Thomas Dunne
Tom Dunne
Photo: Sameer A. Khan h’21
After nearly 25 years at Princeton, Tom Dunne, deputy dean of undergraduate students, is leaving at the end of June to become Harvard’s dean of students. PAW asked Dunne to reflect upon his time at the University.

What is your favorite part of your role at Princeton?

Students will come in and say, “This is something I’m interested in,” so you learn through the students. I learned cryptocurrency through students, the slow food movement, and a lot of things like that. 

What project are you proudest of? 

I like the idea of having worked on traditions that now have momentum behind them and will be going on long after I’m gone. That’s always nice, to contribute to a historic and timeless place like Princeton. But I tremendously valued the work that we did with the undergraduate women’s leadership project [Editor’s note: Dunne served on the undergraduate women’s leadership steering committee established by former President Shirley M. Tilghman.] and around voting and Vote100. I think our hope is that these are establishing lifelong habits, and that’s been really very rewarding. 

It’s been said you have a students-first attitude, but you are part of the administration. How do you balance that?

I’ve always been so grateful of how welcoming and connected and engaged the alumni and students are here. It just feels like we’re collectively Princetonians that are working toward this common purpose in service of this idea in this place. There’s a bunch of staff that are as dedicated and believe in this place as much as any student or alum, and that carries a lot of conversations. 

What do you look forward to every year?

I love anytime the whole community comes together. I find the P-rade very moving — the march of the history of the place is something that resonates with me. The first time someone explained Step Sing to me, it sounded so corny. And I think like two songs in, I was just blown away that students conceptualized this and have been doing it for over 250 years. Those are moments where you look around and you think, “Gosh, there’s a timeless element in this place that really means something.” 

What is the craziest student request you’ve accommodated?

There are times when a student will talk about an idea and you think, “This has zero chance of actually happening,” but you can learn a lot from chasing those dreams, so we go along for the ride. 

One Class Day, we secured Jerry Seinfeld as a speaker, and we ended up doing a trick on campus where we announced Carrot Top as speaker. We played on this analogy of, “He’s famous for orange, we’re famous for orange.” (Laughs) It was ridiculous. There was just pandemonium — people tried to spark up petitions, and it was two hours of chaos. And then we sent out, “It’s not Carrot Top, it’s Jerry Seinfeld.” It was a huge hit

What’s the craziest student request you’ve denied?

When we’ve denied it, it probably involves state law. (Laughs) I’ve learned a lot of legislation about wild animals in New Jersey. 

I talked to Kanye West on the phone when a student, Alice Dymally [’05], who was the president of National Society of Black Engineers, wanted to do a social program to highlight that engineers also like to have fun. She’d identified West as a performer, and he wanted to be flown first class, and at that time, no one at the University flew first class; even the president did not fly first class. So, we denied the request, and I remember telling West, and there was like two seconds of silence, and then he said, “Well, you better get yourself a new president.” (Laughs)

What would you say has been the biggest challenge?

My biggest challenge is connecting the experiences that we have on campus to our responsibilities to the greater world outside campus, and that it’s in part because of location and how immersive the experience is, and how magical the campus is. It’s easy to get insular and inward-looking. I think that the orange bubble is a real thing. So, of late, I think one of the things that we’ve been trying to do, for example with Vote100, is to ask, “What is our responsibility to young college-age voters in New Jersey? How do we build partnerships with schools and put our energies into strengthening the system beyond the gates?” I think that’s certainly a challenge, but it’s also something that’s really important and rewarding. 

You’ve gotten married and raised a family here. What will you carry from Princeton with you when you leave?

I’m still in a place where it’s hard to imagine not being here. I think the first time I come back to campus and my prox doesn’t work will be very, very traumatic because I feel very, very comfortable and welcome here. It’s been so easy to stay connected to alumni — we shared a place and time together that matters to them, that matters to me. That’s how I’ll stay connected.

What’s your advice for your successor?

Make time for how amazing this place is. I never lost, still to this day, the wonder of — I cannot believe I get to spend time here. I think for anybody who shows up here — get out and walk and go to things and talk to people. Don’t miss the opportunity of all the resources here, especially by self-editing.

What do you hope for Princeton going forward?

I have faith that what makes this place so unique and exceptional is this deep lifelong affiliation and devotion, so, I still would want that to continue, even as we increase the campus size, the student body size. I hope that the alumni from this era are as deeply connected and committed to the institution and each other as they were in 1907 and 1947. 

Will you be back? 

Yeah, for sure. My kids are diehard Princeton fans. After we told my youngest daughter, [third-grader Maisy] we were moving, she asked, “We’ll still go to the bonfire, right?” And I was like, “Well, it’s a little awkward because that event is celebrating beating Harvard.” (Laughs) “I don’t know if we’ll go.” And she looked me dead in the eyes and she said, “Well, I’m going.” 

Interview conducted and condensed by Julie Bonette