July 18, 2007: Features
Photographs by Ricardo Barros
The roar went up as soon as his name was announced during Commencement as the recipient of an honorary degree: Muhammad Ali — to many, The Greatest. But as always, the greatest stars during the day were the new graduates themselves: 1,127 undergraduates and 716 graduate students who soon would walk through FitzRandolph Gate as Princeton alumni.
“You have left an indelible mark on this University, just as it has left its mark on you,” President Tilghman told the graduates and about 7,000 guests at Princeton’s 260th Commencement June 5, before launching into a list of the students’ achievements in academics, athletics, and public service. “Through it all, you were the first group of students in Princeton history to have the opportunity for all four years to procrastinate on facebook.com,” she added, to laughter.
The event, like those before it, was part celebration of accomplishment of all sorts and part pep talk as students began their post-Princeton lives. Three-time boxing champion Ali, now frail, received a standing ovation as he walked with assistance to receive his honorary degree as a doctor of humanities; his citation noted his successes both in the boxing ring and as a humanitarian. A few moments later, the audience rose again to honor Robert Fagles, the retired Princeton professor and renowned translator of classics such as The Aeneid. In all, seven people received honorary degrees.
Tilghman used much of her address to oppose a proposal by the U.S. Department of Education that would impose standardized testing on colleges and universities. “The notion that a federally mandated standardized test could be used to measure learning flies in the face of one of the great strengths of the U.S. education system — the tremendous diversity among universities and colleges,” she said. “Our system ensures that for each college-bound student, there is a college or university designed with his or her talents and interests in mind. After all, students starting college are not cut from the same cloth, and if we are successful, their college experience will nurture and develop their distinctive talents and interests and motivate them to find not one, but many ways to use their education to make our world a better place. The homogeneity bred by standardization would almost certainly drain color and vitality from this rich national tapestry.”
Federal standards also would restrict universities’ academic freedom, Tilghman asserted. “Academic freedom does not provide universities with carte blanche by any means, and it requires a considerable degree of self-regulation by all members of the university community,” she said. But applied from outside academia, she continued, “standardized testing as a means to assess student learning jeopardizes the freedom that universities need to craft their educational programs and fulfill the individualized goals of our own students.”
In addition to honoring degree recipients, Princeton took advantage of the Commencement ceremony to honor teachers. Four Princeton professors received awards for outstanding teaching: Eric Gregory (religion), Sanjeev Kulkarni (electrical engineering), Kenneth Norman (psychology), and Alexander Smits (mechanical and aerospace engineering). Four New Jersey secondary school teachers also were recognized.
The valedictorian was economics major Eric Glen Weyl, who credited Princeton with forcing him “to ask questions and think about ideas far beyond my personal experience.” The salutatory address, Princeton’s oldest student honor, was delivered in Latin by Maya Maskarinec, a classics major.
Commencement capped four days of activities for seniors, including their first Reunions, the Baccalaureate service, the prom, and Class Day. John Fleming *63, the popular emeritus professor of English and comparative literature, gave the Baccalaureate address Sunday, June 3, to what he called the “Class of Destiny.” At the Class Day ceremony June 4, seniors took pride in being the last class admitted to Princeton by former dean of admission Fred Hargadon, and they celebrated “Dean Fred” by making him an honorary class member. Class president Jim Williamson wondered in his address whether his classmates knew what Hargadon saw when he sent them their “Yes!” letters. “It will probably take the rest of our lives” to uncover that, Williamson said.
Between the events, seniors reflected on the experiences that tied their class together. For Naila Murray, it was this year’s bonfire celebrating football victories over Harvard and Yale. Nathaniel Schwartz remembered grade deflation: “We had to work harder to get the same grades as classes before,” he said. “But we rose to the challenge.”
Ramon A. Gonzalez-Mieres, who received his Ph.D. in geosciences, brought his mother to Princeton from Venezuela to watch him get his degree. Gonzalez-Mieres himself returned to campus with his wife and 5-month-old baby from California, where he recently began working. He reveled in his triumph. “Finally I made it,” he said. He had thought “many times” during his six years on campus that he wouldn’t finish, particularly because he faced a language barrier.
As Commencement ended, the new alumni threw up their mortarboards before heading out FitzRandolph Gate. After picking up her diploma, Camillie Landron ’07, her voice hoarse, said she always would remember “crossing the FitzRandolph Gate with my freshman-year roommates.”
Raymond Bilderbeck ’07 wondered about what is to come. He wished he could remain on Princeton’s “cozy” campus for a few more years, he said. “The real world,” Bilderbeck said, “is not an inviting place.”
To see a slide show with more photos of Commencement 2007, click here.
To the Class of 2007
“One definition of an intellectual is someone who sees things working in practice and wonders if they’ll work in theory. Seeing an apple fall inspired Newton’s theory of gravity. Like [Nobel laureate Robert] Lucas, I also see things working the other way around. The purpose of the passion for intellectual inquiry that Princeton gave us is the use of ideas to improve the world we share. In each area of study at this University and in every profession you will enter, there are questions so important that it is, or should be, hard to think about anything else.”
