Like the rest of the world, Princeton alumni seem to enjoy rankings. Admit it: Each year when U.S. News & World Report lists Princeton at the top of the heap of American colleges, there’s a twinge of self-satisfaction, despite official protestations that the list is completely subjective, its selection criteria suspect.
That brings us to the subject of this special issue of PAW, which, beginning on page 30, attempts to rank the 25 most influential alumni of all time. We acknowledge that the list is completely subjective, its selection criteria suspect. But we also hope that it serves to inform readers about the amazing accomplishments of some of the people who have passed through campus over the last 261 years, and sparks interesting discussions about what influence is and who has it.
The list was drawn up by a panel composed mainly of faculty members from different academic departments. One panelist was not on the faculty: journalist Todd Purdum ’82, selected for his broad knowledge of Princeton alumni, government, and history. We sought panelists with expertise in the sciences and humanities, a love of Princeton, a willingness to debate, and a sense of fun. In the end, the panel came to a consensus on 26 names — two alumni are tied in the final spot.
The panelists were told not to consider race, gender, or other demographic factors in their assignment, and as a result, their list is almost exclusively white and male — not surprising for an institution that had no women and few minority students for its first 200-plus years of existence. One panelist, religion professor Eddie Glaude Jr. *97, who is African-American, noted his discomfort with the Princeton reflected in the list, and explores it in an essay on page 56. (A second list — one writer’s view of the alumni who have most influenced Princeton itself, on page 48 — has the same lack of balance, for the same reason.)
We are grateful for the participation of the panelists and for the fine writers and artists who helped tell the stories of some of these influential alumni. Writing for the first time in PAW, George Will *68, the nationally known columnist and television personality, offers a tribute to the panel’s top pick, James Madison 1771. Evan Thomas, Newsweek’s editor at large and Princeton’s first Ferris Professor of Journalism in Residence, writes movingly about his grandfather, six-time Socialist presidential candidate Norman Thomas 1905. Purdum, national editor at Vanity Fair, contributes the story of Jeffrey Moss ’63, who changed American childhood — a tale that is both sweet and sad, for Moss died when he was only 56. Other writers and artists whose work appears in these pages may be less known, but are no less appreciated.