Cynthia Cherrey’s Tabula Rasa

by Sam Norton ’12

Many of the most consequential issues facing Princeton today fall under the jurisdiction of the Vice President for Campus Life, making that office’s current occupant, Cynthia Cherrey, one of the most influential figures in the administration.  Her views on these issues, and her approach to dealing with them, will shape the direction of the University for the duration of her tenure and beyond. To better understand what kinds of policies can be expected from Cherrey, the Tory sought her response to a series of questions, to which she graciously replied. Her answers evince a strong preference for deliberation and collaboration, while leaving her own plans for the University somewhat unclear.

Appointed just this spring, Cherrey came to Princeton after serving as Vice President for Student Affairs at Tulane University. Her experiences there formulated her desire for consensus. “If I have learned anything over the years,” she says, “it is the importance of involving others in decision-making when needed.” She stresses that, being new to Princeton, she is eager to learn more about the University, which she describes as “an institution rich in tradition,” and is hesitant to rush to judgment before thoroughly informing herself.

On various issues, Cherrey defers to the expertise of the various task forces and working groups that have been established to address specific concerns. She declines to elaborate on the University’s evolving relationship with the eating clubs, or the factors that will determine its policies toward fraternities and sororities, beyond referencing the committees responsible for studying these matters. Similarly, when asked about measures that might be taken to improve students’ postgraduate prospects in light of the grim economic situation and intense competition for admission to top-tier professional schools, Cherrey announces her intent to work alongside Career Services. With regard to community service and civic engagement initiatives, she mentions the Pace Center as a valuable resource.

Cherrey replaces the long-serving Janet Dickerson, for whom she has high praise, citing such contributions as the creation of the four-year residential college system, and organizations such as the Healthier Princeton Advisory Board and the Alcohol Coalition Committee. If Cherrey wishes to match or surpass Dickerson’s accomplishments, however, she will have to articulate a vision of where the University should go in the coming years.

A closer examination of the issues that fall under Cherrey’s jurisdiction demonstrates the potential drawbacks of a collaborative approach, and the imperative for leadership. With regards to eating clubs, for example, the recommendations propagated by the task force this spring have met with resistance from bicker clubs, which are an influential presence among undergraduates and alumni. If she decides to enact this plan, Cherrey will have to be willing to endure the ire of the bicker clubs, undermining her desire to promote consensus. In other instances, Cherrey might have to challenge her fellow administrators in order to promote reforms that she believes are best for the student body. If the working group on social life advocates recognizing fraternities and sororities, Cherrey will have to choose whether to endorse this suggestion or continue the policy of non-recognition currently advanced by President Tilghman. Similarly, Cherrey’s concerns about postgraduate opportunities for students could put her into conflict with Dean Malkiel, the most prominent supporter of the University’s grade deflation measures.

Listening to a range of voices and opinions is certainly a useful strategy, but ultimately, an administrator must be willing to make difficult and potentially unpopular decisions in order to be successful. The issues that confront us involve a patchwork of constituencies, many of which have a vested stake in maintaining the status quo, even when doing so goes against the interest of the university community as a whole. In some cases, attempting to please everyone will impede progress and lead to stagnation. Cherrey must seek a middle ground between rudderless decentralization and rigid authoritarianism.

Tory Questions and Cherrey’s Answers

In what ways do you think your past experiences have influenced your perspective on Princeton?

Past experiences help to shape how we go about doing our work. If I have learned anything over the years it is the importance of involving others in decision-making when needed.  Princeton is a university that values input from students, faculty and staff through various committees and communications. In my short time here, I have learned that Princeton is an institution that is rich in tradition, builds on its strengths and seeks to go beyond the status quo.

How would you evaluate the tenure of your predecessor, Janet Dickerson?

Vice President Dickerson made many contributions to undergraduate and graduate student life, such as her work with the four-year residential college system and various committees such as the Healthier Princeton Advisory Board and Alcohol Coalition Committee.

Of course, because I was not at the University then, I would defer to others who can elaborate further on her legacy.

How do you see the University’s relationship with the eating clubs evolving over the next few years?

The discourse of the Eating Clubs Task Force has fostered a closer partnership between the eating clubs and the University. We continue to partner to follow through on some of the recommendations outlined in the task force report.  (See Oct. 2010 Progress Report:

What factors will determine the University’s policies toward fraternities and sororities?

The Working Group on Social and Residential Life will have multiple ways for students to share their perspective on this topic to determine what is and should be the role of fraternities and sororities.  After all of the information is compiled, the working group will review, assimilate and make recommendations in a report that is scheduled to be completed in the spring semester.

What measures might you take to improve students’ postgraduate prospects in light of the twin challenges posed by grade deflation and the changing economy?

I am happy to speak to this question as it relates to Career Services, which falls under the Office of Vice President for Campus Life. (Any questions about grading are appropriate for ODOC.)

The economy has made career planning more challenging for college students in general.  With the Career Services staff, and with input from students, we are embarking on a process of how we can enhance and increase services for our students in their career exploration and search.

Are you satisfied with Princeton’s current efforts to promote diversity within the student body, and if not, what sorts of things might you do differently?

It is not a matter of doing differently, but working with campus colleagues to ensure that each and every student who comes to Princeton finds this to be a welcoming place and finds his or her place to contribute and to be successful.

What kinds of initiatives would you take to foster community service and civic engagement?

As a university we want to ensure that students have multiple ways to engage in community service and civic engagement. There are many good initiatives in place at the University that foster community service. Given this is my first semester here, it would be too early to evaluate whether additional opportunities should be explored, although I understand that the Pace Center studies these issues on a regular basis.

How do you anticipate the upcoming changes in the administration (Dean Malkiel stepping down next year, President Tilghman leaving in 2013) will affect Princeton?

My focus at this time is on my first year as Vice President for Campus Life and working with students and with academic and administrative colleagues to ensure that every student has an exceptional experience on campus. In my first semester here, I have valued the input and insight of various colleagues. Senior administrators on this campus tend to be extremely dedicated and concerned people who continue their contributions to Princeton long after a particular title or responsibility has expired.

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One thought on “Cynthia Cherrey’s Tabula Rasa

  • December 8, 2010 at 7:54 pm

    Seems that the author asked meaningful questions, all of which have gone unanswered or, at best, avoided by Ms. Cherrey. This fact alone is revealing.

    Mr. Norton Writes very well. Perhaps in the future he will select a more responsive person with real convictions and thoughts worthy of expression.


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