News at Princeton

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Web Stories

Robert Francis Goheen '40 *48

Remarks at Memorial Service, Princeton University Chapel, April 27, 2008

by William G. Bowen


Margaret, Anne, Trudi, Stephen, Megan, Elizabeth, Charley:

It is a great privilege to have been asked to say a few words today about the service to Princeton of one of the most extraordinary people I have ever known: Robert Francis Goheen. In the notes Bob left about this service, he made clear he did not want a long eulogy, and so I will not describe his many accomplishments. He would not have wanted to be remembered, in any event, for such "tangibles" as buildings built and dollars raised. His most lasting contribution was, without question, the values, the spirit, he infused into Princeton during his 70 years of association with the University.

My first meeting with Bob came about through one of those great coincidences of life. As a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship recipient assigned to Princeton for my graduate work, I was instructed to check in with Dr. Goheen, the program's director at the time, when I arrived on campus. I did just that, albeit in a somewhat unconventional manner. In September of 1955, as today, there were tennis courts across from the Graduate College, and as soon as I deposited my belongings, I wandered over to see who was playing. As luck would have it, one of the players was Bob Goheen! That chance encounter, on my first day in Princeton, led not only to a few tennis matches but was the beginning of a lifelong friendship extending over more than half a century — a friendship that I have treasured right up to the last time that Mary Ellen and I saw Bob, along with Margaret, just about a week before his death.

Having mentioned Margaret, let me immediately say the obvious: she was Bob's great partner in life, and an exceptional contributor in her own right to Princeton — not only by hosting innumerable events with grace and charm and wit, but also through her service on the board of the McCosh Infirmary, through her role (working in concert with Bob) in engineering the move of the president's residence off campus, and by bringing such vitality and conviction to all that she did — including actions related to the Vietnam War that put her on President Nixon's Enemies List! How much Bob loved her — as Mary Ellen and I were reminded through a hilarious dinner conversation with the Goheens and Keneficks on St. Croix that will have to remain an insider's story.

There is so much that could be said about Bob's days in Nassau Hall, and their impact. The challenge is to find the right themes. President Tilghman provided a splendid summary in her testimonial that was part of the Firestone Library Exhibit honoring Bob in the fall of 2006. Here is what she said:

If Woodrow Wilson laid the foundations of today's Princeton, Bob Goheen erected the pillars that turned a largely homogeneous college of modest aspirations into an intellectual powerhouse that embraced diversity, new fields of knowledge, and the democratic aspirations of its faculty and students — a place where tradition and innovation were skillfully, and some might even say miraculously, balanced at a time of disorienting social change.

My own view is that Bob's most lasting substantive contribution to the future direction of Princeton was his success in building the faculty and the Graduate School in the late 1950s and 1960s. This quiet, almost unnoticed, process of strengthening the University's core at a pivotal moment in its history made possible later developments of all kinds, including coeducation. Although less dramatic than his introduction of women undergraduates to Princeton, his commitment to diversity, and his response to campus turbulence, this "erection of the pillars," to echo President Tilghman's phrase, was every bit as important.

Let me add that Shirley's high opinion of Bob was fully reciprocated. He said so often that getting to know her had been a special treat. He was also a great admirer of Harold Shapiro.

We are agreed, I think, that President Goheen was a truly "transformational" leader of Princeton, and in recent weeks I have tried to understand as fully as I can why he was so successful in building on the best of Princeton's heritage as he resolutely shaped its future. Much of the explanation lies, I believe, in a wonderfully integrated set of personal qualities that informed all that he said and all that he did.

First, quiet and understated as he was, Bob believed passionately in Princeton, in liberal learning, and in the capacity of Princeton to change people's lives and, in some measure, the world in which we live. As Tony Grafton noted in The Daily Princetonian, President Goheen seemed "called" to his position, not hired to do a mere "job."

Second, he was a highly intelligent, clear thinking man who respected evidence. In his last Baccalaureate address, he referred to "the discipline and enlightenment of the mind," by which he meant "the development of insight and comprehension, of orderly processes of thought, of respect for fact and critical inquiry, and an allegiance to honest judgment, candor, and fair dealing." As he prepared to leave office in June 1972, Bob prepared a "Credo" which included these words: "…There is one place above all where it is (or should be) possible for men and women to think and act as their own reasoned judgment and best conscience dictate — namely, a university. Here it is that the willingness to think otherwise, to dream, to question, and to dare, should flourish..."

Straightforward and plain-talking as Bob always was — totally lacking in guile, as Marvin Bressler observed — he never succumbed to the sometime tendency of the scholar to make things more complicated than they are. He had no use for what one of his most scholarly faculty members, Jacob Viner, called "nonsense on stilts." At the same time, Bob was equally opposed to sloganeering and any effort to oversimplify. He always stressed the obligation to come to grips with complexity, and he would have endorsed, I'm sure, Einstein's aphorism: "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not more so." In this context, I should note that, although he had a listening ear, the too-often strident and intolerant voices of groups like the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), on the left, and the Concerned Alumni of Princeton (CAP), on the right, did not sit well with him. In his view, both groups failed to present complex issues fairly, and shouted rather than participated in open-minded debate — an approach that was anathema to Bob.

