Wednesday, August 21, 2019

An Interview with President Jones on the White Paper and the New Social Rules

By: Peter Ragosta ’15

PJR: In the past few months, between the White Paper and the new social rules, there has been a definite feeling of social change on campus, so what would you tell students about the direction of social life at Trinity? 

JFJ: I would tell anybody, students or parents, or alums or anybody else that we are  trying our best without being omniscient or infallible to try to improve the social ethos on campus while the various faculty committees try to figure out ways to improve academic ethos. The other thing, as I’ve said to many of you, I have told my editors in Geneva,  Switzerland, that I would like to write a book entitled “Sir Isaac, Pascal, Einstein and the Boys Got It Wrong” – that would be the title of the book. And the subject of the book would be that it’s not the laws of the physical universe that govern us, but it’s really the laws of utter serendipity. I mean just look at what has happened in the last eight or nine months. So May of 2011 the faculty committee asks me to write a White Paper on Trinity in 2023. It’s one of the two or three hardest assignments – and I’ve written thousands of pages in the last 35 or 38 years; it’s one of the three hardest assignments of my career. So I worked and worked all summer long on the White Paper. In September, we were on draft 49 when it went to print, that says a lot about being completely obsessed about the writing project. Then we start the school year and we had — back to serendipity ruling the universe — we had the worst fall term socially speaking of my entire career. We had one infraction after another. I couldn’t believe it, it was like the social dark clouds were hovering right over Trinity and shooting thunderbolts down here. And we had very upset parents, very upset students; we had reputation issues that weren’t related to the external environment, that is Frog Hollow, but that the internal culture is unsafe. And then my old, I wouldn’t call her a friend, but certainly somebody we knew in the Texas years, Arianna Huffington, goes on that blog thing about us being the number one bro school. And the trustees, rightfully so, in October wanted to know what we were going to do to address the social problems that we have had. And again, I’ve never seen, it was like a rash, and they were not minor social problems — they were huge social problems. And we were seeing some consequences in admissions, in prospective students, we were seeing some consequences that were very damaging to the school’s reputation. Have we done the perfect thing, that’s a perfectly good question for somebody to ask, but we are not infallible and we are not omniscient and it was appalling to me, that at the student forum, somebody as decent and hardworking and caring about the students on this campus like Dean Alford got booed. I don’t know that I’ve ever been as ashamed, ever, in the soon to be eight years of being president here as I was of the student body. I was appalled by what happened, and if you were to have read my emails from students, I think the majority of students who were there were, I guess, after it was over, perhaps pretty embarrassed by their own behavior, at least to read by my own emails. You don’t solve problems by putting your head in the sand. So I hope we are moving in the right direction, and if we are not we will know that relatively soon and we will come up with alternatives. I still want to push on the pub because the lack of an external environment for all of you to walk to is a negative and it’s a fact of life. So we need to have more alternative structures on campus.

PJR: How do you think this is going to affect academics at Trinity?

JFJ:Well, the reason I used the theoretical metaphor of the helices and DNA is that the two are inextricably linked. And I find it very disheartening to hear my faculty colleagues who teach on Friday morning say such disturbing things about people coming to class unprepared, or not coming to class at all. And I would like to say to those students, what do you think your diploma stands for? And when you’re 30, do you want your diploma to stand for lower standards of academic rigor because of the interstices between the social life of the College and the academic? You want your diploma to stand for something of value. And believe me, if you look around the United States, the schools whereby the social ethos is out of control are not the ones that are considered places of eminence. We want Trinity to be a place of academic excellence. And so if the party structure is out of control, on any number of fronts simultaneously, then the trustees are right to hold me responsible for trying to correct the excesses while faculty look at various ways to improve, as we should all the time, the academic model. We are just asking the social model to be examined with the same rational scrutiny as we are asking the academic helix to be examined.

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