, co-founded by Tom Bevan ’91, is an aggregator of polls and news stories from around the internet; its polling average is also a widely cited measure of where current political races stand. Talking Points Memo, founded by Josh Marshall ’91, offers left-leaning analysis and commentary and receives more than 400,000 page views a day during peak election season. They shared the 23rd spot.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Completing its assignment, the panel settled on what might seem like a surprising choice for the 25th alum on the list: Jason Garrett ’89, head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, took the final position. He was deemed influential both because he coaches “America’s Team” and because of the role the Cowboys played in the national-anthem controversy last fall when the team chose to kneel. By the time you read this, though, that controversy may or may not have been resolved, Garrett may or may not be driving his team through the NFL playoffs (and may or may not even have a job), but such is the diciness of predicting influence.

Stepping back, what can we learn from all this? One thing that jumps out is that the people on our list span a very wide range of ages, from Venturi (92) to Tao (42). Not surprisingly, classes from the 1970s and ’80s predominate, filled as they are with men and women in the prime of the careers. If a class wanted to anoint itself the most influential (and you know one will), bragging rights must go to the Great Class of 1991, which commanded three spots on our list (Weiner, Bevan, and Marshall), while the classes of 1981, 1986, and 1987 had two apiece. 

Ten years ago, our list of Princeton’s all-time most influential alumni was dominated by dead white men — not surprising since that sort of influence can take a while to accrue and Princeton was an all-white, all-male institution until fairly recently. Our new list is more diverse, though the pace of change is slow. Nineteen of the current 25 are men; six are women. There are four Asians and Asian Americans, two Latinos, and two African Americans. One can only predict that the list will become even more diverse going forward.

What categories did our panel overlook? Start with politicians. None of Princeton’s many elected officials received much discussion, which surely says something about the dysfunctional state of contemporary politics. The panelists quickly passed over alumni serving as university presidents, whose impact is focused on the campuses they lead. Faculty members also were often overlooked; Spergel spoke up for his colleagues in academia by suggesting that faculty influence perhaps is both harder to measure and takes longer to manifest itself. It may take another generation until we can choose the most influential faculty members of today, he said. 

That might also be the fate of Princeton computer science professor Brian Kernighan *69, who contributed to the development of the Unix computer language in the 1970s and popularized the C language. Massey noted that the operating system in the Apple and Android devices everyone uses today relies on languages Kernighan helped to create. Ultimately, Kernighan didn’t quite make the cut, although his influence as a computer scientist, teacher, and writer may be very far-reaching. 

Finally, let’s be direct: This list also leans strongly toward the political left. Only Alito and Will would be considered conservatives; National Review columnist Ramesh Ponnuru ’95 and economist Gregory Mankiw ’80 also received consideration but were ultimately left off. Our panel was unconvinced that U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz ’92 warranted a spot among the most influential, citing the 2013 government shutdown as his greatest legislative achievement. Although Cruz initially set himself out as the Reaganite alternative in the 2016 presidential primaries, historian Kruse thought he missed a chance to stand on principle. “Had Cruz not capitulated to Trump, he would be the most influential person in the Republican Party right now,” Kruse suggested. “He had the chance to be the conscience of conservatism.”

Bezos, Kopp, and Venturi are the only alums who appear both on this list and the one published in 2008. That tells us something: Influence is ephemeral. Had we chosen as recently as April, Mueller probably would have been left off. Back then, he was “only” a retired FBI director. 

Along the same lines, our panel met before Trump nominated Jerome Powell ’75 to be the new chair of the Federal Reserve. If we chose again today, Powell likely would make the list. Had Trump instead selected John Taylor ’68, another reported finalist for the job, his name probably would have been included. As it was, the panelists didn’t discuss either one. 

Predicting who might be Princeton’s most influential alumni a decade from now is a fool’s errand. Predicting who’ll be on the list next month is almost as risky.

Mark F. Bernstein ’83 is PAW’s senior writer.


Who’s Who on the Cover

Cover illustration by Tim Bower

(1) Sonia Sotomayor ’76, (2) Robert Venturi ’47 *50, (3) Wendy Kopp ’89, (4) David Remnick ’81, (5) Robert Mueller ’66, (6) Eric Lander ’78, (7) William Fung ’70, (8) Tom Bevan ’91, (9) Jeff Bezos ’86, (10) Elena Kagan ’81, (11) George Will *68, (12) Cornel West *80, (13) Anthony Romero ’87, (14) Jason Garrett ’89, (15) Josh Marshall ’91, (16) Samuel Alito ’72, (17) Jodi Picoult ’87, (18) Gordon Wu ’58, (19) Michelle Obama ’85, (20) David E. Kelley ’79, (21) Terence Tao *96, (22) Jim Lee ’86, (23) Eric Schmidt ’76, (24) Michael Lewis ’82, (25) Jennifer Weiner ’91