Thursday, October 22, 2009

Happy 263rd Birthday

It doesn't take as long to read the morning paper anymore, not like it used to anyway. Still, there is something about opening the newspaper each day, and it's something that TigerBlog hears from any number of people whenever he talks about how upwards of 95% of reading of newspapers is now done online.

TB's own trip through the paper involves certain stops along the way: the front page, quick glance through sports, check on the local high school results, maybe a look at transactions, Rick Freeman's "Diamond Reflections," news columns, Dilbert and Doonesbury, the daily jumbles and this day in history. By that point, the day's Corn Flakes have been consumed, and that's that.

Every now and then, TigerBlog is struck by some fact in the "this day in history" section that stands out, and there was another one there today: 1746 - Princeton University is chartered as the College of New Jersey.

TigerBlog then began to wonder why some of the schools that were formulated around the same time became the education superpowers that they are today, while others went in other directions. To figure it out, he checked with two of his favorite authorities: Wikipedia, and University archivist Dan Linke.

According to Wikipedia, Princeton is one of nine "colonial" colleges in the United States, a definition given to colleges who were chartered before the Declaration of Independence. The list (in order of charter):
William & Mary
University of West Philadelphia

Of that group, only two - William & Mary and Dartmouth - were chartered under the same name they now use.

There is also another group that follows of colonial era charters:
St. John's College (Maryland)
Washington & Lee
College of Charleston
Salem College (chartered as "the Little Girls' School; try that today)
Washington College

In other words, the first nine colleges chartered in the U.S. include seven schools that are currently in the Ivy League and two major public universities. The next 11 chartered include some high quality schools, but none that are on the level of the first nine.

For the answer to why, TB then turned to Linke, with an email that started out with "WARNING - DON'T SPEND ANY TIME ON THIS." Linke, and his predecessor Ben Primer, work in a fascinating place with a fascinating job: They are essentially giant fountains of information on anything to do with Princeton.

Linke's response included this: "I surmise one of the reasons would be money--as the oldest schools near centers of industry and finance, they had many students who went on to be captains of business and who then gave money to build the institution, which allows you to build labs and libraries and the like."

Ah, follow the money. As always.

As for Princeton, it was 118 years after its charter that the first intercollegiate athletic event in school history occured, a baseball game against Williams in 1864. It was 123 years after the charter that Princeton and Rutgers (two of the original nine) played the first college football game. It was 225 years before the first women's sporting event in school history, a field hockey game against Temple.

Princeton was at the forefront of pretty much every major advancement in intercollegiate athletics: the first football game, the establishment of the rules governing football, the formation of the NCAA itself. Princeton drew crowds that neared 100,000 for games against Yale and Harvard in various points around the Northeast more than a quarter-century before the National Football League came into existence.

TigerBlog can't help but think that Princeton's role in athletics helped it grow into the institution it is today. And again, seven of those first nine colleges are now equated with the academic greatness that goes along with being considered an Ivy League school, yet Ivy League is first and foremost an athletic distinction.

Today, as it turns 263, Princeton is recognized as one of the world's greatest universities. It has grown from those earliest days to become what it is today, a place that strives for excellence in everything it does, from eduction within its classrooms to the many areas outside of its classrooms, including the performing arts, alumni relations, public service and yes athletics.

TigerBlog often says that when you come to work every day here at HQ, it's easy to forget that we work in a place that many people pay to get into, in a place that was built primarily as a basketball arena.

That thought can be expanded to include the University as a whole. Those who work here come here every day, park their car, head into their office and maybe lose track of the fact that they are at a place that is so special.

So happy birthday Princeton. You look pretty good for 263.


Anonymous said...

Dan Linke’s response is undoubtedly correct directionally. Being first in any market (such as higher education) is an advantage and of course having access to money, whether through alumni or otherwise, is essential. But consider the following as an additional factor: Until the late nineteenth century, all of the nine colonial colleges were small, financially stretched mini-institutions at the periphery of American life. In an era when far fewer than 1% of the population went to college, that made sense. It wasn’t until the turn of the twentieth century that the Ivies and others began to grow exponentially, adding students, departments and graduate/professional schools along the way. That is when the Ivy universities began their climb to worldwide reputations, displacing Cambridge and Oxford along the way.

Is it entirely a coincidence that this happened at almost the exact point in American history when the Ivies expanded their place in the public consciousness not as centers of teaching and research but as football teams? In an era with no meaningful professional sports teams, Yale and Princeton playing before 100,000 fans in New York was the closest thing this culture had to a Super Bowl.

One can conjecture that HYP are the most famous Ivies because they are the oldest. But all the Ivies except Cornell (the youngest) were idling in neutral for over a century until football brought them to the public’s attention. Are HYP the most famous because they are the oldest or because they had the best football teams at the exact moment in history when having the best football teams had the greatest institutional value?

P.S. Penn was chartered in 1755. Its claims to being founded in 1740 were fabricated out of thin air, presumably to appear older than Princeton and Columbia. Can't blame them for trying, but rather tacky, wouldn't you say?

Princeton OAC said...

TigerBlog has seen both Princeton and UWP refer to themselves as the fourth-oldest college in the country and never understood why. Thanks for the clarification. As for tackiness at West Philadelphia, TB has seen plenty of it.

Dan Linke said...

I consulted with a faculty member
who is an educational historian when he came in to Mudd Library today to do some research and I put the question to him. He concurred with the good fortune of the schools that had good fortunes, but added that how they spent their money was another reason--some ideas were better than others for their times. He said that other reasons come into play as well, such as luck--not having your main building burn down and then having to rebuild it, as one example, and added that an article on this he knows of notes that there seems to be a correlation between the success of schools based on the founders' religious denominations, with Presbyterians and Congregationalists having more success than Baptists or Anglicans. He did not elaborate on any theological reasons behind this, but just noted the co-incidence.

Speaking for myself, I think the anonymous commenter who brings up football as a factor has a point. There is no doubt that the answer to this question has many variables, but one would certainly be the fame (and success) of one's sports teams in an era when there were few professional alternatives to occupy the nation's imagination. But while Princeton's football successes in the 1890s-1920s were great, by 1920, they were on the wane, while the school's academic success continued its ascent. So there are certainly more factors to consider in answering this question.

Dan Linke
Princeton University Archivist