Alumni celebrated as heartily as ever at Princeton’s annual Reunions festivities May 31–June 2. But this year, the troubles of the real world seemed to poke through Princeton’s orange and black bubble.
A student protest in May, relating to Princeton’s handling of sexual-misconduct cases under Title IX, filtered into the alumni ranks as P-rade marchers added purple touches to their Reunions costumes to demonstrate solidarity with sexual-assault survivors and push for changes in Princeton’s policies. Other alumni wrote postcards addressed to their government representatives in support of grad student Xiyue Wang, imprisoned in Iran since early 2017 on espionage charges while he was researching his dissertation — charges the University, the United Nations, and others say are false. Classmates of journalist Maria Ressa ’86, who is under attack by the government of Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte because of reporting by her media outlet, distributed square pins with her image.
About 25,000 alumni and guests returned to campus for the weekend, according to the University. A severe thunderstorm — one of several during the week — deluged the campus Thursday evening. But unlike last year, when a storm cut the P-rade short, Friday and Saturday were sunny and warm.
In the class tents, reuners danced and dined to music of their generations. On Saturday, shortly before the P-rade began, alumni and graduate students in the APGA tent practiced the locomotive cheer, which they employed enthusiastically once the P-rade began.
This year’s grand marshal was Heather Butts ’94, the first African American alum in that post. “I’ve never walked [the P-rade] as a class member,” said Butts, who has served as a marshal for 20 years. This year, she and about 100 other marshals kept the P-rade on track.
Joe Schein ’37 led the Old Guard and the P-rade. As the oldest returning alum in the oldest class represented, Schein, 104, received the silver-topped Class of 1923 cane for the fourth consecutive year. Once again, he walked the entire route.
As usual, P-rade marchers danced down the route accompanied by rousing music. A group of Mummers from the Aqua String Band led the Class of ’74, while the Lesbian & Gay Big Apple Corps heralded the entrance of ’79. In line with its theme of “Party Like It’s 1999,” the Class of ’99 was accompanied by performers including Aaron Cezar ’99 as Prince. But perhaps the finest musical performance of the weekend was the annual lawn concert by the Princeton University Orchestra, just before the fireworks Saturday night at Finney and Campbell fields.
Some P-rade marchers received especially loud applause and locomotives, including the Old Guard members who left their golf carts to walk; unicyclists Jay Lehr ’57 and Steven Gubser ’94 *98 and daughter Lillian; and Jim Isenberg ’73, a mathematics professor at the University of Oregon who — though paralyzed below the neck in an accident in December 2017 — led his class down the route in a wheelchair. As usual, ’73 classmates carried the “Coeducation Begins” banner, which drew strong cheers in this 50th anniversary year of undergraduate coeducation.
“For so many people, they think of their college experience contained within four years,” said Heather Thomas ’94, co-chair of her 25th reunion. “But the Princeton experience, I think many would say, has just continued — it’s a lifelong club that you’re a part of.”
This year’s lectures and panel discussions covered events relevant to alums’ personal lives and to issues dominating the national news, including “fake news,” health care, trade, cybersecurity, and criminal justice. Speaking on a panel called “Storytellers: Books and Music that Changed Your Life,” Pedro Hernandez ’99, a stand-up comedian, noted that he “had to redefine my parameters of success, especially in this community.” The other artists on the panel agreed. At a Friday-morning panel on veterans at Princeton, student vets offered suggestions on how to better integrate vets into the campus community, including more day-care options for their children. “I was brought here for my life experiences,” said Tyler Eddy’21, “so I want to share them as much as I can.”
National issues — particularly the #MeToo movement — played an especially large role, both at Reunions and at Commencement. As a Saturday-morning discussion on the #MeToo movement got underway, panelist Kellen Heniford ’14, a Ph.D. student at Columbia University, read a statement disagreeing with the inclusion on the panel of Beth Wilkinson ’84, an attorney representing Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, both of whom have been accused of sexual misconduct. “I was looking forward to having a positive conversation with other alums about the mass awakening our society seems to be undergoing in response to the #MeToo movement,” Heniford began. But she said Wilkinson’s presence on the panel changed “the tenor of the discussion,” and she did not “feel comfortable opening up about my experiences with sexual violence in this context, in this discussion, with these participants.”
Heniford noted that Wilkinson “had every right to speak on a panel to which she is invited.” She continued: “I am exercising that same right to free speech now, as I tell you why I object to being put in this position and why I think this panel is another example of how Princeton abdicates its responsibility to survivors.” When she finished speaking, she and dozens of alumni and students walked out of the panel, which continued with Wilkinson and panelist Rachael Wong ’94, founder of One Shared Future, a nonprofit. In 2017, Wong filed a landmark sexual-harassment complaint against a Hawaii state legislator, who later resigned as other women came forward.
Wilkinson said she understood Heniford’s feelings. “I, of course, respect her views and her determination, her desire to leave,” she said. “I am used to controversial issues and representing controversial people, and that comes with the territory for me.”
Alumni reaction to the panel and the walkout was mixed, with some applauding Heniford and others wishing she had remained for discussion and debate. Some did both: “I loved the fact that [Heniford] pushed outside the normal bounds of a Princeton conversation where we’re all very civil,” said Hilary Beard ’84. “She pushed, and I really appreciated her courage in doing that. And I would have loved to ask her some questions.”
A few hours later at the P-rade, many marchers were wearing purple buttons, scarves, or other items of clothing in support of sexual-assault survivors and students who had mounted a nine-day protest in May to change Princeton’s handling of misconduct claims under Title IX (see On The Campus, June 5). Organizers said on Twitter that they had distributed 3,000 buttons.
Near the end of the P-rade, more than two dozen Title IX protesters, mostly graduating seniors, walked with the Class of 2019, bearing signs and banners relating to sexual misconduct and chanting “Fix Title IX!” Some students stopped in front of the reviewing stand where President Eisgruber ’83 and other officials were watching and remained for at least five minutes. Several student protesters received disciplinary warning slips during the P-rade. Following Commencement, one student said his diploma had been withheld pending a disciplinary hearing. Asked how many slips were distributed, a University spokesman responded: “We don’t comment on student disciplinary matters.”