The True Founding of Forbes

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Few things can deflate the enthusiasm of Princeton’s incoming freshmen on move-in day. In awe of all the incredible sights around them from the historic Nassau Hall to the couple making out near Frist, the newest Princetonians stroll through the campus so bright-eyed and bushy-tailed that the short ones tend to be mistaken for squirrels. Yet for some of these students, that first walk to the new dorm room is extra-long, continuing westward far away from the stone campus buildings and into the 08540 zip code. After a long and sweaty journey in the Jersey humidity, they finally arrive at Forbes College, the inn-turned-residential-college that will be their home for the next two years. Being in Forbes can be a bit of a disappointment for those first-year students who dreamt of living at the heart of their school, but according to recent research, there is a hidden history behind the walk to these far-off dormitories.

In a review of academic reports, official letters, and articles in The Daily Princetonian as well as in real newspapers, historians have found evidence suggesting that Forbes was created to solve a problem that has been covered up by campus officials for over 20 years. According to documentation, the number of applicants to Princeton expressing interest in the BSE program increased significantly after construction of the E-Quad was completed in 1962. But while the quantity of BSE applicants went up, the quality of these students went down. The average grade on engineering exams plummeted, and the number of students who dropped out of engineering in the freshman, sophomore, and even junior years was unprecedented. More and more students were struggling to finish their degrees, but enough of the weaker ones graduated from the engineering school to hurt the university’s rankings.

The issue worsened until 1983 when an anonymous faculty member came up with what he called the Project For Our Really Bad Engineering Students, or Project FORBES. After a long discussion with the professor over late meal, the admissions officers agreed to his plan. The following day, they located the applications of all accepted students who had applied to the engineering school since the Engineering Quadrangle was built as well as information about their performance as engineers. They then passed this data on to representatives from the math department. After going through all the files, the mathematicians came up with over a thousand variables that could possibly be indicative of success in the engineering school, noting everything from number of siblings to occurrence of the word ‘very’ in the application essay. Six months later, they finalized an algorithm to predict who among the aspiring engineers would excel and who would eventually fail based on characteristics of their application.

This is where the building we now know as Forbes College came in. The inn was bought in 1984 specifically to house aspiring engineering students who admissions officers saw great potential in but were statistically incompatible with engineering as determined by the algorithm. Located at the far western corner of the campus, the new building would be a 20-minute trek from the E-Quad, and the founder of Project FORBES believed it would only take a few of these tiring walks to discourage the weak engineers from continuing in the program. The anonymous faculty member demanded that the new residential college be named after Project FORBES, but officials paid Malcom Forbes Jr. ’70 to cover up the story and say the building was a gift from him. To further hide Project FORBES, incoming AB students were placed into Forbes as well. Though risky, Project FORBES was a success, and by the end of 1990, the Princeton engineering program was again thriving.

While campus officials refused to comment for this article, no documentation has been found on the end of Project FORBES. In fact, a few members of the research team believe that the program is still being used and updated annually. One historian offers his advice to new students: “If you’re an engineer placed into Forbes, it’s probably best you do yourself a favor and switch out of the program now. Though you may have always dreamed of designing bridges, making robots, or creating technology for the developing world, you’re probably the next big thing in art history.”

— ASD ’16. Illustrated by AZ ’16.

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