Weekly Bulletin
April 24, 2000
Vol. 89, No. 25
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Page one news and features
Human Values Center celebrates 10 years
Trustess accept Wythes Report recommendations
A concrete what?
Auditing Princeton courses: "It's a privilege"

Board names eight to tenured faculty
Fuchs to join Mellon Foundation

Nassau Notes


Auditing Princeton courses: "It's a privilege"

By Ann Waldron

Walk into almost any Princeton lecture hall and you'll see them: quiet, attentive, often gray-haired, seated in the back rows. They're passionate about learning, and they're getting a Princeton education for a pittance. They're auditors.

Ruth and Ellis Winikoff, who moved from Minneapolis to a nearby retirement community, have been auditing at Princeton for years: courses in art, history, religion, literature, political science. "It's privilege," they say. "Everything we've taken has been fabulous."

Princeton has always allowed auditors to sit in on lecture courses, and for decades undergraduates have been used to adults from the community sitting in on classes. But recently, as the area has become more of a magnet for retirees, the number of auditors has increased exponentially. Faculty and administrators began to complain as would-be auditors called constantly to find out where and when classes met. And in some popular courses, there were so many auditors that enrolled students couldn't find seats.

So last fall the University launched the Community Auditing Program, with Pam Hersh, director of the Office of Community and State Affairs, in charge. Now all auditors must register with the program, pay a fee of $50 per course and receive a registration card. (The fee is waived if a would-be auditor cannot afford it.)

Register in person

Registration gives the administration a way to check abuses and protect the interests of matriculating undergraduates. Last fall there were 470 auditors registered; this spring there are 360. (Hersh believes that the difference is due to the fact that "many retirees go to Florida in the winter.")

For fall semester 2000-01, auditors can register in person between 10 am and 2:00 pm on April 25 through 27 at the Student Center. Mail-in registration will be possible up until September 1, using forms available from a box outside 220 Nassau Hall. Auditors can choose from a list of selected lecture courses, approved by the professors and department managers; they may not attend labs, seminars or precepts.

None of the current auditors seems upset by the fees or the registration process. Some had realized themselves that the situation was getting out of hand and feared that unless it was regulated, the University might cut auditing out altogether.

"It's a win-win situation now," said Marietta Taylor, head of the Community Auditing Council that Hersh organized to get community input. "The auditors like it. The professors like it. The University likes it."

Taylor, who is married to Dean of the Faculty Joseph Taylor, has audited courses ever since she retired from her own job at the University.

Faculty attitudes vary

Although auditors pop up in a wide variety of courses, art history is their favorite field, with music, literature, and history close behind.

Faculty attitudes toward auditors vary. Sara Curran, assistant professor of sociology, is glad to have auditors in her course on Sex, Sexuality and Gender.

Auditors, she says "offer a perspective on life that most students haven't even imagined. In the first half of the course, we talk about youth and adolescence, and the undergraduates know about that. In the second half, when we talk about marriage, the family and work, they don't know about that. But the auditors do. They're very respectful and wait for the students to talk first, but when I keep pushing, they say things that are quite helpful."

Not all professors are as upbeat. "Some auditors are cranks," says one. Even other auditors recognize occasional problems. "Auditors should be careful to sit in the back of the room," said one. "Some of the elderly people like to sit up front, but they should let the students get first crack."

Some auditors are frustrated by their limited role, but most are happy with the program. Robert Varrin '56 is one of them. An engineering graduate who says he should have majored in history, Varrin sat in on Imperial Russian history last semester; this semester he's auditing courses on the High Middle Ages and the American Civil War.

"I don't mind not going to precepts," he says. Taking a course at Princeton "is still the greatest thing on earth."

A longer version of this article is in the Princeton Alumni Weekly of April 5.