Bob himself was always ready to be persuaded that this, that, or some other policy or opinion needed to be changed. He believed strongly in studying issues, and many of us remember well his oft-quoted exchange with Harold Helm when he asked Harold, as chairman of the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees, to head a committee to study the then-contentious issue of coeducation. Harold resisted, saying: "But I don't believe in it!" To which Bob responded, "Harold, I didn't ask you to believe in it. I asked you to study it."

Bob was also entirely free of any need to defend himself or his prior positions. I don't think that I have ever met anyone so free of even an iota of ego-mania. He cared about getting it right for Princeton, not for proving that he had somehow been right all along. In my experience with him, he never once asked, "how is this action (or inaction) going to make me look?" His capacity to be corrected, and to correct himself, was one of his great strengths.

The coeducation debate illustrates several of these qualities. In 1965, Bob was widely quoted as saying, in effect: "Princeton has no problems that coeducation can solve." Four years later, in 1969, he recommended to the trustees that Princeton become coeducational. When asked about this dramatic shift in his views, Bob said "I was just plain wrong in 1965." He added: "It's no use pretending you're not wrong when you are." A lesson for our time?

There is a quotation from Gandhi that must have resonated with Bob. Once when he was criticized for having changed his position, Gandhi said: "My aim is not to be consistent with my previous statements on a given question, but to be consistent with truth as it may present itself to me at a given moment. The result [is] that I have grown from truth to truth."

It follows naturally that Bob was never afraid of disagreement — indeed, as I have said, he welcomed reasoned discourse. A personal experience may help make this point come alive for you — as it certainly did for me. In late 1966, when Bob asked if I would join him in Nassau Hall and become the first full-time provost of Princeton, I was at first hesitant to accept. I said: "Bob, I don't know that this is a good idea. You and I disagree on a very central matter, namely, coeducation, and it could be difficult for us to work side by side in Nassau Hall." He replied, "Oh no, that's fine. I think we ought each to continue to look at this and hear the arguments and look for evidence and see where we come out. I'm happy for you to have your own views. You should! Do your best to persuade me." His openness and genuine respect for other points of view were compelling — and I'm so glad I allowed myself to be compelled!

Let me mention another related quality: He believed strongly in humility. In the 1972 Baccalaureate address that I have already quoted, he told the graduating seniors that "the lack of humility marks dangerous, unyielding men … [who] misinterpret gentleness as weakness…" And Bob himself was a genuinely humble man. Thus, in describing his transition from graduate student to faculty member, he was quoted as saying: "Well, I guess I was lucky because there was a vacancy in the faculty at the lower ranks, and they seemed to think that I had done a good job at teaching. And I'd written a small book which drew an unusual amount of attention because it was different from what most classicists had been doing… I got a scholarly reputation, which I didn't deserve; I just happened to hit the right subject at the right time…." When asked next by the interviewer how he became president, he said: "Well, it's a mystery to me…. "

The appointment of a 37-year-old assistant professor of classics as president was, to be sure, seen as unconventional and perhaps even risky. But it is the measure of the man that President Goheen did not allow this perception (which he understood fully) to inhibit in any way his willingness to make hard decisions. He did not let his humility get the better of his sense of responsibility.

More generally, no one should make the mistake of reading Bob's gentleness and humility as implying lack of strength or, heaven forbid, lack of courage. I remember vividly the night right after the Cambodia bombing in 1970, when college campuses, including this one, were reeling. Bob sat through the ordeal of a spontaneous, rancorous gathering in the Chapel that few presidents would have endured (or attended at all). Then there was the huge, highly charged, May 4 meeting of students, faculty, and staff in Jadwin Gymnasium, and then 10 faculty meetings that same month. What patience, what steadiness, the man had! He was without pretense but never without dignity. His unimpeachable integrity earned him the respect of the entire community. One thinks of the contrasting styles, and contrasting experiences, of President Goheen's peers in the days of campus turmoil at places like Columbia and Harvard. Princeton came through those searing events as well as it did, with the fabric of the University intact, in large part because of what one commentator referred to as President Goheen's "forthright honesty." He had an inner strength, and Tony Maruca put it well when he described Bob as "a North Star that you could always count on."

