March 10, 2004: Letters

Athletics and academics

Bye, bye, Butler

Physics education

Improving education

Princeton’s motto

Princeton’s motto

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Athletics and academics

It was with great concern that I read your article entitled “What Price Victory” (cover story, December 17). My contribution to Princeton athletics was between 1958 and 1961, when I played three sports (football, hockey, and lacrosse).

Even in the era of “walk-ons,” players were “recruited,” or asked to visit the campus, while still in high school. My visit involved spending a wonderful afternoon at a Tigertone practice, after which I talked to the football coach. Yes, time was precious, but there were perhaps more books and papers packed for away-games than clothing — study time was stolen on buses, trains, and in hotel rooms, but the work got done.

Then, as today, a student’s worth was not judged solely by G.P.A. or class standing but on how the mind, body, and personality were molded and improved by the Princeton experience. To suggest that the class openings have to be filled by 4.0 students is just as damaging as saying that all students have to run the hundred in 9.2 seconds.

Success comes in all shapes and sizes. Athletes provide their own brand of success that stimulates and improves their classmates. Anyone who suggests otherwise does not know athletes.

In the fall of 2002, my wife and I attended a Princeton/Dartmouth football game at Princeton. We came away astounded by the sparsely filled stadium and by the seeming absence of school spirit. Good athletic events are a thread that can bind people. Do we really want all of the 4.0 students studying in their rooms on a Saturday afternoon or coming together at an athletic venue creating school spirit? Turn on the TV on any given fall Saturday and the screen is filled with enthusiastic college students around the country supporting their team. Why not at Princeton?

Perhaps Dr. Bowen should do some research on graduated athletes and chronicle their achievements after graduation. I would suggest that he will feel much better about who these athletes become.

Hugh Scott ’61
Belvedere, Calif.


As a four-year (nonrecruited) participant on the lightweight varsity crew and a graduate of the undergraduate program of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, I read Doug Lederman ’84’s “What Price Victory” article with great interest. I have not read President Bowen’s book, but I found that both the interview with him and the article itself failed to address what is perhaps the fundamental element of varsity-level sports at Princeton: the educational benefit of participation in competitive athletics at an intercollegiate level.

Rowing, a three-season full-time sport, may not be a major men’s sport at Princeton, but it is one of the few Princeton programs consistently in contention for national titles. Due to its multidisciplinary requirements and policy conferences, the Woodrow Wilson School was considered a time-consuming undergraduate major during my time at Princeton, and I expect that it still is. The article leaves the impression that the educational experience at Princeton is diminished for elite-level athletes. I got more out of Princeton because of my participation in the crew program, not less. Staying on the team and in my major required a discipline in terms of time management, diet, sleep, alcohol consumption, and focused study that I am not sure I would have had otherwise. I also was able to participate in Whig-Clio in my first two years and as a community service volunteer in my second, while maintaining an active social life and still watching too much TV with my roommates.

Princeton’s mission is to educate young people for the challenges they will face in life. Some of the most valuable lessons I learned were not in the classroom, but on Lake Carnegie. From my coaches, my teammates, and myself, I learned about testing my own physical and psychological limits, and that I can always do a little better, do one more. I learned about being part of a team. I learned to win at the highest level, and perhaps more important, I learned to do my absolute best and still lose.

In my subsequent career in international business, I cannot say that those lessons have been less important than my knowledge of international monetary policy. Eliminating athletics would probably have improved my academic performance, just as eliminating academics would probably have improved my rowing performance, but this also true for the violinist and the linear algebra fanatic, and learning to balance such choices is part of life. When I review my educational experience, I am convinced that participation in varsity athletics was a valuable and integral part of the education Princeton provided me, and to fail to address that component in a discussion of athletics at the University seems to me to omit the basic reason that the programs exist in the first place.

