To the Editor:
I write regarding a modification to my article, “Where Rich Students Are Told: ‘You Deserve This’” (The Chronicle Review, March 1) — adapted from my book, Poison Ivy: How Elite Colleges Divide Us. I relate this exchange for the insight I believe it offers into the significant barriers to change at so-called “elite” universities.
My piece concerns the ways that “elite” colleges contribute to the myth that they — and the nation — operate meritocratically by sending the message that the overwhelmingly wealthy students they admit deserve their status. The article is framed around a provocative piece by a Princeton student — which received a fair amount of attention in 2014 — in which he declared that he would never apologize for his privilege. The student’s views didn’t come out of nowhere, I contended, but rather had been cultivated by the university from the start. In support, I cited a speech which president Christopher L. Eisgruber had delivered at the freshman convocation the preceding fall. Typical of this sort of address, I argued, Eisgruber’s speech allayed any reservations the students may have had about the fairness of the mechanisms that had brought them to the university chapel that day — “All of you have been blessed with exceptional talents,” Eisgruber said. More importantly given the extensive research on the stickiness of meritocratic beliefs, he failed to begin the difficult work of encouraging these winners to understand the mechanisms that had dramatically enhanced their prospects of success. I wrote in part:
No one said anything that day about the importance of public service or the students’ good fortune in being born into wealthy families. No one was summoned to the pulpit for holding down a full-time job while going to college, or for getting good grades while studying in their bathroom. No, they were instead honored for their prodigious talents and accomplishments. The message could hardly have been clearer: You deserve this.
I’ve written in my book and elsewhere about the apparent paradox of liberal college professors and administrators defending the inequitable institutions to which they belong, so I wasn’t entirely surprised when Princeton’s leadership fell prey to the psychological tendency to justify the system to which one belongs. True to form, Princeton did not respond with an invitation to debate or open dialogue. Rather, Princeton demanded a correction.
Princeton took great exception to my claim that “no one said anything that day about the importance of public service.” “It is simply not true,” Princeton’s director of media relations emailed The Chronicle. “I ask that you correct this error and include a note about the corrections so readers are aware,” he continued. “This inaccurate statement casts in a false light both President Eisgruber and the University, whose informal motto is ‘In the Nation’s Service and the Service of Humanity.’” Princeton’s media-relations director placed weight on a series of references that Eisgruber had made to a book, The Honor Code, by Anthony Appiah, which the first years had been assigned to read and which I quote here in its entirety:
I am hoping, above all, that you will remember the question that motivates Professor Appiah’s book — the question of what it means to live a successful human life. Professor Appiah believes, as do I, that living well has at least two parts to it: living a life that makes you happy, and living a life that is of service to others. There is an oft-quoted expression, attributed to both the charismatic congresswoman Shirley Chisholm and the renowned activist Marian Wright Edelman, that “service is the rent we pay for living in this world.” I admire this sentiment — namely, that service will be part of any life well-lived — but I worry that the formulation is misleading. Describing “service” as “rent” makes it seem like a price that we pay for our happiness. You can do whatever makes you feel good, in other words, so long as you pay for it by donating time to others. I suspect that is not what either Chisholm or Edelman meant. They undoubtedly recognized that service, far from being a price that we pay for happiness, is the precondition for it. To find an activity truly fulfilling, you must both take pleasure in it and feel a strong sense of connection between it and a larger purpose for your life.
In the discussion that ensued over Princeton’s complaint, I told The Chronicle that I’d chosen my words carefully. I hadn’t said that no one had mentioned public service. Rather, I said that no one had mentioned the importance of public service. In its totality, I argued, Eisgruber’s speech undermined the significance of public service as a career. Indeed, in the very next paragraph of his speech — which Princeton’s media director omitted from his email — Eisgruber said:
You can achieve that connection in a wide variety of ways. Nearly any honest vocation will enable you to make a contribution to the world if you do it right. What matters is not so much which career you have but how you do it, and how you do it matters a lot.
Eisgruber told the students that the person seated in front of them on that day “may end up being a pathbreaking scientist, a celebrated writer, a dedicated public servant or an influential business leader” — seemingly agnostic on the relative value of those careers. Given this context, how could his speech be seen as signaling the importance of public service? If one says that A is important and valuable, but many other things are also important and valuable, how can they be said to have underscored the importance of A?
Indeed, the thrust of the speech — titled “Princeton’s Honor World” — was about Princeton’s honor code. This, Eisgruber said, was the main point of Appiah’s book. (“Professor Appiah’s more specific concern is, of course, with honor.”) In my view, the speech could not be read in whole or in part as a call to public service. You can read the entire text here. I’ll leave it to the readers to decide whether my characterization is fair.
I vehemently reject the claim that my characterization of this speech cast Princeton in a “false light.” Princeton has taken care of this itself. In The Daily Princetonian’s 2022 senior class career survey, just 7.1 percent of respondents said they planned on entering non-profit or public service. An additional 2.6 percent said they planned to enter education. By contrast, a combined 18.8 percent said they planned to enter consulting or finance. Needless to say, Princeton offered no evidence to combat my claim that the students at the convocation were the wealthy and the wealthiest rather than the best and the brightest. As research by the economists Raj Chetty and John Friedman shows, more class of 2013 Princeton students came from the top .1 percent of the income distribution than the bottom 20 percent.
No one said anything that day about the students’ good fortune in being born into wealthy families. Moreover, the oblique references to public service in President Eisgruber’s speech, given the abundant research on the difficulty of challenging beliefs about personal merit, sent the subtle message that public service had no particular significance and, more significantly, soothed any existential angst the students may have had about whether they belonged at an institution whose official motto invokes a divine imprimatur of merit: “Under God’s Power, She Flourishes.”
Alas, with the faintest hint of a frivolous lawsuit wafting in the air — in that ominous phrase “false light” —The Chronicle issued a modest revision to my article, drawing a Jesuitical distinction: “No one said anything that day about the importance of public service” became “No one said anything that day about the unique importance of public-service careers.” It characterized that change as a “clarification,” without any assignment of fault.
When I submitted an earlier draft of this letter, the senior editor of The Chronicle with whom I’d been corresponding told me that he wanted to give me a “heads up” that the paper had changed the clarification/correction language at the bottom of my piece. “The change [distinguishing the unique importance of public-service careers from the importance of public service] was good in our view,” he wrote me. “But after taking a hard look at the clarification language, we decided that the given rationale was too vague and we owed readers more specificity.” Now the correction took a more definitive position, assigned fault, and expressed regret — all without consulting me.
This was, after all, an excerpt of my book — not an originally reported piece — for which I was paid nothing. Other chapters of my book have been published in other outlets, each of which followed their own fact-checking procedure. The Chronicle did nothing of the sort. Had it done so, I would have explained the basis of my characterization of Eisgruber’s speech and The Chronicle could have decided whether this clear mixed statement of fact and opinion was something its journalistic standards could support. Instead, The Chronicle treated my argument as if it was its own.
When I asked, the managing editor of The Chronicle confirmed, as I suspected, that the change in the characterization of the correction followed further communication from Princeton to which I was not privy. Power had its way, as it so often does. I deplore the decision of The Chronicle, a publication which I heretofore admired, and stand behind my original language.
John Jay College of Criminal Justice
City University of New York