Princeton Releases Michelle Obama's Senior Thesis

This story was written by Esther Breger, The Daily Princetonian
Michelle Obama's thesis was released to the public by Princeton University Tuesday after several days of media scrutiny over its availability and content.

The campaign of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), her husband, received criticism from conservative media and bloggers when the University restricted access to her senior thesis until after the presidential election in November.

"A thesis can be restricted or unrestricted for a variety of reasons, including at the request of alumni," University spokeswoman Cass Cliatt '96 said in an e-mail. "It falls within the purview of alumni to discuss their academic work," she said.

Analysis of the thesis' content, in addition to its restricted availability, has featured prominently in blogs over the last few days. Written under Obama's maiden name of Michelle LaVaughn Robinson and titled "Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community," the thesis has come under scrutiny as the presidential campaign has advanced for its analysis of race relations.

What's in the thesis?

Obama, who concentrated in sociology and received a certificate in African-American studies, examined how the attitudes of black alumni have changed over the course of their time at the University. "Will they become more or less motivated to benefit the Black community?" Obama wrote in her thesis.

After surveying 89 black graduates, Obama concluded that attending the University as an undergraduate decreased the extent to which black alumni identified with the black community as a whole.

Obama drew on her personal experiences as an example.

"As I enter my final year at Princeton, I find myself striving for many of the same goals as my White classmates -- acceptance to a prestigious graduate school or a high-paying position in a successful corporation," she wrote, citing the University's conservative values as a likely cause.

"Predominately White universities like Princeton are socially and academically designed to cater to the needs of the White students comprising the bulk of their enrollments," she said, noting the small size of the African-American studies department and that there were only five black tenured professors at the University across all departments.

Obama studied the attitudes of black Princeton alumni to determine what effect their time at Princeton had on their identification with the black community. "My experiences at Princeton have made me far more aware of my 'Blackness' than ever before," she wrote in her introduction. "I have found that at Princeton no matter how liberal and open-minded some of my White professors and classmates try to be toward me, I sometimes feel like a visitor on campus; as if I really don't belong."

Emeritus sociology professor Walter Wallace, who served as her thesis adviser, declined to comment for this story.

"It is important to consider the time period in which Michelle Obama wrote her thesis," College Democrats vice president Scott Weingart '09 said in an e-mail. "In 1985, Princeton was still a very conservative school; [Tiger Inn] would not admit women members for another six years. Today, the student body is a lot more progressive and diverse."

Completed theses are kept in Mudd Manuscript Library and are generally available to the public for viewing and scanning. Before today, callers to Mudd requesting information on Obama's thesis were told that the thesis has been made "temporarily unavailable" and were directed to the University Office of Communications. Following the thesis' release by the Obama campaign to politico.com, a political news site, the University lifted the restriction.

The University's actions were met with varying reactions by students.

"The school shoud generally default to freedom of information unless there is some compelling school or personal (e.g. the request of the author) interest at stake," Jason Anton '10, co-director of the Students for Barack Obama Princeton chapter, said in an e-mail.

"There's nothing about a senior thesis that's private in nature -- it's written with the knowledge that it will be kept in Mudd for all to read," Zahava Stadler '11 said.

Many students felt that the contents of the work could become a factor in the election, but they were unsure to what extent it would affect the outcome.

"Unfortunately, the thesis may very well revive the race card as a central theme of the election," Anton said.

"Her thesis seems especially pertinent given the questions that have been raised off and on about the supposed 'tight-rope' of racial identity politics that some claim Senator Obama has to carefully navigate," College Democrats president Rob Weiss '09 said in an e-mail.

Molly Alarcon '10, an Obama supporter, said she thought Michelle Obama's writing in college should not have any bearing on her husband's election, but her view was not shared by all students.

"In using Michelle Obama on the campaign trail, the Obama camp has made her a figure, and therefore a factor, in the campaign," Stadler said. "Her opinions and background are just as relevant as those of Obama's spokespeople and campaign manager, no more and no less."
© 2008 The Daily Princetonian via U-WIRE
  • CBSNews

Comments