Valedictorian Eric Glen Weyl ’07
“The professors were perched like vultures upon columns eager to swoop down upon the students who failed to compose polished theses. But the students had long neglected the ancient festivals of this institution, no longer wading deep in generous libations of the ambrosia of the gods. And so each spring, aging hordes shall return to drink with feigned revelry within imprisoned stalls and empty their pockets to build more halls” [translated from the Latin].
Salutatorian Maya Maskarinec ’07
Harold Willis Dodds *14 Prize (to the seniors who best embody Dodds’ qualities of scholarship and service): Laura Boyce and Joshua Williams
Allen Macy Dulles ’51 Award (to a senior whose actions fulfill Princeton’s motto of service): Aitalohi (Aita) Amaize
Frederick Douglass Award (for contributions to a deeper understanding of the experiences of racial minorities): Danielle Hamilton
W. Sanderson Detwiler 1903 Prize (awarded by the class to the senior who has done the most for the class): Jim Williamson
Class of 1901 Medal (awarded by the class to the senior who has done the most for Princeton): Alex Lenahan
Priscilla Glickman ’92 Memorial Prize (to a student who has demonstrated independence and imagination in community service): Drew Frederick
In a Baccalaureate address that ranged from the mischievous to the profound, John Fleming *63 bid a bittersweet farewell to the Class of 2007 — or, in his words, to the “Class of Destiny.”
“You are the last Princeton class I ever will really know,” said Fleming, who retired last year after four decades at the University.
He quickly set his audience laughing, poking fun at himself, President Tilghman, and pretentious young people who don’t read the sixth-century philosopher Boethius. But his speech (click here to read) centered on “noblesse oblige,” and argued that Princetonians must use their elite education to do good.
“As compared with most Americans you will make more money, enjoy better health, live in better housing, have better prospects for your children, go to the Caribbean more often and to the state penitentiary less often,” Fleming told the seniors. “Some of your privilege is defensible; much of it is not.”
The professor then noted the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, particularly one calling for all children in the world to have access to a complete primary education by the year 2015. “I fear there is not a ghost of a chance of fulfilling this ... goal by 2015,” he said. “The problem is not money. The estimate is that it would cost about $10 billion a year. That is chump change. That is half of what Americans spend each year on ice cream. No, the problem is that my generation ... is too tired, or too timid, or too distracted to come up with the requisite imagination and will. We don’t want to live in a world where a hundred million kids have no chance to go to school, but we are leaving it up to you to do something about it.”
Reflecting on earlier encounters with past students, he concluded with the hope that he would run into the “Destinarians” again.
“Until then,” he said, “be good.”
By Christian R. Burset ’07
Honorary Degree Recipients
Seven men and women received honorary degrees in recognition of their achievements. (Italicized text is drawn from their citations.)
MUHAMMAD ALI, DOCTOR OF HUMANITIES Championship boxer and humanitarian. Acclaimed throughout the world as the most gifted, most imaginative, most audacious, and most courageous of heavyweight boxing champions, he has long been revered as one of the great athletes of all time. Unwavering in his moral commitments, he has fought tenaciously outside the ring for freedom of conscience, for equality and justice, and for the dignity and emancipation of all people.
NORMAN AUGUSTINE ’57 *59, DOCTOR OF LAWS Former chief executive officer and chairman of Lockheed Martin Corp. Ever guided by his moral compass and ever clear-eyed about his commitment to excellence, he steered one of America’s most crucial industries safely through the rocky uncertainties of a Cold War world. His clarion call challenged his nation to rise above the gathering storm and face squarely the risks and opportunities that lie ahead in the uncharted future of science and technology.
ELIZABETH BLACKBURN, DOCTOR OF SCIENCE Morris Herzstein Professor of Biology and Physiology at the University of California–San Francisco. In her lab, she focuses on the tips of chromosomes. ... In her career, she has bridged departments, created new fields of inquiry, inspired students, and personified integrity. In her public life, she has held policymakers and scientists to the highest ethical standards ... .
ROBERT FAGLES, DOCTOR OF HUMANE LETTERS Princeton’s Arthur W. Marks ’19 Professor of Comparative Literature, emeritus. We tell here of his four decades of feats on behalf of Princeton, as the founding father of comparative literature, as a gracious and wise colleague, and as an inspiring mentor and teacher. His translations bring to life not just the words but the unquenchable spirit of the ancient masterpieces, as through his verses he takes us once more to the windy plain of Troy, across the wine-dark sea, and to the high walls of Rome.
LASALLE D. LEFFALL JR., DOCTOR OF SCIENCE Cancer surgeon and researcher. By combining his extensive medical knowledge with compassion and determination, he has forged formidable weapons against life-threatening disease, while nurturing a new generation of doctors to carry on his good work. Knowing that no cure can be effective if access to it is denied, he has championed life-affirming public policy, especially for African-Americans and economically disadvantaged populations.
