This article was originally published in the June 2017 Princeton Echo.
On a brisk evening in May, I walked into the restaurant Agricola with a group of my student coworkers and my boss from the Princeton University Writing Center. The hostess led us to a downstairs room, the one with a roof shaped like the inside of a wine barrel and a wall-sized mural of a head of lettuce. It was the end-of-year dinner for the eight head writing fellows, and my boss told us, generously, to order whatever we liked. The tab was on Princeton.
I did as I always do in these moments of Princeton University generosity: took full advantage of the situation at hand. To drink, I ordered a bourbon, thyme, and kumquat cocktail and for a main course, grilled prawns accompanied by midnight-black squid ink risotto and foraged baby onions. For dessert, I ate four fluffy miniature beignets. Conversation over the meal ranged from the success of our welcome event for new hires to reflections on our experiences of the elitism inherent to Ivy League social organizations, like Princeton’s eating clubs and Harvard’s finals clubs.
I topped off the conversation on “elitism” with an espresso and then the group suggested that we leave the restaurant and head towards the Senior Sendoff Champagne Toast that the university was hosting on campus that same evening. “It’s free champagne,” commented one of my coworkers. “You can’t miss it.” But I definitely could have missed the Senior Champagne Toast — instead, I could have gone to the Butler Residential College upperclass social hour, which just an hour later catered snacks from Jammin’ Crepes and a selection of wines and beers for of-age Princeton upperclassmen. There is at least one of these social hours at a Residential College once a week.
The Writing Center has been my favorite work community on campus. Writing Center Fellows are undergraduate and graduate students whose job it is to work with other Princeton students on their academic writing through one-on-one conferencing. Head Fellows help to administer the organization. It is one of those beautifully collaborative spaces on campus in which students help their peers with academics, and the Agricola end-of-year celebration for Head Fellows was a generous and welcome way to show appreciation for our hard work. Indeed, most jobs beyond Princeton celebrate their employees in a similar way.
As I prepare to graduate, I have begun wondering why Princeton chooses to consistently spend on the steady stream of small luxuries for its undergraduate community.
But that single Agricola dinner does not exist in isolation. I was taken to another Princeton-affiliated dinner, also at Agricola, less than a month ago. And beyond particular meals in the town of Princeton, I can find free catered food or entertainment on campus throughout the year, not just for graduation-related events.
A strange dimension to Princeton privilege is the receiving of free things. Free dinners, free buffets at events, free catered snacks, free sweatshirts, t-shirts, water bottles, blankets, hats, socks.
Every year there is at the very least one puppy-petting event for stress relief, in which the Undergraduate Student Government (USG) pays to welcome a fleet of therapy dogs to the First South Lawn for a few hours during exam periods. Once a semester Princeton pays for a relatively famous musician to perform live for students on the all-day partying event called Lawn Parties. This spring we saw Jeremih, and in the past welcomed Icona Pop, Big Sean, Schoolboy Q, and others to campus.
Over the past four years, I have been continually in awe of the barrage of university-sponsored non-academic freebees. Now, as I prepare to graduate, I have begun wondering why Princeton chooses to consistently spend on the steady stream of small luxuries for its undergraduate community. What role have these luxuries played in my life as an undergraduate student? Are they worth it?
Even though I am questioning Princeton’s spending, I admit that I am entirely complicit in using the funds. As a Comparative Literature major with a focus on contemporary Latin American literature, I enrolled in classes with famous visiting professors, like Nobel Prize-winning Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa and contemporary American author A.M. Homes. I was able to meet the former president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, in a small-group breakfast meeting with other students who study Brazilian issues, in addition to seeing other famous speakers like Junot Diaz. I have done original research in Firestone and Mudd libraries’ vast archives. Each of these experiences has been a unique chance for intellectual growth that I could not be more grateful for.
My experience is not atypical. Other students spend summers abroad studying foreign languages with close to all expenses paid. This spring, a journalism class titled “Local Reporting” traveled to France over spring break with their professor, the former New York Times Paris bureau chief.
