Improving Princeton’s postgraduate fellowship advising

We are saddened to hear about the departure of Dean Frank Ordiway ’81 *90 and his assistant Traci Miller, who faithfully directed Princeton’s postgraduate fellowship program for many years. As recent Princeton Rhodes scholars, we found their help indispensable, and we wish them the best for the future.

With their departure, however, the University loses a longstanding institutional apparatus for fellowship advising. Dean Nancy Malkiel has pledged not to scale back the resources Princeton commits to postgraduate fellowships, which is welcome news. But Dean Ordiway’s departure provides an opportunity to reflect on what Princeton has been doing right and how it might improve the process in the future.  

Princeton often is said to perform poorly in the competition for American Rhodes scholarships, especially in comparison with peer institutions like Harvard. Witness 2005, 2007, and 2009, in each of which Harvard had five or six winners and Princeton one or none. The disparity is striking, yet it’s worth remembering that Princeton recorded relatively large numbers of Rhodes scholars each of the past two years (three apiece) and has a smaller student body. Moreover, other peer institutions (including Harvard) have “off years” of their own: Harvard had no American Rhodes scholars in 2006, and Columbia, Cornell, and Penn consistently register much, much lower numbers than Princeton.  

Assessing the quality of fellowship advising based strictly on the number of Rhodes victories is at some level a fruitless task. The Rhodes is ultimately a one-horse race, with many factors beyond even the applicant’s control. When you put numerous finalists in the interview round (as Princeton does each year), whether they win says little about the quality of Princeton’s preparation. It says more about the strength of individual essays, the tastes of the committee members, and the pressing issues outside the interview room that make a given application seem especially relevant. Moreover, there is no formula for winning a Rhodes. So the question is not “What is Princeton doing wrong?” but “What is Harvard doing exceptionally well?”

It strikes us that Rhodes winners are increasingly specialized. Their studies and extracurricular commitments are shaped by what they regard as the pressing problems of the day (“fighting the world’s fight,” in Cecil Rhodes’ words – from tackling food policy to working on education reform, counterinsurgency, or malaria). Getting a 21-year-old to that point of specialization in time for a Rhodes interview requires some forethought on the part of the student and a longer-term support structure.

Princeton’s advising system does a great job of shepherding students through the application process starting at the end of junior year. But if it hopes to improve students’ chances, Princeton may need to consider cultivating applicants at a much earlier stage with the help of an even larger fellowship apparatus.  

Many Rhodes scholars we know from other universities had the support of large, well-organized fellowship programs – offices staffed with multiple employees who worked with underclassmen who might make good candidates. In comparison, Princeton’s advising relies on a single dean and administrative assistant, who are responsible for many other University programs, and two faculty volunteers. Other schools have unofficial “feeder” programs to the Rhodes, such as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s prestigious Morehead Scholarship, whose selection criteria draw directly on Cecil Rhodes’ will, and which has cranked out almost the same number of Rhodes scholars as Princeton during the past five years.  

In difficult economic times, it may be hard to justify increasing resources for postgraduate fellowships, especially considering the relatively small pool of students interested in them and the even smaller number who ultimately succeed. More importantly, the quality of Princeton as a university and the accomplishments of its student body do not hinge on the Rhodes. We can measure our success as a community and as individuals in better, more meaningful ways.  

But a good fellowships process does have benefits: It helps students to take stock of their gifts and opportunities, to assess and expand their dreams, and – with some luck – to fulfill some of those dreams through formative studies abroad. We, at least, are grateful to Dean Ordiway, Traci Miller, Professor Joshua Katz, and others, without whom we could not have done just that. As Princeton considers reorganizing its postgraduate fellowship advising, we hope the University allocates the same, if not better, resources to helping future students realize opportunities that we have been fortunate to enjoy. It can begin by identifying and assisting its applicants earlier and pledging more resources to helping them succeed.  

Christian Sahner ’07 GS, a Rhodes scholar from New Jersey, is pursuing a doctorate in history at Princeton. Sherif Girgis ’08, a Rhodes scholar from Delaware, is pursuing a master’s in philosophy at Merton College, Oxford.