I find myself the most unlikely of defenders for Judge Sotomayor, a person whose judicial attitudes both offend and frighten me. But dragging up her opinions from the early 1970s and judging them by today’s standards is unfair and dishonest. You all need a little background on Princeton in those times to make fair judgments. I am going to pass along a few of my personal experiences as a student and administrator.
I arrived at Princeton in the fall of 1967. I had a black roommate, one of less than 20 in my class of over 800. We never became friends in the ordinary way roommates often do not but he influenced my life profoundly. I knew about discrimination, having had perhaps the only black boy in a city of 15,000 as my friend. I had seen a burning cross in northern Florida. I had been cut off by all the boys in the neighborhood. But at Princeton I learned a new lesson. The most vehement racist in our dorm used terms about me and my roommate that make me blush even now. I was astonished to find that this fellow was Jewish. He did not know the Jews had been so treated at Princeton within the past 15 years. It was my second day on campus.
There were not to be women students for two more years and most of us would have been astonished at the possibility. I got to know a few Hispanics: John whose real name was Juan; Francis whose real name was Francisco; and Richard whose real name was Ricardo; among others. You can’t feel very comfortable about yourself or your heritage when you feel that you have to change your name. This was no casual thing. The anglicized names had been submitted for all the printed lists of our class including the picture book. All of that in the late spring of 1967. Later I knew a Cuban refugee of Northern European extraction. His description of the Cuban natives would curl your hair. And, of course, “West Side Story” was a very recent memory…not that it had altered anyone’s prejudices.
The arrival of women at Princeton was a surprise and something of a shock. Male social lives were upset when, though it was never explained it this way to students, the administration informed other schools in the area that busloads of their women would no longer be welcome at our parties. Of course no one at the time had a clue as to what a Princeton woman ought to be. So the roughly 120 who arrived in the fall of 1969 were evenly divided into three groups: the liberationists, the nerds, the husband hunters, and the right sorts. One of the liberationists sent me to the infirmary when she planted her knee in my groin. My crime? I opened the door to the library for her on a rainy afternoon. I took one of the right sorts to my eating club for lunch. It was suggested that I be expelled from the club.
Senior year I got my greatest eye-opener. At the end of an evening of drinking in the 1915 Pavilion on the lower athletic fields I was given a guided tour of the campus by a black and an hispanic friend. It was like walking through a quiet dark city full of dangerous ghosts. The names on buildings took on frightening meanings: Witherspoon, Frick, Palmer. And the hero of heroes, Woodrow Wilson himself, was revealed as a malignant racist. I heard folklore stories of Princeton passed on by janitors, ground workers, and other menials to these new Princetonians judged fit to hear them. I had never thought much of the idea that Princeton was a southern school but now I knew better. To this day I cannot walk the campus without being reminded of what an alien and unwelcoming place it must have been to my two friends.
When I slipped behind the curtain to become an administrator I learned some of the back story. Once Robert Goheen, late president of the University, gained sway over the faculty in the 1950s and came to control the trustees in the early 1960s he and his cohorts resolved on what we now call social justice, coeducation, and the college system. Their methods and techniques involved lies, the falsification of data and reports, and careful tailoring in the hiring of new faculty and administrators. All highly dishonorable. But their crowning glory I think was what is now known as Wilson College. It was designed as a college and so specified in the planning documents. It was built as a college. But to all comers it was explained as an architectural experiment. There it sat as a complex of noncollege buildings for years in plain sight. And its collegiate operating funds, including a remarkably ample wine and cheese provision, were built in to the university budgets before the trustees knew they would be asked to make it a college. The same had been true of coeducation. The trustees were quoted a total cost figure for coeducation which was substantially less than physical facilities had determined for the cost of converting campus lighting and bathroom facilities. In addition it was arranged that a judge, without reading any documents of the cases, would conclude that whatever a donor might have said or written (and some of it was fairly starchy stuff) they had all, ALL, intended the funds or whatever to be used for the education of women. So while confronting the Princeton I did as a student, Judge Sotomayor was learning how to confront and subvert whatever might stand in the way of what she might believe to be right. She may not have been aware of it but she was caught up as an active participant in one of the dirtiest and earliest episodes of that sort of thing. I am continually astonished at how many of the Obama administration’s tricks have been lifted wholesale from what I saw at Princeton.
Meanwhile, back in the trenches, we drones were trying to figure out how to accomplish these things. Conspiracy types have long held that it was one big scheme. Down in the muck we worried primarily about one thing. Let’s not screw those kids! And that wasn’t easy. Many women applicants and almost all minority applicants were unqualified. I don’t mean that they fail to measure up to some nice standard. Their academic backgrounds were such that they could not do the work. The fellow who wanted to major in Physics had taken no math beyond Algebra and no science beyond Earth Science. Or the potential English Lit major who spoke almost pure Ebonics and had no idea that English sentences need verbs. We tried several things. First we conducted a crash analysis in identifying minorities and women who had the character and motivation to overcome these things. This was no fun. We had no data to operate upon, no idea what kind of profile in an admissions folder we should be looking for. Praying a lot, we would make our choices. It was suggested in one meeting that the simple solution would be to admit minority foreign students. We had enough such applicants to fill the entire freshman class and those were all, based on academic qualifications, in the top percent or two of all applicants. We didn’t do it. And of course we had to lie to the alumni. We hyped the special treatment of their children to camouflage the fact that we were admitting many less qualified applicants to fulfill our social goals.
Once the students arrived we had three options. We could channel that would be physics major in sociology, the lit major to ethnic studies. It worked but I know more than a few minorities and women who felt we had lied to them by not telling them that if they followed their dreams they would fail. Second, we adjusted the content and rigor of some elementary courses, even change requirements in a few cases. That way the students had some chance of catching up. Third, though rarely used option by students, we laid out a support system of tutors, faculty advisors, and mentors that would put a Big Ten football support program to shame. We didn’t blame the kids for avoiding our systems. Who wants to come to Princeton, where it is generally known that two thirds of your education is outside the classroom, to ignore those opportunities altogether and become a toad. In the Engineering School we took a slightly tougher line. I remember holding a meeting with our incoming minorities at which, in no uncertain terms, I laid out in detail what they faced and their options for dealing with that. We caught hell. It was considered impolitic to tell students the truth when it might upset their belief in the honesty us of our promises. We also worked quite hard to create support structures as they call them today. We hired a woman to work in the Dean’s office to assist us with women’s stuff. So I was volunteered to join the Society of Women Engineers. We only had one official female engineering major at that moment. When Judge Sotomayor bemoaned a lack of role models for her as a student she was being very kind. There weren’t any that I ever met. We hoped that we were raising the first generation of such folks. I think we have succeeded in that.
You should understand that institutions like Princeton were catching far more than their fair share of heat for the lack of achievement of women and minorities. It wasn’t our fault… exactly. Mostly we were caught between the even then lamentable product of public education and the immutable requirements of future careers. In some ways we even went beyond what the loud public voices of the day demanded. We knew that the Choo Choo train to engineering began in junior high. And we had a couple of studies, primitive at best, that said similar things about motivation and drive. So, to the astonishment of most of the admissions establishment, we diverted some of the funds we had previously used to recruit at high quality feeder schools to setting up dog and pony shows for junior high schools. Six years later some of those kids began to show up in our classrooms. Three of us had a party of celebration. But we were lucky. There were quite a number of good candidate junior high schools in our general neighborhood. What must it have been like in Puerto Rico?
So please consider that Judge Sotomayor is, like all of us, a product of her experiences. We may leave them behind but they never leave us. I would have liked to know that girl. Oh, the arguments we could have had.