At least since I have been on campus and Shirley Tilghman has been University president – both situations date to fall 2001 – the Princeton Tory and the Organization of Women Leaders have not been able to get along. OWL does something silly, the Tory gets worked up and publishes an article about it (my favorite: the Tory cover with the owl shot dead from its tree), OWL fights back with Prince editorials and panel discussions, and then it starts all over again. Or maybe the Tory publishes an article, and OWL gets mad, etc.

A recent New York Times article helpfully summarized for Times readers the ongoing campus debate over President Tilghman’s appointments of women to high-profile positions. (The women in question are provost Amy Gutmann, now bound for the presidency at Penn; engineering school dean Maria Klawe; Woodrow Wilson School dean Anne-Marie Slaughter ’80; and admissions dean Janet Rapelye.) I won’t say that this is a topic of concern only to OWL and Tory members, but these groups and their members have been at the forefront of the discussion. The Times article included a few really lovely quotes, such as this, from Tory editor-in-chief Evan Baehr: “There is an ideological notion – unquestionably liberal – within the context of women in academia that runs contrary to the Princeton of the 1950’s and 1960’s… It is impossible to divorce female appointments from overall liberal ideology.” This, too, from Baehr: “[Rapelye] is a progressive liberal and could change the shape of the student body … not so much in terms of gender composition, but she may be looking for people with green hair rather than the typical Brooks Brothers/J. Crew student.” Quelle horreur: all us J. Crew-clad (read: “real”) Princetonians, trampled under the heavily-booted feet of green-haired (probably lesbian) armies!

Frustrating as may be the Tory’s constant, nonchalant dismissal of logical argument – the equivalent of the eight-year-old who, when a friend tries to tell him some unwanted piece of news, yells, “I’m not listening to you!” and then begins to hum – OWL is not often much better, extolling Tilghman for her female appointments in ham-handed panels and editorials, pleading with us, begging, that we all become “gender-blind”. “When will we finally accept that women can earn positions of power based on their qualifications and not their chromosomes?”, asked Prince columnist Katherine Reilly last fall. Well, I do not know when “we” will accept this, but “I” never really thought anything else. (In fairness, Reilly’s Prince columns are her own, not OWL’s; but she is the current OWL president.) (1)

It’s not that I disagree with OWL about Tilghman’s appointments. I think it’s worth noting, as Dean of the College Nancy Weiss Malkiel did at an OWL-sponsored panel discussion last spring, that women administrators did not suddenly appear under Tilghman; according to Malkiel, “In the last 30 years, in 15 of those years, a woman has held the position of dean of students. For more than 25 of those years, a woman has been dean of the college.” And if it’s true that each of the four women Tilghman has appointed replaced a man, it’s also true that she has appointed many men to high places. Besides, Tilghman has repeatedly stated that in each of these cases the woman appointed was the most qualified candidate. I don’t know much about Maria Klawe, but I don’t doubt for a second the qualifications of Anne-Marie Slaughter, Princeton-, Oxford-, and Harvard-educated and one of the world’s leading experts on international law, to lead the Wilson School.

But so it goes, ad infinitum, blah blah blah. I (or anyone) could write paragraph after paragraph of such rebuttals, so tiresome to type, so – it would seem – wholly unnecessary, such inelegant excrescence of tedious prose. What is anyone in this debate arguing against, or even for? I am not quite sure what Baehr and friends would like; if they really desire a return to the 1950s, that is certainly their prerogative. Still, they might be happier if they could somehow come to terms with the fact that theirs is an impossible dream. A university without any women in high places could only exist in some bygone decade (2) — though even in the ’50s there were scary liberals running around (I think they were called “Communists”).

And I don’t know what OWL hopes to achieve here either. Recognition that sometimes, women are qualified for high positions? Who would argue these days? Even the Tory probably gets down with Condi Rice.

Louis Menand has written that the 1960s could use a little less weepy nostalgia and a little less moralistic censure, that the polarizing decade “could use the attention of some people who really don’t care.” Perhaps I can provide some such indifferent attention to this particular campus hurricane. I really don’t care if President Tilghman appoints a woman or a man to the next vacant office; ideally, of course, she would simply appoint the best-qualified candidate for the job, but long ago I gave up my childhood faith in the possibility of the ideal to become real, all or even much of the time. The people sitting in offices in West College and Nassau Hall probably affect my life in some way; but they don’t affect it very much so far as I can tell, certainly not enough for me to get worked up about whether or not they have a penis.

To step back from the cliff of Menandian objectivity, I do have real concerns about some of what Shirley Tilghman has done as president, concerns which I think that other students share. My sense that her administration values esoteric “scholarship” head and shoulders over mentoring and teaching – evidenced by the Andrew Isenberg tenure controversy – is one such thing that worries me. Perhaps this has something to do with her being a “godless liberal,” or in any case a scientist; I don’t see how it could have anything to do with the fact that she is a woman.

If I find some day that I am unemployable in academia because of my vagina, I will join up with OWL the next day; if I find myself at Reunions 2030 alone in a sea of green-haired monsters, I will allow John Andrews himself the glory of a gleeful “I told you so.” Since, and perhaps this is just my own ignorance or apathy or blindness, I believe that neither of these scenarios is very likely, having now contributed my two cents – “I don’t care” – I am going to retreat to my cave and continue not to care.

The conservative end of the political spectrum is a fascinating place these days (whatwith all those crazy Neocons and their doctrines of pre-emptive war, those social liberal-fiscal conservatives and vice versa mixing everything up); instead of exploring real, compelling conservative issues the Tory prefers to construct fantastical eschatologies in which the Tilghman administration is the harbinger of End Times. If that’s what they want to do, fine with me. Similarly, women in leadership positions do continue to face obstacles men don’t, especially when it comes to balancing work and family, but OWL prefers to plan sex seminars and conferences about “glass ceilings,” an incessant much a-hoot about nothing. Fine. All of this means that neither the Tory nor OWL is ever very relevant to my life; still, their frequent scuffles with each other are occasionally amusing in their comic extremes. This particular quarrel is merely tiresome, and pointless.

1. Though I’m arguing against her here, it should be noted that Reilly, at least, makes reasoned arguments, and is thus a refreshing change from previous OWL leaders, who, rather than acknowledge the possible validity of other students’ concerns with OWL’s activities (say, its “Hooters” T-shirts, or its ad campaigns exalting “sexy dresses and don’t-mess-with-me shoes”), tended to respond with empty caveats that made dialogue impossible: “of course we don’t represent everyone, we don’t try to; so you can’t attack us for anything! Ha!” Here’s just one choice excerpt, from former OWL president Jessica Brondo’s missive to the Prince in the wake of last year’s Cake sex workshop controversy: “It is upsetting how willing people are to disparage OWL without actually speaking to an officer to learn the exact intentions of our events.” As though one can have no valid concerns with OWL once one knows the officers’ “exact intentions” (maybe the intentions are exactly what raise concern?), or, more to the point, as though OWL itself might not bear the onus for effectively advertising the intentions of its own events.

2. Aside from military academies and Catholic seminaries, there remain two all-male institutions of higher learning in the United States. At first, I thought a transfer to such a college might be just the ticket for the Tory types; but in each case there are problems. The gentlemanly Hampden-Sydney College in southern Virginia has been producing chivalrous cavaliers as long as there’s been a Declaration of Independence, but even at Hampden-Sydney the dean of admissions is a woman. Then there is Morehouse College in Atlanta, with an administration and student body perhaps impeccably masculine but almost exclusively African-American. I trust the folks at the Tory love people of every race, but I doubt they would be very happy in a place which, among other things, went so strongly for Gore in 2000.