I have also made it a priority to leave Princeton’s manicured lawns and pristine buildings as frequently as possible. One way of leaving was to use Princeton funding for international travel: I studied abroad for a semester in Buenos Aires, received financial support from the university for summer internships in Accra, Ghana, and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and went on fully funded weeklong trips during mid-semester breaks, once to Greece with one of my classes and then to Argentina and Brazil for senior thesis research. (My thesis title: “States of Discourse, Traces of Crime: Detective Fiction and the Social Construction of Memory in Post-Dictatorship Brazil and Argentina”).
But leaving campus has also meant trying to understand Mercer County, whether by teaching English for Spanish-speaking adults in Trenton or reporting on discrimination against Princeton’s undocumented community. It has been these experiences off campus, and particularly my interactions with a diverse community just a short walk or drive from the Fitzrandolph Gates, that have highlighted the immensity of Ivy League spending – spending that extends far beyond academic opportunities to what seem only to be frills, like the countless cups of free bubble tea I have consumed in the past four years.
From catered study breaks to high end lawn chairs, pricey perks are often aimed at fostering a better sense of community among students.
I spoke to David Stirk, dean of Butler College, one of Princeton’s residential colleges, about Princeton’s fun, social spending. There are six residential colleges on Princeton’s campus and together they serve as the required housing system for underclassmen and as an optional one for juniors and seniors. Acting as social hubs for new students, the colleges host many of the social events available to undergraduates. I asked Stirk what the logic was behind allocating funding to so many ostensibly non-academic events. He explained that Butler College’s aim is to foster a sense of community in the residential colleges.
“The hope is that that sense of community has educational and intellectual benefits that manifest themselves, if not immediately, then in longer-term ways,” he said.
I was one of the students assigned to Butler College when I stepped onto Princeton’s campus for the first time four years ago. I had just arrived from Boulder, where my parents are professors at the University of Colorado. They have given me a window into college living since I was young, so I had a clear mental image of fully stocked dining halls and ornate buildings. However, I never had a framework for understanding how extensive campus amenities were or how they would affect my life.
On my first day of college, I took a picture with my three roommates in front of our dorm room, all of us wearing our new royal blue t-shirts boasting the Butler College crest in bright white. Over the next few months I took advantage of the social spaces that the university fostered. Instead of going to libraries alone, I would often study with the other students on my hall in the glass-walled study room or lounge located on our floor, comfortable spaces outfitted with whiteboards, plush leather couches, and big-screen TVs.
On Wednesday evenings we walked downstairs to the cafe in the basement of our building for a residential college study break, which always involved a local restaurant catering food for the freshmen and sophomores in the college. I still remember exuberantly talking about my first ever Princeton lecture while waiting in line for the Nassau Sushi study break; a new acquaintance next to me then taught me the first words she learned in her Arabic class.
Over the next years, these study breaks consistently gave me a setting in which to bond with other students, to meet new people, and to talk casually about academic interests and politics instead of studying alone or in small groups of close friends.
Weekly study breaks are far from the most over-the-top perks that Princeton has to offer. One of the more notorious moments of Princeton’s spending — initiated by university architect Ronald McCoy rather than the Residential Colleges — was a shipment of 47 sleek black Adirondack lawn chairs that appeared on campus last fall. The chairs inspired press uproar when student journalists found that each chair costs $699 (without a discount, that means the 47 chairs would have cost Princeton University a total of $32,853).
The idea behind the chairs is not just that they are comfortable, but also that they are easy to move around and can facilitate outdoor group conversations. And despite the egregious price tag, the chairs have actually worked. During my first two years at Princeton — those were the pre-lawn chair years — grassy areas like the lawn outside of McCosh courtyard felt like highly groomed esthetic spaces. They seemed to be lawns designed for visual appreciation, not areas students could use as public space. Even on beautiful, sunny days only a small smattering of students ever sat on the grass. I used to lament Princeton’s lack of the bustling, central campus quad.
