Tra-la, it’s May, the lusty month of May
That lovely month when everyone goes blissfully astray.
Tra-la, it’s here, that shocking time of year
When tons of wicked little thoughts merrily appear.
— Queen Guinevere, Camelot, 1960
At Reunions 2008 (a 15-year flashback that somehow seems three lifetimes ago) there was an intriguing Alumni-Faculty Forum probing the possible existence of an honor system in the world of sports. But the best-attended forum that year was an information-packed session on health care reform, understandable since it was led by a global authority, Professor Uwe Reinhardt, whose insight on the topic is worth a year’s tuition on its own. Of course, in retrospect the Great Recession had begun six months or so earlier, so maybe…
The following year there were four forums on the recession and the Wall Street meltdown, plus a highly pointed PAW special session regarding where the press may have been while all this happened: “Money, Greed, and the Economy: Views from the Fourth Estate,” with George Will *68 and a stellar supporting cast. Provisional conclusion: The Alumni-Faculty Forums may not be on the bleeding edge of the news cycle, but eventually they’ll find you and give you a good going-over.
Organizing the forums isn’t simple, owing mostly to the superstructure of Reunions, which are primarily run at the class level. There is a clearinghouse group at the Committee on Reunions which acts as something of a traffic cop and coordinates with the faculty to provide academic expertise to each panel, but the topics themselves and the availability of alumni experts — frequently national authorities and often better known than the professors — is essentially a function of the combined forum chairs of each major reunion making informed egalitarian group decisions of the same sort as every egalitarian volunteer committee of over a dozen people you’ve ever been on. (Pause for effect.) Their budget is, for all practical matters, nonexistent. What the success of the entire project comes down to, in the end, is 1) the willingness of a huge range of knowledgeable volunteer experts to carve out time to attend their own major reunions (for which they fortunately seem just as rabid as most alums, if not more), and 2) any possible reticence to put themselves forward as authorities to an eclectic crowd of revelers, which certainly seems to be zero.
As a time-honored and weighty element of the Reunions schedule (last year there were 14 forums, rebounding quickly from the COVID layoff) , the forums could be assumed to have been there forever, but of course few things have been. You, the Ardent Historian, know well that Princeton’s initial push toward modern intellectual activity began the day after Woodrow Wilson 1879 was inaugurated president in 1902. There followed academic departments, the legitimization of the Graduate School and, critically, the invasion of the preceptors and their new mode of instruction in 1905. You also know that — given the Wilson/West slugfest of 1910 and then World War I — it took until the mid-1920s before undergrads could be put on the Four Course Plan and theses required in most departments. Long a wish of Wilson’s supporters, the School for Public and International Affairs (SPIA) finally took shape in 1930 (despite the incipient Depression), and its guiding light, professor Harold Willis Dodds *1914, was named the new president of the University in 1933.
At that juncture, alumni had been congregating in Princeton around Commencement time for at least a century, with precious few intellectual cares to spoil their reverie between the toasts at the Nass, or wherever in town their respective classes had assembled a bar. There is plenty of credit/blame to go around for the intrusion of the first faculty forums: SPIA, which organized them, the Graduate Council (now Alumni Council), which shaped and publicized them in conjunction with Reunions, or intriguingly the readers of Your Favorite Periodical (mainly by then the products of Wilson’s academic program) who wrote the editor suggesting such sessions, to give the alums some ammunition for understanding the economic cataclysm all around them. So at Reunions 1933, SPIA ran four lectures on the general topic of “Governmental Measures for the Revival of Business” by senior professors in history, economics, and politics, and attendance and questions from the audience were heavy (to be pointedly repeated in 2009). In one form or another, the Forums have been around ever since.
Even World War II didn’t blunt the now-traditional sessions, with the Class of 1926 arranging one at the 1946 Victory Reunion with physics chair Henry DeWolf Smyth 1918 *1921 on his bestseller Atomic Energy for Military Purposes: A General Account of Its Development under the Auspices of the United States Government, 1940-1945. By 1948, they returned experimentally at Alumni Day with a session on the American post-war involvement in the Near East, and another at Reunions on America’s Recovery Program for Europe, i.e. the Marshall Plan. As the post-war evolved into the Cold War, the huge proportion of alums, students, and faculty having military and government experience kept interest high, and by 1952, the 25th and 20th reunions sponsored six hugely popular sessions on everything from atomic energy to lifelong learning. That led the Graduate Council to execute a large upgrade to the whole program: In 1953 there were a record seven forums, and for the first time some panels included alumni experts, from Michigan Gov. G. Mennan Williams ’33 to head of the Alumni Schools Committee Macpherson Raymond ’40. Two years later, the Graduate Council had taken on the coordination of the whole megillah, helpful if only for aligning time slots and space requirements, as the number of multi-class panels hit 10, which has pretty much been the minimum ever since. As the Service of Remembrance and alumni awards moved to crowd the Alumni Day agenda, the Forums’ sinecure at Reunions became impregnable. The single earthshaking change since occurred in 1985, when the 50-year-old Faculty-Alumni Forums were relabeled by fiat the Alumni-Faculty Forums, the sort of opaque occurrence that can only be debated and take place in academia, much less be recalled and requestioned 40 years later, which it is.
Major reunion classes and academic groups still organize separate topical sessions of their own — notably, almost always with the same panel/Q&A format — on favorite subjects from time to time, but it’s the major set of multi-class seminars arranged by the Alumni Council which gets the prime real estate, and often an extraordinarily showy guest list, not to mention the world-ranked faculty which often presides. The number peaked prior to COVID at a couple dozen or so, arranged in five timeslots on Friday and Saturday. Last year, coming off what the entire community regarded as a catastrophic two-year absence of Reunions, the Forum program was back again to 14 sessions, on everything from “Lessons Learned from COVID” to “Civil Rights in America” to “The Future of Food.” Five years ago, there were 24 forums; you can lay odds (with that generous dude who gave you the Tigers and eight points against Missouri in the NCAAs) the number will start to sneak up again before too long, despite the logistics for every session being a challenge with 25,000 people milling about.
I’ve never heard anyone say they come to Reunions primarily for the Alumni-Faculty Forums (or would if they were still called the Faculty-Alumni Forums, for that matter). Conversely, there are many who gladly come for the P-rade each year and then wander off more or less immediately — the less may involve a beer or two, of course. But calling the forums persistent, as you see from the saga above, is a huge understatement, and the hundreds of people who flock into virtually every one of them would never say they were attending just to kill time; there are far too many better ways to just kill time at Reunions (see: beer or two, redux). So what, then, do we make of this peculiar exercise in continuing education? Do the Alumni-Faculty Forums educate, or simply provide a nice ego boost for the capable panelists and for the listeners who get to glimpse great thoughts without having to defend them, remember them, or be tested on them? I suppose the nice thing about Reunions is there are 25,000 slightly different answers to that, each equally valid. I’ll drink to that.