In recent conversations, several people have suggested that I mention what a great listener Bob was, and how he treated students with respect and compassion. Neil Rudenstine, one of the heroes of the Vietnam period at Princeton and Bob's most inspired appointment, told me how impressed he was throughout the spring of 1970 by Bob's capacity to see students, including troublesome students, as real people, and to have compassion for those who seemed lost or even disruptive. One of the student leaders of that day, Peter Wendell (by no means a lost soul then and now a charter trustee) recalls that:

President Goheen was able to keep things relatively calm by, first of all, remaining extraordinarily accessible to students — not just to student leaders… but to the many self-appointed student spokesmen of the day. I remember his incredible intellectual honesty with students. He felt he had an obligation to listen — but not to placate. He had such a great way of listening to an angry student, empathizing, but also pointing out why the University couldn't do the things the student was suggesting. He did all this in a way that didn't belittle students or speak down to them, but, quite the opposite, treated them like he would talk to a colleague in offering his honest view of the matter at hand.

Bob's willingness to listen certainly did not mean that he lacked strong moral convictions of his own, as was evident in the area of civil rights. It was because he felt strongly about what was going on in the South in the 1960s that he was so angered by the Princeton riot in the spring of 1963. As one commentator observed: "The embarrassment he felt when student hi-jinks evolved into a juvenile riot in the spring of 1963 was due partly to the stupidity of the whole thing but also to his shame when he compared the privileged Princeton students to their counterparts in the South. In President Goheen's words: 'What really made me cross was that at the same time the young people of Birmingham were protesting for very serious causes, here we are,. . . this elite group of kids having a big time.'"

Bob also came to have strong views on Vietnam, though he was careful not to overstep what he saw (correctly, I think) as the limits of the role he should play in a political debate while serving as president. But at his last Baccalaureate he said to the graduating seniors: "In your time, in our own country, no little jingoism and no little arrogance have contributed to our tragic, wasteful, devastating involvement in Indo-China, where we are perhaps finally learning the bitter results of collective pride and of actions taken in ignorance of the history, culture, and aspirations of the peoples of a far off land." When a friend of mine, Lydia Katzenbach, read these remarks — "these far-reaching insights," as she called them — she wondered how much attention people paid to them at the time, how much such insights have been remembered over the years, and how much we really have learned.

Finally, I end this list of qualities by noting one that many of you may not have appreciated fully: For all of his belief in principle, Bob did not lack political shrewdness. Neil Rudenstine reminded me that when Bob's colleagues in the administration were discussing ROTC, Bob said, in effect, we can't just back away from all the commitments that matter to traditional Princetonians. But he also understood that the University could not stand where it was (giving members of the armed services assigned to Princeton automatic faculty appointments, for example). The University needed to find some middle ground, as it did under his leadership. To achieve the University's most important goals, some political accommodation was needed, but the right kind, and not too much.

These qualities, bundled together, were a veritable arsenal of weapons that President Goheen could use, and did use, to produce profound change at Princeton. Bob's personal qualities were so evident, and so widely admired, because he did not just speak them, he lived them. How easy it can be to mutter platitudes, and how hard it can be to act on the basis of your own eloquent phrases. In Bob's case, you knew that he always meant exactly what he said.

It was also clear that he understood the other side of some key issues so well because he had, as it were, "been there." Through the accidents of life, he had had one foot planted on the conservative side of issues he now found himself addressing. Because of Bob's personal qualities — and especially his honesty, his non-defensiveness, and his willingness to be guided by new evidence — this turned out to be a huge advantage. In the case of coeducation, as I have already said, he was initially opposed. As he was the first to acknowledge, he was somewhat slow in seeing the need to address issues of race in American and on this campus. Initially, he supported the Vietnam War (thanks in part to his friendship with Dean Rusk), but then changed his mind as the evidence of the war itself — not the vehemence of protestors — persuaded him.

He came to new conclusions when the evidence, and fresh thinking, convinced him to go in another direction. He understood the views of those on the other side because they had once been, at least in part, his views. He would have been less credible had he started out where he ended up. Needless to say, on innumerable other questions — such as the importance of retaining a single faculty and the need to resist all pressures for orthodoxy — he had no need for conversion.
* * * * *
I want now to add a few personal observations. Bob was much more than a courageous, clear-thinking leader of a great university. He was a superb human being who always cared about other people. Right before his death, he insisted on asking about a trivial shoulder problem of mine in lieu of talking about his own health issues. How typical.

There were so many dimensions to the man. When I think about Bob, I think about India and his life-long commitment to that complex, sprawling democracy to which he introduced each of his children in turn, and where he served with distinction as U.S. Ambassador. I think too of Chatham, his love of his boat and of fishing, his remarkable relationships with his family, and his down-to-earth interest in matters of all kinds, including especially sports. As an undergraduate, he was a superb soccer player, and throughout his life he was one of Princeton's greatest sports fans (as Kirk Unruh will attest), attending football games as recently as this past fall even as his health was failing.

Let me end by saying that Bob was my great teacher, my great friend, someone for whom I felt not just respect, but admiration, affection, and, yes, love. I am so grateful for the times — the years — he and I had together, and I know many others feel exactly the same way. We celebrate today a life lived to the full, and a life that truly enriched the lives of all those he touched.

To sum up in a simple sentence the refrain that I have heard from so many following Bob's death: "He was such a decent man."

Back To Top