Princeton still doesn’t have a particularly wide use of non-commercial, outdoor spaces, but now on any nice day I see students tugging Adirondack chairs into a circle while others begin to sit directly on the grass to talk and study. In cases like these, the concept of Princeton’s spending appears to have some underlying logic even if the cost does not.
Princeton’s perks can act as a wealth equalizer — the average student doesn’t have to spend money to be a part of Ivy League socializing.
Yet the success of the concept of this spending only goes so far. I have a drawer in my room filled with free university clothing: Butler College t-shirts and sweatshirts, orange and black socks, and Princeton Class of 2017 gear — at least one item for every year that I’ve been at school. On my desk, I still have the lopsided snow globe that I crafted at the Student Government-run Winter Festival (I already gave away the equally lopsided teddy bear that I made at the same event).
The dorms I’ve lived in have laundry rooms with free washers and dryers, as most Princeton housing does, but each year some students in the building paid for a laundry service regardless, one that delivered cleaned and folded clothing straight to their doors.
The sheer volume of things Princeton students receive is so unending that many of my peers don’t pause to think about whether what’s free is a good use of Princeton’s resources, whatever their origins. Just this May the USG e-mailed the student body a map of the giveaway stations set up in McCosh Courtyard on Dean’s Date — the deadline for all final papers — so that students could make a beeline to the freebees that most interested them. These perks have become completely normalized aspects of our collegiate experience.
The price for attending Princeton is $61,160 without financial aid. That is actually less expensive than the price tag for most peer institutions, and most of that money goes to paying staff, maintaining facilities, and offering the academic opportunities that have made my education so worthwhile. But a not insignificant portion of Princeton’s money, whether from tuition or the overall endowment, goes to non-curricular aspects of student life — whose value is ephemeral.
Maybe a rationale for Princeton’s perks is that they act as a wealth equalizer. The university’s underwriting the costs of study breaks and other campus events mean that the average student doesn’t have to spend money to be a part of Ivy League socializing. This, in my mind, is an excellent reason to invest in the social experiences of a diverse study body.
At the same time, though, that student body is not actually very socioeconomically diverse: statistics from a recent New York Times study show that 72 percent of Princeton undergraduates come from the wealthiest 20 percent of the United States — and that roughly 17 percent are from the top 1 percent. Some of the most extremely wealthy people in this country enjoy the extravagant spending enabled by an endowment of more than $22 billion. And then these same students encourage one another to begin giving alumni donations immediately after graduation through the Annual Giving campaign. The elite reinvest in the elite.
When I think of my piles of free Princeton gear, of cases upon cases of catered food delivered daily to the Princeton community — all compounded by what I have felt is a general lack of recognition among the student body of the privilege behind these costs — I have to doubt if my university’s approach lives up to the school’s motto: “Princeton, in the Nation’s Service and the Service of Humanity.”
The largesse of university spending actually detracts from an undergraduate experience if it is to be one that prepares students to use their privilege to address what is the perhaps the most compelling issue of our day, that of persistent inequality. And because many universities in the United States spend their money similarly — the University of Colorado Boulder recently spent quite a bit of money on a large, buffalo-shaped swimming pool, as Dean Stirk pointed out — I also have begun to question the American model of higher education in its entirety.
Over the past few weeks I turned in my final essays for my last classes at Princeton. I took comprehensive exams for my department. From now until graduation, I am absolutely certain that I will enjoy a large smorgasbord of celebratory food and drinks until I walk on graduation day to pick up my diploma — and these celebrations will likely be of a scale that make a work dinner at Agricola seem small and unremarkable. That’s what concerns me most about my four years of Princeton privilege: that on some level, my classmates and I think that any of Princeton’s world is normal.
For many of us, it will be a wake-up call to graduate this June.
Editor’s note: After graduation, Norgaard will spend the fall doing freelance journalism and translation in New York before traveling to Brazil for the Labouisse Fellowship and a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Grant. While these fellowships provide generous support, Norgaard does not anticipate frequent champagne toasts, visits from therapy puppies, or high-end Adirondack chairs.