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

May 16 , 2001:
Drop the Vote
Our columnist fails another civics lesson

By Wes Tooke '98

A few weeks ago I received my copy of the Princeton Alumni Trustee ballot, which promptly migrated from my mailbox to the trash can at a rate usually reserved for credit card offers and grossly misdirected copies of Martha Stewart Living. I gave neither the trustees nor the ballot any further thought until a few days ago when one of the Princeton news groups started debating the issue in an atypically rational way.

The discussion centered on the phenomenon whereby three quarters of the alumni body gives money to Princeton yet less than a quarter votes for the people who will ultimately decide how that money will be spent. The online critics of the current alumni voting system pointed out that the university gives us virtually no information about the candidate, ensuring that we, the uninformed public, have no way of knowing whether or not we have a stake in the election.

I have to admit that the odds I would ever feel as if I had a stake in the election are fairly slim - every passing year I feel a little bit more removed from university issues in which I used to be at least tangentially interested. My opinion of the alumni trustee candidates roughly mimics my opinion of the student government types while I was on campus: I guess that someone has to do the job, and I'm glad that there's a group of people who seem to want it.

The one fact that continually amazed me during the year I worked at the PAW was the number of passionate letters the magazine received from alumni on a wide variety of issues. As the sports editor, I used to get a bimonthly vitriolic letter from an alumnus who considered me the single dumbest human being on the planet for my consistent failure to adequately cover the fencing team. Yet despite his eloquence on the twin subjects of swords and my intelligence, the fencing fan never wrote the PAW on any other subject. He is a single-issue alumnus - and has probably spent the last month pestering the trustee nominees about their positions on purchasing new epee swords.

In fact, once you eliminate the truly apathetic, I think that most of us have at least one thing in common with the fencing fan. During our time at Princeton we discovered a few things that we really cared about, and those are the only issues that usually stir our blood. For my roommate, it's the water polo teams - cut funding, and he's probably going to start mixing fertilizer in my garage for a visit to the East Coast. For me, it's a small group of teachers and friends. I have a vague interest in the general health of the university, but I wouldn't cross the street to learn about the latest endowment figures or plans to build a new dormitory. So long as the university continues to pay competitive rates to professors and attract interesting people, I'll withhold my letters to the PAW.

And while I can understand why my attitude might upset the alumni office, I can't think of any reason why administrators at Princeton would want a truly attentive alumni body - especially given that so many of us are already writing checks. I'm perfectly content with a system under which professionals make the decisions, yet are policed on individual issues by rabid fencing and water polo fans. And all I ultimately want from an alumni trustee is a promise that they'll listen to my complaints when the university sacks some professor I loved, and a pledge that they'll keep Princeton politics out of my mailbox. Because I already get all the politics I can stomach on the nightly news.

You can reach Wes Tooke at cwtooke@princeton.edu