Yes, Sotomayor deserved her success

The former president of Princeton says questions about the judge's time at the school have no merit.

By Alex Koppelman

Published June 8, 2009 5:10PM (EDT)

As Fred Barnes told us recently, there's no reason not to believe that Sonia Sotomayor's time at Princeton was just the product of affirmative action. After all, "there's some schools and maybe Princeton's not one of them, where if you don't get summa cum laude then or some kind of cum laude, you then, you're a D+ student." (Never mind that what Sotomayor earned was indeed summa cum laude, the highest Latin honor possible.)

Barnes' suggestion was, of course, patently ridiculous, and offensive to boot: Does anyone seriously believe that these kinds of conversations would be occuring if Sotomayor wasn't a Hispanic woman?

And, it turns out, he was wrong about Sotomayor. William Bowen, who became president of Princeton in time for Sotomayor's freshman year, 1972, and continued in the job until 1988, gave an interview to the New Yorker in which he continually praises Sotomayor and what she accomplished during her time in college.

"The reason I remember her extremely well is, first, she was a presence. Not in the sense that she was someone who pushed herself on you, which she never did -- it’s not her character at all -- but just because of what she did, how accomplished she was. You couldn’t help but notice a student that exceptional," Bowen said in the interview.

"She was chosen -- I was one of the people who did the choosing -- as the Pyne Prize winner in her class. That’s the highest prize Princeton bestows on undergraduates, given to a student with a record of excellent academics. But you can’t be considered for the Pyne Prize unless you’re more than that. It’s for leadership, it’s for being a responsible citizen of the university community, and she had it all. She had, as they say these days, the full package ... This is a woman of enormous ability. She was going to succeed and going to thrive wherever she was, in any setting. And she did. She accomplished what she accomplished because she was good!"

To be clear, this post isn't about advocating for Sotomayor's confirmation -- not my job, and not what I do here. I'm highlighting the Bowen interview here because I found what Barnes said truly awful and completely offensive. People say insulting things about various public figures all the time -- that's politics -- but this kind of questioning of Sotomayor's academic qualifications just makes my blood boil. It wouldn't be done to a white man, and everyone involved knows it. But somehow they believe it's all right to do to Sotomayor because she's not a white man, and so dark whispers about affirmative action being responsible for her success are OK.

Speaking of affirmative action, the Bowen interview is worth reading in full, because at some point they get off the Sotomayor topic and into a discussion of affirmative action generally. Bowen's a big supporter, has written one book about it and is releasing another soon, and has some very interesting things to say about it.

Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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