Noah M. Steinberg ’90
Budapest, Hungary


I fear that Professor Bowen has lost sight of the purpose of education. My academic experience at Princeton was greatly affected by participating in athletics. To my lasting regret, I wasn’t very successful at either. One reason, in hindsight, was my inability to cope with dual priorities — athletics and academics. I came to realize while a graduate student and no longer an athlete that I had always been out of sync at Princeton – thinking about football when I should have been studying and worrying about my studies on the practice field. The lesson that one can only excel if thoughts and actions are in harmony was not lost on me. Had I participated in athletics at a lesser school or not participated at Princeton, I might have been more “successful.” But I would not have been nearly as well prepared for the challenges of profession, family, and life.

Bruce L. Gates ’66
Salem, Ore.


I had always assumed that student-athletes were different from other students on campus. What a shock to learn in your December 17 issue that recruited athletes often skim through reading assignments, cut classes, search for guts in the catalog, or have little to say in precepts. Based on my experience, they sound like everybody else.

Peter Hadekel ’73
Montreal, Quebec


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Bye, bye, Butler

It was with a sense of dismay and disbelief that I read of the University’s plans to demolish most of Butler College (Notebook, January 28.) Forty years after the destruction of the old Penn Station, have we really learned nothing? What’s next? A sensible four-year college system? Alternatives to eating clubs? More intellectual students?

No one arrived at Princeton expecting “the Butt.” Yet the radical dissonance between the gothic upper campus and our sordid hidden domain prepared us for the false pretenses of the world. In the claustrophobic cubbies of Lourie-Love, 1922, and 1940—2 the character of a generation was formed. I can only hope that the University will preserve at least one feature of the “old” Butler for future Princetonians. I have in mind, of course, the waffle ceilings.

John Buntin ’94
Washington, D.C.


Several years ago, you published my proposal for the demolition of all campus structures built after World War II, and for their replacement with collegiate gothic architecture. Soon thereafter, the University unveiled plans for the soaring gothic arches of Whitman College. In your latest issue, the University announced the imminent demolition of the concrete-and-brown-brick bunkers comprising the New New Quad.

Well. I hardly expected such quick and decisive action. Thank you. I trust that it would not be ungrateful to point out the remaining issues of Wilson College and Spelman Hall. Perhaps when the bulldozers are finished with the New New Quad?

Stewart Harris ’83
Grundy, Va.

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Physics education

Princeton’s physics department welcomes undergraduate majors. I was not on the faculty when Rich Clarvit’s unfortunate experience with Physics 105 occurred (Letters, January 28), but I speak for myself and my colleagues in saying that we are committed to teaching Princeton undergraduates at every level.

Here’s a brief sample of what that commitment means today: We have professors teaching precepts of Physics 101 and 103 as well as the more advanced 105; we have newly redesigned freshman labs and whole new courses for sophomores; and we have many undergraduates (freshmen through seniors) working with us on our research.

We are especially careful these days not to assume an unreasonable level of mathematical sophistication, or otherwise to make our courses harder than they need to be to convey the subject matter. That subject matter, in fact, includes quantitative tools that our undergraduates will need for the wide variety of professions they will pursue.

I urge any current Princeton undergraduate who wants to become a physics major, but feels like there’s something preventing that, to write to me at It is part of my job to ensure that we don’t shut people out of what we think is a great major.

Steven S. Gubser ’94 *98
Associate Professor of Physics
Princeton, N.J.

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Improving education

President Tilghman’s President’s Page on improving undergraduate education (November 19) embodies an attitude that is leading Princeton in an unfortunate direction.

The president and the dean of the college are apparently agreed that the best way to improve undergraduate education at Princeton would be to change the way students are distributed across the departments. Instead of looking for ways to improve the University, they bemoan the fact that students don’t study what the University would like them to, and they use this as evidence to question whether students really know what they want. President Tilghman cites the heavy teaching load for faculty members in the popular departments and the underutilization of faculty in other departments as problems that could be addressed by a redistribution of students. She concludes that “this disproportionate concentration” may mean that students “lack a full appreciation of . . . other opportunities. . . . ” She then asserts that students may not be finding and pursuing their “real intellectual passions.” In this view, imbalances are the fault of the students, not the University. The nature and structure of the University are simply assumed as given.

