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In the entrance of historic Nassau Hall at the heart of Princeton University is Memorial Atrium, designed in 1920 to commemorate the Princeton students and alumni killed in battle. Six hundred and forty-six names are inscribed on its walls, including seventy who died in the Civil War. As campus legend has it, thirty-five died fighting for the Union and thirty-five for the Confederacy.

But the memorial does not say. It does not distinguish between the Northerners and Southerners because, for better or worse, they were all Princetonians. In the same vein, the memorial does not list the dead’s birth or death years: It lists only their (would-be) Princeton graduation years. A memorial in Yale’s Woolsey Hall does the same.

Is this whitewashing history? Is it celebrating men who fought for an evil cause? Yes. But I’ve also always thought there was something noble about it—about an institution’s efforts to unite sworn foes and forge a common identity, “Princetonian,” that transcends the greatest political divides. I don’t suppose it’s hyperbolic to say that if Princeton and its peer institutions had done a better job of bridging the divide before the Civil War, then maybe, maybe, such a war would never have been necessary.

One thing is clear: Our universities are failing to unite political enemies and forge common identities now. The keffiyeh-clad students who run around campuses shouting “Intifada!” while celebrating the cancellation of in-person classes are activists first and students a very distant second. Those who have occupied Beinecke Plaza, right outside Yale’s Civil War Memorial, do not see pro-Israel students as their fellow Yalies—they scarcely see them as their fellow humans. They see them as a problem, to be taunted, blocked, and poked in the eye. Or worse: As one undergraduate leader of the Columbia protests actually said, “Zionists don’t deserve to live.” 

This disunion and dehumanization did not start on October 7. Already in 2022, pro-Palestine Princetonians applied for (and were granted) “no-communication orders” against Jewish student journalists, ensuring that they never had to speak with or even be in the same room as their opponents. And I can remember, while a student at Princeton in 2015, the chilling looks of derision and scorn from members of Princeton’s Black Justice League, when I and my fellow co-founders of the Princeton Open Campus Coalition tried naively to counter their “anti-racist” demands with appeals to Martin Luther King Jr. The fact that we were all Princetonians, working—I thought—to make our shared university a better place, seemed entirely lost on them.

Still, that was an anomaly during my college years. And those of us who remember cheerfully spirited political debates around college dining tables in the not-so-distant past may find it hard to believe that our institutions have fallen so far, so fast. How did we get here?

I’m hardly the first to point a finger at the DEI regime, which has indoctrinated young Americans with the belief that Jews are white people and that white people are oppressors—and that oppressors are undeserving of the same rights, privileges, and respect as those who are considered “oppressed.” DEI fuels the Berkeley law students who felt entitled to commandeer dinner at Dean Erwin Chemerinsky’s private home, just as it fueled the Yale undergraduates who in 2015 felt entitled to scream profanities at Professor Nicholas Christakis after his wife circulated an email about culturally insensitive Halloween costumes.

But there’s more to be said, about DEI’s war on institutional identity. DEI splinters communities—and by design. From the first days of college, when freshmen (er, “first years”) are categorized in mandatory orientation sessions by socioeconomic status and sexuality, to graduation, when seniors are encouraged to attend separate ceremonies for different cultural affinity groups (Asian Pacific Islander Desi Graduation; Latinx Graduation; Middle Eastern, North African & Arab Graduation; Native American & Indigenous Graduation; Pan-African Graduation), students are taught that identities other than “Princetonian” define who they are and what they have to offer the university.

And while these other identities are made to be sources of pride, “Princetonian” is tainted: Princeton’s own president tells students that the university is systemically racist.

DEI also kills the idiosyncratic traditions that can unite a community in silliness and song. The notoriously irreverent Stanford marching band now studiously avoids controversy after years of administrative sanctions; the Princeton Triangle Club, of which I was once a member, in 2018 added women to its famous all-male drag kickline. (Of course, DEI kills humor, too: men doing a kickline badly is funny; women doing a kickline badly is just sad.) I think most wistfully of the “Around-the-Tree” ceremony at the all-girls school I attended from Kindergarten through 12th Grade: Every year on the day before winter break, the whole community, including dozens of returning alumnae, would gather to hold hands, circle around a Christmas tree and a menorah, and sing festive holiday songs. After I graduated, the Christmas tree was replaced by an olive tree, with a Crate & Barrel tag still hanging off it. And now there’s just a generic “Winter Celebration.” No tree, few songs, and some unironic snowflakes projected on the wall.

As the protests continue and university presidents cling to their jobs, they keep trying to appeal to common values and community—to (in the words of Columbia’s Minouche Shafik) “rebuild the ties that bind us together.” But after decades of deliberate balkanization, the rhetoric rings hollow. To the left-wing majority in academia, institutional loyalty is meaningless, if not deplorable. And the conservatives who do value the role of institutional loyalty in civic life have nevertheless deservedly lost trust in these particular institutions.

And so, unfortunately, our universities are getting the commencement season they deserve. Columbia’s being forced to cancel its university-wide graduation ceremony is the logical outcome of DEI’s ongoing attack on institutional spirit, tradition, and camaraderie. Instead of caps and gowns, keffiyehs. Instead of silly inflatable lions, inflatable tents. Instead of “Stand, Columbia,” “From the river to the sea.”

Does it come as any surprise that in recent years Princeton and Yale’s Civil War memorials have been subject to criticism? Today’s left is so certain of its moral rectitude that it cannot imagine ever ending up on the “wrong side of history.” But we should all hope that if it ever comes to it (and let’s pray it does not), in a hundred years some architect takes pity on us, too, and records our names side by side, without distinction.

Solveig Lucia Gold is the Thomas W. Smith Postdoctoral Research Associate at Princeton University’s James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions.

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Image by Ken Lund via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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