A select group from Princeton University’s “silent generation,” busy accumulating privilege and power since the 1950s, has decided that wealth is not enough and is setting out to change society.
Inspired by their least silent classmate, Ralph Nader, 120 members of Princeton’s Class of 1955 have set up a nonprofit organization to train future leaders, shepherd undergraduates into public-interest fields and sponsor classmates who want to tackle social ills.
They have already met with contemporary alumni of 11 other colleges in the hope of triggering a nationwide movement of civic involvement.
Students in the 1950s at Princeton, the expensive and exclusive, grassy and Gothic enclave of the Ivy League in central New Jersey, were dubbed “the silent generation” after a thin but highly publicized volume of essays revealed that students there were more concerned with self than society.
“We were known as the silent generation, notwithstanding Ralph Nader’s work,” said Stephen M. Boyd, who heads Princeton Project 55 after practicing law in Paris and Washington. Now, he says, “the silent generation is finding its voice.”
“We did graduate in a time when no one questioned our institutions. We were all pretty proud of them. . . . Now, after 35 years, our education system is failing, the environment is in trouble, families are disintegrating, people are without houses.”
The project sprouted from Nader’s objections to alumni traditions. “We were pampered, flattered and stroked and asked to give money, but never asked what we thought,” Nader said in an interview recently.
At a reunion last April, Nader suggested that his class endow a center that would work to get students involved in civic affairs--through summer projects, yearlong internships in public-service jobs and referrals to public-interest work after graduation.
Classmate Charles W. Bray III, a former ambassador and State Department spokesman, said that Nader’s idea was not ambitious enough, that fellow alumni needed to involve themselves aswell.
Princeton Project 55 plans to sponsor a nonpartisan Center for Civil Leadership in Princeton, with an endowment of between $5 million and $10 million.
The members are considering 15 proposed projects on problems such as affordable housing, affordable utilities and waste disposal. The first might begin next spring.
Bray described a problem he would like to see tackled: Government spends $4.8 billion a year to help the poor in Cook County, Ill. (including Chicago), but 780,000 residents still were living below the poverty line in 1984. If the money were given directly to the poor, most would be able to rise above the poverty line. “But two-thirds of that $4.8 billion goes to us--people who run organizations and live in the suburbs. That’s not working.”
A lifelong advocate of change and organizer of the young and idealistic, Nader thinks he has found a catalyst for change where one would least expect it--in the power structure.
“Historically, change in this country has been driven by the young, never by this generation,” Nader said. “This group represents the power structure. These people get their calls returned.”
Besides Nader, the project board includes two former U.S. ambassadors, a former AT&T; vice president, a surgeon, two professors, two foundation executives, a Washington lawyer and two corporate presidents.
“Fifty-five is the age when many corporations permit early retirement. Increasingly, members of our generation are tired of their jobs and are taking that option,” Boyd said, “but the golf and shuffleboard circuit is not of interest to us.”
At a meeting this month, they discussed their plans with representatives of the Class of 1955 from Alverno College, the University of Chicago, Fordham, Notre Dame, Oberlin, Spellman, Stanford, Vassar, the University of Wisconsin, Washington University in St. Louis--and Yale.
After the meeting, Jack Flynn began planning a survey of Notre Dame’s Class of 1955 to see if they would like to assist nearly 2,000 Notre Dame undergraduates who work on social concerns in 90 cities.
Catherine Milton, director of Stanford’s Center for Public Service, said she was checking to see if law, medical and engineering graduates there would be interested in copying a Stanford business school program in which graduates advised nonprofit organizations on management.
Nader said the Princeton group wants to change whole systems that are failing.
“This is not charity,” he said. As one who often has been on the wrong side of powerful interests, he warned his classmates: “We’re not going to avoid collisions with power.”