Column | Dec. 9

Untarnishable

A few weeks ago, amid a flurry of news reporters prowling our campus in a frenetic mission to share our story of meningitis with the world, I saw a tour crossing in front of Nassau Hall. At first, I was surprised to find out that people were still touring the school. Weren’t they just as scared as the rest of us?

But then I realized that the news about meningitis would not have stopped my family a few years ago. As a Californian family interested in visiting prestigious East Coast schools, almost nothing would have stopped us from visiting. An outbreak of meningitis — a deadly disease — would not have stopped my parents from encouraging me to apply here. Watching this tour amble by as if the news vans were invisible, I realized my family wasn’t the only one that thought this way.

At the time I saw this tour, no news of a vaccine had been released. These visitors had no clue how long such an epidemic would last or whether it would have a significant impact on the safety of all students. But that didn’t seem to hinder them. Maybe it was because all of Princeton’s recent safety risks — meningitis, bomb threats, shooting scares — aren’t exactly Princeton’s fault.

But what about things that our school can be blamed for? For all the hype about Susan Patton, our reputation has gone largely unscathed. Harvard’s cheating scandal has been the brunt of much ridicule, but will people stop applying to Harvard because of it? Dartmouth’s hazing abuses have received national attention as well, and Yale’s failure to suspend students found guilty of sexual assault has brought similar negative press.

What about the COMBO survey that came out last April, which suggested that almost half of Princeton students report feeling depressed?  These kinds of outrageous events and statistics come out at all top-tier universities, but in the long run, their reputations as model academic institutions do not suffer an extreme beating. People still view Princeton, Harvard, Yale and Dartmouth as great places to send the best and brightest students. Kids in high school still dream of being here. One could make the argument that these incidences are not representative of our schools, and so they shouldn’t have a severe impact on the way these campuses are viewed by the greater public. But these shocking facts should at least give us pause. It’s disconcerting that entire networks of people are somewhat blindly encouraging students to pursue academic careers in places that might otherwise be deemed unsafe and unfitting, given a different pre-existing reputation.

I, like most of my peers, love Princeton. To use a bit of what I learned from SOC 101: Introduction to Sociology my freshman year, I don’t think that a few “bad apples” should taint the barrel. But at the same time, I don’t think we should forget the situationist theory either — there are certain aspects of high-pressure environments, which could be found at any of the schools I mentioned, that might correlate with these kinds of behavioral results. When we’re stressed and overworked to a level that stretches us thinner than ever before, our attitudes and actions can change. We can begin to do things that are completely out of character, completely different from how we normally would behave. Our campus context may play a bigger role than we think. Sadly enough, others outside our gates may choose to let their eyes, green with envy and ivy, overlook such crucial factors in our reputation.

Prianka Misra is a sophomore from Castro Valley, Calif. She can be reached at pmisra@princeton.edu.

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