FRITZ STERN, DOCTOR OF HUMANE LETTERS Historian and University Professor, emeritus, at Columbia University. An exile from Hitler’s Germany, at home on both sides of the Atlantic; a public intellectual in Germany and in the United States; and a superb scholar equally at ease before an audience of legislators, public servants, or university students, he has enlightened us all. ... He wove in his writings an intricate tapestry on grand themes of German and European history, and on the fragility of democracy in the modern world.
TWYLA THARP, DOCTOR OF FINE ARTS Choreographer and director. Classicist and postmodernist, traditionalist and iconoclast, disciplinarian and clown, she has proved through her work that no human movement is alien to her. ... Whitmanesque in the breadth, force, and freshness of her vision, ambition, and achievement, she has staged the body electric in ways that have expanded the range of how and what dance might mean and, in doing so, has won dance new audiences.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Bradley Whitford, the actor known for his roles on The West Wing and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, devoted his Class Day talk June 4 largely to politics and entertainment.
Even if a presidential candidate is more qualified than his opponents to lead the nation, the candidate will not have a chance if he is “bad on TV,” Whitford said. The actor faulted television and press coverage of elections for focusing on a candidate’s image instead of the substance of his or her ideas. Weaving in jabs at the Republican party along the way, Whitford – who with his wife has founded two nonprofit organizations — warned the seniors to “beware of show business” when making decisions about candidates and about issues such as global warming, and he urged them to take an active part in discussing the future of democracy.
He also offered his assessment of one popular world leader: “I love Martin Sheen [President Bartlett on The West Wing], but I guarantee you he’d be a terrible president.”
Valedictorian Weyl ’07 did double duty on two Princeton degrees
At the University of Chicago’s “Applications of Economics” seminar series, top economists sift through every detail of a presenter’s work and challenge key points to see how well the research is supported. The venue is “perhaps the toughest place to give a paper in economics,” according to Princeton professor José Scheinkman, who taught at Chicago for 25 years. It can be intimidating even for seasoned professionals.
Yet there was Eric Glen Weyl ’07, this year’s valedictorian, plunging into the cauldron last February to present a paper on two-sided markets — markets like the credit-card industry, in which companies have to balance the rates they charge to both cardholders and merchants. Weyl was invited by Nobel laureate Gary Becker ’51, and he practiced his presentation for weeks in advance, rehearsing for anyone who would listen — friends, classmates, professors. Still, nothing could prepare him for the thorough critique he received from the Chicago faculty. “I felt like I was being torn to pieces,” Weyl said. “[But] they came up to me at the end, patted me on the back, and said, ‘Great job, you really held up well.’”
The trip to Chicago was the latest example of Weyl showing economic aptitude well beyond his years. The Palo Alto, Calif., native started young; he estimates that he read 30,000 pages of economics texts by the time he finished middle school. He became a regular visitor to Stanford’s Hoover Institution, where he conversed with top economists, and he held a brief but memorable correspondence with Nobelist Milton Friedman, who questioned whether the age Weyl mentioned in his introductory letter — 13 — was a typo. Economics captured Weyl’s imagination in a way that no other subject had.
At Princeton, Weyl, who goes by Glen, started taking graduate-level economics classes as a sophomore, and by the time he stood at the Commencement podium in June, he had completed all the coursework required for a Ph.D. Next year, he plans to write his dissertation.
Scheinkman, Weyl’s senior thesis and Ph.D. adviser, said he is “very mature as an economist,” showing composure both as a student and as a teaching assistant in one of Scheinkman’s graduate courses. “Essentially, he leads the life of a graduate student, and graduate school is known to be a very stressful time for most people,” Scheinkman said, “so it’s kind of remarkable to see how little stress Glen has.”
Weyl led a well-rounded existence as an undergraduate, writing movie reviews for The Daily Princetonian in his freshman and sophomore years and starting a free-trade advocacy group called Princeton Against Protectionism as a junior. In the economics department, he earned a reputation as someone with an “eye for interesting economics questions,” according to graduate student Martin Oehmke, and professors outside the department also have been impressed with Weyl’s insight and inquisitiveness. “He’s a student who keeps his teachers on their toes,” said computer science professor Robert Schapire, who taught Weyl in three courses.
Weyl has held summer jobs in the private and public sectors, designing an arbitrage strategy for a hedge fund and researching two-sided markets for the Department of Justice. While both positions had their rewards, Weyl said, his career path points toward academia.
“The questions that economists think about are, to me, of such mind-blowing importance and so vivid and so elegant and beautiful in a certain sense, that it’s hard for me to imagine not getting so engrossed with them,” Weyl said. “I’d better be doing it as my profession.”
Advanced-degree recipients were honored at the Graduate School’s annual hooding ceremony, held Monday, June 4, at McCarter Theatre. Here, Frankki Jo Bevins, who received her master’s degree in public affairs, gets her academic hood from Doug Clark, professor of computer science. President Tilghman and Graduate School Dean William Russel presided over the event.