In the final installment of our Goin’ Backstory podcast, Gregg Lange ’70 and Brett Tomlinson discuss the 2016-17 academic year at Princeton and the news stories that future historians may revisit.

Students rallied for immigrant rights two weeks after the presidential election.
Mary Hui ’17


Brett Tomlinson: I’m Brett Tomlinson, the digital editor of The Princeton Alumni Weekly.

Gregg Lange: And I am Gregg Lange of the great class of 1970 who really should know better.

BT:  And welcome to the 10th and final episode of “Going Backstory.” I’m going to pull back the curtain a bit as we wrap up this podcast series on Princeton history. Gregg and I record remotely by Skype so when you here the occasional awkward pause or when we talk over each other that unfortunately comes with the territory. But I think over the last year we’ve navigated that relatively well and it’s been a lot of fun talking Princeton history with you. Today we’re going to try something a little bit different. Instead of talking about the past, we’re going to talk about — sort of about the future and the present —specifically we’re going to look at the current or the you know, recently ended academic year at Princeton, 2016-17 and try to predict which new stories will be things that people remember years from now. And Gregg, we both love sports. I know you have one teed up right away on the sports front that you think will be a historic milestone on the hardwood.

GL:  Well I sort of wanted to short circuit people calling in and telling us we were completely out of our minds by not including the Ivy basketball playoffs so we’ll include the Ivy basketball playoffs. The first ones, which were both extremely successful I think on the women’s side where, by complete happenstance they came down to being played on the court of the league’s championship team, The Penn Quakers, who also won the tournament in a good game with the Princeton Tigers who were then running out of steam having really stretched their talent to the breaking point almost over the entire last third of the season and made it in to the tournament on fumes and played very well but were not as good as Penn.

Where meanwhile on the men’s side, since the tournament had been predesignated at The Palestra became almost a complete disaster as a really mediocre six and eight Penn team had barely gotten into the tournament by finishing fourth on the last weekend of the year, almost upset Princeton in the first round. The Tigers won in overtime and then went on to beat Yale. Pointing up strengths and weaknesses of doing this on a lot of different levels almost instantaneously.

There were all kinds of mediocre arguments on both sides as to whether or not to have the tournament in the first place. The main reason to have one was that every other league had one, which of course as any Ivy League philosophy 101 student knows is a terrible reason to do anything. And we persevered through the first year. Obviously the location in a predetermined site of a league team, in this case Penn, was a terrible idea. A predetermined location is not a bad idea. Having it at the home court of the league champion, one for the men and one for the women, is not a bad idea. But somehow trying to combine them is a fiasco. And I think in sort of a weird attempt to justify their mediocre decision after the fact, the powers that be decided to repeat it next year, which I think is going to cause a fair amount of consternation elsewhere, but we’ll let that go.

The Ivy tournament will obviously continue long after Brett and I are gone. That may be good and that may be bad. It’s certainly something the kids can plan for. It’s something the coaches can coach toward. The idea was to get more than one Ivy team into the NCAAs. Which — it’s not going to accomplish that except in extremely rare instances. In other cases, as it would have this year if Penn had one the Ivy tournament, instead of Princeton’s — 13 seed or 12 seed Brett?

BT: I believe they were 12.

GL: Twelve this year. Instead of Princeton’s 12 seed, Penn would have gotten a 16 seed and would have been lucky to get that. And Princeton would have not made the tournament because they were seeded lower than any of the at large picks. So you learn lessons from these things obviously you learn slowly, but that’s my kick off as it were.  

BT: Well I don’t know I don’t think that is changing. I think you’ve come to that realization, too. But yeah certainly Princeton fans had a lot of reasonable gripes about the way that worked out.

The sports item that I wanted to mention was just how remarkable this senior class was, especially on the women’s side. Partly because of several athletes who took a year off to compete in the Olympics. Ashleigh Johnson was the women’s water polo goalie — was rightfully the Athlete of the Year but she — to win that award she beat out two All American lacrosse players; the captain of a Final Four field hockey team; an NCAA champion fencer; another fencer who had been an Olympian and an NCAA runner-up; women’s soccer’s all-time leading scorer; two-time Ivy Player of The Year from the volleyball team; a first-team All American in ice hockey and of course a former NCAA hammer throw champion. So wow. I mean what a class. It’s going to be a long —

GL: And field — and lacrosse, too.

BT: Yes, I mean —

GL: It just goes on and on and on.

BT: It’s going to be a long time before we see another class like the Class of 2017 in Princeton athletics in general and particularly on the women’s side.

Moving on from that, I mean I think one of the obvious national stories is the presidential election and the aftermath of that. Princeton students were very active. There was kind of a surge in student activism after the election. Students speaking out on immigration, participating in the Women’s March and the March for Science. The students held a Day of Action on campus, which included teach-ins and writing letters to Members of Congress. And President Eisgruber also issued statements regarding Princeton’s view as an institution on immigration policy. So this is not a single event or a single story but kind of a trend. And of course Princeton was not unique in its activism, but I do think it will be seen in the future as a notable point on the timeline of campus activism at Princeton. I think particularly those few months immediately following the election.

GL: And of course, I’m a child of the ‘60s, which if you count backwards from 70 you can figure out. And I mean I’ve seen activism of all weird sorts over the years, have written about it a few times in Rally ‘Round the Cannon. And I must say that there’s been a lot of positive aspects to a lot of the things that have been done. In my old personal tradition, I wouldn’t have minded more in some areas and maybe even less in other areas, but you can’t be too picky. [09:00] But the main thing is to get people into the ideas of keeping these things at the top of their minds and not taking them for granted. Whether it has to do with fine tuning Princeton’s motto. Which — the new version of which Brett can now recite accurately which —

BT: “In the Nation’s Service and the Service of Humanity.” And it is literally set in stone in front of Nassau Hall. That was another thing that happened this year in October.

