Web Exclusives: Tooke's Take
a PAW web exclusive column by Wes Tooke '98 (email: cwtooke@princeton.edu)

February 27, 2002:

No Free Lunch
President Tilghman makes her first big mistake

By Wes Tooke '98

Now that President Tilghman has been in office for a full semester, her Get Out of Jail Free Card has officially expired. And while I'd like to believe that I'm not one of those columnists who criticizes public figures just because they are no longer untouchable, President Tilghman's recent selection of a Baccalaureate speaker leaves me no choice.

The facts of the case are as follows. On February 4 the university announced that Meg Whitman '77, the CEO of eBay, would donate $30 million to Princeton in order to help establish a sixth residential college. On February 15, less than two weeks later, President Tilghman selected Whitman to be the Baccalaureate speaker this spring.

My objection with the decision is not that I believe there was an actual quid pro quo; my objection is the political naiveté and insensitivity that Tilghman displayed in making her choice. Whitman is certainly an interesting and qualified alumnus — in fact, she was one of the finalists for the Baccalaureate spot in 2000. But selecting her so soon after a major donation opens the university to the charge it ought to fear most: Princeton is for sale.

The administration attempted to preempt exactly such criticism in its press release announcing the selection. To quote university Vice President and Secretary Thomas Wright '62 from the release, "Members of the senior class suggested Meg Whitman as a speaker several weeks before any announcement of the Whitman College gift because of their own interest in eBay and e-commerce and because the Class of 1977 has a special, supportive relationship with the Class of 2002."

Although I respect Mr. Wright, I do wish he would give his audience a little bit more credit. I can think of four major objections to his quote without even trying:

1) The seniors suggested a lot of speakers. Tilghman chose Whitman from that group. Don't pretend that 80 percent of the senior class was clamoring for Meg Whitman.

2) The average senior is about as interested in eBay as I am. And my interest in eBay ranks just above my fascination with interest rates and just below my obsession with luncheon meat.

3) As seniors approach a tight job market, due in large part to the popping of the Internet bubble, this may not be the year to honor E-commerce.

4) Any person outside the alumni office who thinks Joe Senior is deeply appreciative of the "special support" he has received from the Class of 1977 should contact me about a special low-risk, high-return investment opportunity I can make available to qualified suckers.

Leaving the whole issue of the donation aside, I think my own disappointment with the selection comes from my belief that President Tilghman was going to preside over a Princeton somewhat less corporate than her predecessor's. But the choice of Whitman as the first Baccalaureate speaker in her administration is an immensely powerful symbolic act. After all, the Baccalaureate speaker is one of the last voices a person hears at Princeton, a model who presents some last words of advice before a senior enters the world.

This year's model, Whitman, is certainly a very impressive alumna. Unlike many Internet CEOs, she runs a company with a viable business plan. And eBay has done as well with that plan as anyone could expect. But let's not pretend that the central premise behind that plan is educating Americans or eliminating inefficiencies in the health care system or even improving the quality of television sets - no, eBay gets gullible people to buy junk from each other and then skims off the top of that transaction. It's a wonderful way to make money; it's a bit more of a stretch to say that eBay is working in the service of all nations.

An e-mail sent to all seniors this fall explained that the Baccalaureate speaker should be "representatives of religious institutions and public figures chosen for their ability to speak on topics related to human values, broadly considered." Whitman may fit that criteria, broadly considered, but in the first year of her administration, Tilghman should have found a more appropriate candidate. If she wanted a young, remarkable female graduate, Wendy Kopp '89, founder of Teach for America would have been an excellent choice. Or if she wanted to highlight Princeton's commitment to teaching, perhaps she could have picked one of her former colleagues on the faculty. But Tilghman instead selected someone whose major contributions so far have been to Princeton, not the world. And the regrettable truth is that her choice feels an awful lot like business as usual.

You can reach Wes at cwtooke@princeton.edu