Nassau Hall, photographed on Feb. 23, 2021.
Princeton University, Office of Communications, Denise Applewhite

It’s never too early to read to your child. As part of her bedtime routine, read her a book or two. Soon your baby will associate certain stories with falling asleep. — Sesame Street Parents’ Guide

In our last thrill-packed episode we revisited — albeit for apt comparison to the current national level of discourse — the Riot of 1963, a Princeton nadir firmly ensconced in the campus 20th Century Bottom 10 along with 14 consecutive football losses to Yale and the unveiling of New South.

The students’ outrage at the discipline leveled at some of the worst 1963 perps (including 11 one-year suspensions), and the ensuing burning in effigy of the president, somehow triggered an association with the current day, when students are welcomed back to campus in a highly congested locality during a highly dangerous pandemic — only upon signing a Social Contract which bears more than a passing behavioral resemblance to some of the old monasteries I love to visit tucked far into the German Alps. Note: The monasteries are now empty. [One of my favorite contractuals: “I will not move or modify furniture in common areas, lounges, or classrooms.”] Fascinatingly, there seems to be some student/inmate sympathy, which is I suppose a compliment to those in charge of trying to navigate such a dangerous situation, up to the point of a first-person tale of an incarcerated positive-tester forbearing their isolation and delivered brown-bag diet during quarantine.

There’s even a successful model for this, as we noted a while back, in the Spanish Flu pandemic of a century ago. The coincidence with World War I meant the military was running much of the logistical base of the campus, and if a student wandered into town for a couple hours, he would be grabbed, isolated, his clothing and whatever fumigated. When purified, he was released, and God help him if he again strayed from his garret and classrooms. However, the campus had no deaths from the pandemic whatsoever, while the town of 6,000 on the other side of Nassau Street had 32. Of course, there was no social contract for the student to sign, and no indication that anyone objected; however, we should remember that things in the military that go undocumented are never, ever good. Anyway, the University in the person of president Rev. Dr. John Grier Hibben 1880 *1893 had essentially signed with the Army for the students, in loco parentis

And so we arrive at the magic phrase, hereinafter “ILP.” A college community which is overwhelmingly residential, essentially creating its own 24/7 urban environment, must have some rules of the road (or off the road, as we shall see), so the community can operate with safety, clear expectations, and order. The coincidence of most of its denizens having just recently attained the age of majority leaves open the issue of who should define and adjudicate those rules of the road. For the better part (well, larger part) of two centuries at Princeton the answer to that was ILP, a doctrine which in the distant past had the same religious underpinnings as those of our absent friends the Bavarian monks under the wing of Mother Church, and which in a secular society evolved into the more literal vision of the college acting benevolently and wisely as an avatar of your own parents. You can see the severe limits of this concept by watching Homer on any random episode of The Simpsons

There are really two levels of ILP to discuss here, and while they both pertained for centuries, distinguishing them can be instructive today. It really began as a strategic legal structure in English common law going back all the way to Blackstone, coincident with Princeton’s move to Nassau Hall in 1756. The support of the courts for the hegemony of the deanery over the students continued unbroken in the U.S. until 1961, when the issue of due process under the 14th Amendment became the lever to overturn ILP in Dixon v. Alabama, notable not only for the brilliant constitutional argument but for the underlying issue: a Civil Rights sit-in in Montgomery, Alabama. The students afterward summarily dismissed by Alabama State were treated without due process and, at least in a public institution, the courts said that could not stand. By 1971, when the 26th Amendment moved the national age of majority to 18, court cases of students against colleges were argued on circumstantial bases, never to return to the arbitrary sweep of ILP.

But the other unavoidable level of the doctrine is tactical: Somebody has to make some rules. Getting blitzed at the Nass in 1770 was a no-no, so was tying a calf to the lectern in the Prayer Hall (daily chapel was required ILP); someone must differentiate between them. President Rev. Dr. John Witherspoon was happy to oblige, at least when not fomenting revolution down in Philly. After the Riot of 1807, though, the trustees decided to invoke the Golden Rule, i.e. those with the gold make the rules, and the result for the college was disastrous. They had every technical right, but eventually spent 15 years meddling with operations and inflaming the students, until by 1823 they had very few bodies left and needed a new president, who turned out to be the vacuous James Carnahan. By 1829, Rev. John Maclean Jr 1816 was ensconced as vice president and became the fatherly moral center of the place for 39 years, yielding the presidency to Rev. Dr. James McCosh only in 1868. He in turn took a very calm view of discipline, except for hazing (including the Riot of 1878), which he brutally pursued in conjunction with any whiff of fraternities. The eating clubs and dorms were a major result. On the healthcare front, his wife Isabella, a physician’s daughter, was as close to literal ILP as the college ever saw.

Meanwhile, the historic rules requiring chapel attendance continued on into the 1920s despite the gradual presence of more denominations among the undergrads, and then in 1927 it was joined at the head of the students’ discipline hate list by the Car Rule, instituted by president Hibben after five horrific student deaths in 1926 alone. The subsequent auto deaths of track star Stockwell Jadwin ’28 and ironically Hibben himself after his retirement in 1932, gave heft to the ban of virtually all cars from the campus or vicinity, and punishment was severe. That lingered (along with chapel) for 40 years, again bringing to mind the monastery, while insuring the solvency of the Dinky.

At that juncture in Princeton the demise of ILP as a legal doctrine joined forces with the Kelley Committee, a result in 1968 of petition by both the students and faculty, which was charged with no less than a complete review of University governance. And so it was that, at Princeton, a new superstructure, the Council of the Princeton University Community, and a new code of expectations titled “Rights, Rules, Responsibilities” became the linchpins of the post-ILP behavioral world, complete with due process. The fact they remain so 50 years later is both a tribute to those involved in their creation and revision, and also the sense of community that has traditionally been a hallmark of the campus, reflected for decades in areas as diverse as faculty recruitment, admissions procedures, Annual Giving, Reunions and the sale of really odd tchotchkes at the U-Store. These are the active, growing bones upon which the RRR world is based, in any objective sense more effective than a group of academics deciding the automobile is the devil’s tool, and somehow making it stick for 40 years.

Now, the loss of ILP and the rise of RRR doesn’t translate into a free-for-all. Eighty-eight students were arrested in May 1985 when an anti-apartheid demonstration at Nassau Hall became a blockade, which is a no-no; but under RRR they were only given warnings afterward. Then in January 1999 the last bizarro edition of the Nude Olympics generated plenty of ill will and a nice new section of RRR as the entire concept was, in any practical sense, outlawed. 

And now we have a new adventure in RRR, explicitly cited as the basis for the COVID Social Contract. This clearly is not just a paper-pushing exercise; 55 students have been disciplined for violating various clauses through late February, including eight sent home. [Although to be fair I doubt rearranging the furniture has yet risen to the level of corporal punishment.] Even an arch sing, as we now come to find out, is currently beyond the pale. The results have been stunning — an asymptomatic COVID test rate down around 0.04 percent (that’s 1/2500), a grand total of two people now in the isolation dorm — so it’s hard to argue. Meanwhile, there has been an avalanche of applications for those who wish to sign on for RRR as the class of 2025, so the ghostly fate of the Bavarian monks doesn’t seem to be ours in the near future. 

But it’s intriguing, in an idle moment, to consider again the days of ILP, and wonder if a bowl of Isabella McCosh’s Scotch broth might not have been a comfort beside the COVID brown bag.