GL: The phraseology is courtesy of our good friend, Justice Sonia Sotomayor. And the idea that those imperatives have to apply on a continuing and conscious basis is always a really good thing to keep in mind especially as students are wending their way through all kinds of personal issues and individual academic challenges and everything else that goes on, as either an undergraduate or a grad student. I mean this extends all the way up to the renaming issues that came up first as a result of the Black Justice League sit-ins a year ago but have continued on through this year, with naming committees both working with the CPUC and with the trustees. The renaming of West College in honor of Toni Morrison. The renaming of the Dodds Auditorium in Robertson Hall for Arthur Lewis. And if I might say so, the fact that nothing major had been named on campus for Arthur Lewis until now is just absolutely appalling.

While Dodds name was very appropriately carried to the atrium of the Wilson School building, Dodds was the first head of the Wilson School, the School of Public and International Affairs. He did a gigantic amount of work in the ‘30s to get that up and running. But far above the issue of reconsidering naming those particular things and bringing in Arthur Lewis and Toni Morrison — two great and legendary Princetonians — into the symbolic mix is the idea that those kinds of naming decisions really are going to have a much more strategic direction from here on in. There are committees now that will consider those things. I’ve written about when you approach donors to build new facilities or do new stuff, it’s not a bad idea if you have a few appropriate names that might be used for them to throw those out. There’s nothing that says a donor has got to name a building after himself. And most of these people are self-confident enough that they don't necessarily have to. I think that’s a very good thing to keep in mind and heretofore has not been looked at nearly enough at Princeton.

BT: And as you mentioned, you know, when we were speaking before the podcast that there are all sorts of committees for all sorts of things including things like honorary degrees, and having a standing committee for the naming of buildings sounds like a great idea to continue. It’s a wonder —

GL: Well in retrospect, you look back and you say well why didn’t we have one? We have one now. And the answer is, well, nobody brought it up.

BT: Right. Another sort of almost-news item I think from this year, it’s not quite there yet, but the gathering momentum for changes to the academic calendar, which could move Princeton’s fall semester exams to December, so stay tuned on that one. But the university is always changing in terms of academic emphasis and the sorts of buildings that follow when these types of things happen. And that I think is apparent in the planning for changes to the engineering school and also to environmental sciences. That seems to be a big item on the horizon recently featured in PAW.

GL:  Well and you saw the — thanks to our good friends in the graphics department — you saw the footprint, which is gigantic, down along faculty road of the prospective area of new engineering and environmental facilities. The inclusion of environmental stuff in there is fascinating because of course, the new Andlinger Center just opened essentially a couple years ago. And I think the implication is it’s busting at the seams right now.

What I want to take away from that is the global nature of it and the fact that, especially on the environmental side but all of the engineering stuff involved in it, that again we’re looking very, very outward and very, very far in emphasizing that along with a new undergraduate college. And I think it ties in directly with Chris Eisgruber’s statements on immigration, on undocumented students and in the huge contribution that international students and faculty have made to Princeton. I wrote on both of those over this year as a matter of fact, and I think those have just become more pressing and more current.

The engineering and environmental imperative certainly emphasizes that. And I think the other thing it obviously emphasizes is one huge capital campaign here probably sooner rather than later because facilities of that type generally aren’t inexpensive and in terms of massive projects like that are stuff that they have to enlist Brett to help out with.

BT: Hardly. Well I think we’ve covered some of the major stories that we wanted to highlight. I would just mention one more of my favorites F. Duncan Haldane was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics early in the morning of October 4 — well he was notified that he was one of the recipients of the Nobel Prize and then of course went to work and taught his 11:30 graduate seminar before heading off to a press conference. So that’s you know we get that type of news every few years. Princeton is very fortunate to have such amazing faculty, but you never want to take those stories for granted. It’s really remarkable when you hear about the extraordinary contributions that the faculty are making and being recognized for, so —

GL: It’s also quite notable when you see that and when you watch those conferences for some reason the Princeton folks are always quite verbal, certainly very much with us and extremely well integrated into the community. I like to think that some of the stereotypes — especially the mad scientist stereotypes — are sort of short circuited by some of the Princeton folks because Haldane and a number of the recent Princeton Nobel winners have been just downright nice folks and do great jobs with their undergraduate and graduate students and are big contributors to the community. Angus Deaton is another great example of that. Kahneman. You go on and on and on, not to mention of course again the magnificent Toni Morrison. So it’s always great to see. Brett’s absolutely right. You never want to take these things for granted.

BT: Well there will I’m sure be lots of interesting stories in the year to come. Gregg, I want to wish you a very happy summer break. Enjoy it.

GL: And the same on your’s big guy.

BT:  And Gregg’s column, “Rally ‘Round the Cannon” of course continues online and will continue in the coming year. We’re going to take some time off from “Going Backstory.” We will be back with some, hopefully some history specials in the coming year. We’ll also continue the PAW Tracks oral history that we recorded a new batch of those interviews at reunions. And we’ll be doing some more podcast Q&A’s online with the authors, featuring our books editor Carrie Compton and some hopefully faculty as well speaking about their work. So stay tuned for all of that great stuff. You can find information about it on the PAW website and in the pages of PAW.

GL: Make sure you use that SPF 50.

BT: Good advice.