01/14/2006 06:27 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Samuel Alito and the Concerned Alumni of Princeton

Over the past several days, there has been much discussion -- both in the Senate and the media -- about the meaning of Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito's membership in a group called the Concerned Alumni of Princeton (CAP). But the larger significance of Alito's affiliation with CAP has been lost in what has become a visibly partisan issue. As someone who spent a fair amount of time researching the history of CAP for a book on the history of admissions to Harvard, Yale, and Princeton called The Chosen, I wanted to share a few thoughts about what CAP stood for -- and what Alito meant to communicate by highlighting his membership in it on his 1985 job application for promotion within the Justice Department of the Reagan administration:

1. The animating force behind the alumni revolt at Princeton was the university's decision in January 1969 to admit women. Within four weeks, a conservative group calling itself the Alumni Committee to Involve Itself Now (ACTION) was founded. After its spirited attempt to block the admission of women failed, ACTION was succeeded in 1972 by the Concerned Alumni of Princeton (CAP).

2. Though the presence of women on campus was a fact by 1972, the founder of CAP, Shelby Cullom Davis '30, a wealthy investment banker, made clear his wish to restore a student body such as the one that had attended his father's 50th reunion: "a body of men relatively homogenous in interests and backgrounds, who had known and liked each other over the years." But CAP was more than nostalgic; it was, in the quite literal sense of the word, reactionary. Noting that the trend toward more women and minorities was "by no means irreversible," Davis declared that just as "Princeton's women population had increased from 0 to 170 to 400 to 755 to a goal of 1200, so too can it similarly decline." He then proposed "a goal of 10-20% women and minorities" combined for Princeton.

3. CAP's official position was to set a quota limiting the number of women. It repeatedly and vigorously came out in favor of imposing a ceiling on the number of women and opposed sex-blind admissions. In so doing, it acted in violation of that most fundamental of American values, the idea that advancement in America should be based on performance rather than accidents of birth.

4. Alito's supporters have claimed that his declaration of membership in CAP twenty years ago is irrelevant to assessing whether he should be appointed to the Supreme Court. But would they say the same of a nominee to the Court who at age 35 had highlighted his membership in an organization that was on record as favoring the imposition of quotas limiting the number of Jews?

5. By 1975, CAP was judged to be so extreme that the Princeton trustees, a generally conservative body filled with corporate executives, issued an Alumni Affairs Committee Report that sharply criticized CAP as a disloyal opposition. According to the Report, CAP had sown "doubt, discontent, and disaffection" and "cost the university financial and volunteer support it would otherwise have had."

6. By the mid-1980s, having failed in its effort to restore the Princeton of old, CAP had become increasingly shrill. In one particularly inflammatory article in Prospect, the publication of CAP, the author (in what was perhaps a gauche attempt at satire) wrote that "people nowadays don't seem to know their place. Everywhere one turns blacks and hispanics are demanding jobs simply because they are black and hispanic, the physically handicapped are trying to gain equal representation in professional sports, and homosexuals are demanding that government vouchsafe them the right to bear children."

7. Why, then, in late 1989 -- 13 years after CAP was founded -- would the mild-mannered Samuel Alito tout his membership in such an organization as he sought the job of Deputy Assistant Attorney General? When asked during the Senate hearings about why he had joined CAP, Alito -- whose memory of Supreme Court Cases seems quite remarkable -- said that he had difficulty recalling. When pressed, however, he claimed that "The issue that had rankled me about Princeton for some time was the issue of ROTC." But this strains credulity, for as the Daily Princeton pointed out, ROTC had returned to Princeton campus by the time CAP was founded in 1972, and the issue of ROTC did not even make a list of CAP's eight "basic principles and priorities" publicly enunciated in 1976. In all likelihood, Alito -- who was by all accounts a marginal and inactive member of CAP -- highlighted his membership in the organization for the most prosaic of reasons: he thought that it would signal to the movement conservatives who controlled appointments in the Justice Department that he shared their values and was a member of their network. Alito was not wrong, and in late 1985 -- shortly after Prospect published what turned out to be its last issue -- he received the promotion that helped place him on the path to the Supreme Court.