Op-Ed: A case against the ‘Lafayette ideal’ and the Pepper Prize

It’s around that time of the year again, when a graduating senior will soon be awarded the George Wharton Pepper Prize.  Seniors who are academically successful and have “noteworthy participation” in campus activities that build the community on- and off-campus are eligible for the prize, but the college website adds that “academic brilliance or athletic prowess alone is not the criterion.

Most people who are nominated are deemed not fit to represent the “ideal” Lafayette senior by a committee consisting of faculty, students and staff. Given the demographics of the winners of the last decade, it’s not hard to see that some involvements on campus seemed to weigh more heavily than others, and “the Lafayette ideal” is created with a very specific group of people in mind. 

Let’s look at some data.

  • The first ever Black woman (and the only Black to be selected in the past decade) to win the Pepper Prize was selected in 2017, 94 years after the first Pepper Prize was awarded in 1923.
  • In the last decade, four winners majored in government and law, five in biology or neuroscience and one in economics.
  • All ten winners went on to medical or law schools.
  • More than half of the last ten winners were involved with varsity athletics or Greek life, or both. 

It is well known that varsity athletes are explicitly and strongly encouraged to vote for other athletes, and Greek life members vote for their fellow brothers and sisters. The entire system bends for people that have connections, and you don’t get those connections unless you are within certain demographic groups on campus.

Given the recent climate on Greek life on campus, it will be interesting to see who the Pepper Prize finalists and winner will be this year. On the one hand, nearly 40% of campus is involved in Greek life and their votes could help decide the winner. On the other, nearly half the campus thinks that Greek life does not have a positive impact. Should this political machine help choose the representative of the current Lafayette ideal?

As a person of color who is not in one of the more popular majors and is not involved in a varsity sport or Greek life, I’ve come to learn that I do not align with “the Lafayette ideal.” This is not to take away from previous winners’ individual brilliance–most of them have accomplished wonders during their time at Lafayette and beyond. But the majority of this campus has and will always be its own faction that heavily influences what it means to resemble “the Lafayette ideal.”

Maybe, just maybe, it’s time we throw out any singular “ideal” endorsed by the tyranny of the majority, and start recognizing more individuals who may lack a certain label but have shaped our community into something better in their own ways.