Perhaps most students are pursuing their real intellectual passions, and it is instead the University that needs adjusting. Certainly the University should not slavishly respond to students’ academic demands, and of course it should encourage students to sample less mainstream intellectual pursuits. But when students don’t make the choices the University would like them to make, this should be seen as intellectual independence to be lauded, not a problem in need of fixing.

This attitude, that the University knows better than the students what is good for them, and that the University should impose its presumed wisdom on the students, seems to have replaced Princeton’s traditional emphasis on nurturing the students’ own wisdom by giving them wide latitude to make their own decisions. The most obvious manifestation of this new philosophy is the seemingly inexorable move toward four-year residential colleges. In my view, this is a serious mistake. Curtailing student academic and social self-determination robs Princeton of its greatest strength.

My only serious academic dissatisfaction at Princeton was the lack of upper-level seminars reserved for majors in my department (politics), which resulted from a dearth of faculty. Upper-level courses were oversubscribed with students from other departments. For a major who was truly passionate about political science, this was very frustrating. Certainly I did not blame the other students; they are to be commended for taking challenging courses outside their majors. Rather, the fault was with the University for not ensuring sufficient resources to satisfy the demand

Instead of bemoaning the fact that the University does not allocate students among majors, the administration would be better advised to figure out how to ensure that students in the “big four” departments have an academic experience of equal quality to those who choose more offbeat fields. Princeton students are among the most elite in the nation; they should be trusted to make their own choices, academic and social.

Jim Cohen ’89
Bethesda, Md.


Your January 28 article “Looking beyond the major majors” contains the statement that success stories from the smaller departments show that music majors can be investment bankers. When defining “success,” does Princeton elevate bankers while diminishing musicians? I confess that I have no idea who the chairman of J. P. Morgan Chase is, but I will never forget who Mozart was.

Also, as an amplification: You described the Council of the Princeton University Community as “a group of faculty, students, and staff devoted to examining issues related to the welfare of the University.” Three alumni also serve on that body, and one of the three has a seat on the C.P.U.C. Executive Committee.

Janice Stultz Roddenbery *77
Lawrenceville, N.J.

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Princeton’s motto

In the November 5 PAW, the motto was mentioned in the Class Notes for 1937. A brief indication of its meaning was given. I should like to offer a fuller translation of the Latin: Dei Sub Numine Viget: Lord, our God, King of the universe, under the awesome, unsearchable riches of your eternal and limitless wisdom, knowledge, power, love, and sovereignty, it lives and grows strong! I hope the Rev. Drs. Witherspoon and McCosh would approve.

The operative word is numine, meaning divine sovereignty. But it doesn’t quite do it to say divine sovereignty unless the reader has a good idea of what divine sovereignty involves.

For quite a few years, now, the once-proud motto has been disappearing. Annual Giving letters now show the letters “A” and “G.” Similarly, the Alumni Council now has a shield from which the Bible has been removed. The words “Princeton University” are around the lower part of the shield, and a golden calf adorns the top. Of course, since it is Princeton, the calf has become a golden tiger.

As is often said, all that is needed for wrong to prevail is for good people to do nothing. Shouldn’t the University continue to acknowledge God’s providence? And if so, isn’t its seal the appropriate place to do this? If not, it is only a step to removing In God We Trust from U.S. currency.

Incidentally, Harvard almost lost its motto: Veritas. Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, the autocrat of the breakfast table and father of the U.S. Supreme Court justice, and some of his classmates, campaigned successfully to have it restored: Veritas was saved for posterity.

John Maguire ’37
Falls Church, Va.

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