President Shirley M. Tilghman

2002 Commencement Address

Princeton University
June 4, 2002

Graduating students, honorary degree recipients, distinguished members of the faculty and staff, trustees, alumni, parents, family and friends, I am enormously pleased to speak to you today, on this my first commencement as president of Princeton. It is our long-standing campus tradition here that the University president deliver the commencement address, and I am highly honored today to have the opportunity to continue this tradition in front of all of you.

During my installation as president last fall, Joe Kochan of the great Class of 2002, in his capacity as leader of the Undergraduate Student Government, not only pointed out that he outranked me at that moment, but made some sage predictions about the critical issues that students would bring to my attention once I was ensconced in office - high-level concerns like making sure that the cheeseburgers were always graced with the classic white cheese and not defiled with the inferior yellow. What really surprised me this year, though, was the number of invitations that I received from campus groups asking me to participate in all kinds of activities. And needless to say, I had to make some careful choices.

For instance, I decided to accept an invitation from one of our great a cappella groups -- The Katzenjammers -- to be part of their fall concert, but I saved them a lot of embarrassment by prudently refusing to sing. (My advice to you next time, folks - always ask for an audition). For a residential college fundraiser, another group of students asked me to sit in a dunk tank, so that people could throw baseballs in my direction in hopes of soaking me. Now frankly when I thought about making a big splash in my first year as president, this was not what I had in mind. That one I declined. But one invitation that I couldn't possibly resist accepting was to play God in the University Chapel's Christmas Pageant. She was the role of a lifetime.

When most of today's graduates arrived here on campus, it was a very different time - the 20th century, in fact. The stock market was skyrocketing and students were starting dot.coms in their dorm rooms. The human genome had not been sequenced and here at Princeton we had not yet developed smart mice or gone Hollywood in A Beautiful Mind. And most significantly, 9/11 still stood for an emergency but not a shocking and terrible attack on this country.

Even though the time that you spent here bridged two centuries, it passed with amazing swiftness, and yet you have accomplished so much - in the classrooms, the colleges, the laboratories, in the library stacks and carrels, on the playing fields and on the performing stages. You have been scholars, artists, musicians, writers, inventors, entrepreneurs, politicians, thoughtful dissidents, devoted team players and tireless volunteers. You have made us laugh and cry and cheer and gasp, and even gnash our teeth - when the game was in overtime or the paper was overdue.

Through your hard work and your dedication to learning, every one of you has earned the right to sit on this revered and celebrated campus green today - even if you are sitting on plastic chairs. We are all proud to have helped along the way, but the real credit for what you have achieved belongs to you. Let me offer my most enthusiastic congratulations.

In preparation for my remarks at this ceremony, I spent some time studying the previous Princeton commencements - all the way back to our very first, in 1748. I was rather inspired to learn that that one lasted all day. In the morning the clerk of the Board of Trustees read the entire thirty-seven-hundred-word Royal Charter granted to the college by King George the Second of England. After the excitement of hearing this lengthy legal document recited, they broke for lunch, and in the afternoon, sat through seven more speeches - in both Latin and English. And then, as dark began to fall, they concluded with songs and prayers - praying, no doubt, that this oratorical marathon would soon end.

We will not attempt to reenact that particular historical occasion today, but history is inevitably on the mind of anyone who inhabits Nassau Hall or lives with our medieval spires and gargoyles or daily walks the paths of this old battlefield of the American Revolution, where the word campus was first used. All of us who gather here today stand, as the great physicist Sir Isaac Newton said, on the shoulders of giants - in this case, the generations of Princetonians ... so many exceptional individuals whose thoughts and actions have made a difference not only to this University but indeed to this nation and to free societies around the world.

The very early Princetonians - those hardy colonials who managed to endure an all-day commencement - aspired to bring intellectual nourishment and spiritual freedom to a new land. They felt a deep commitment to the future, although they could not possibly have imagined how soon and how profoundly that future would unfold before them. But unfold it did. And Princetonians played a defining role in the creation of a revolutionary society and a form of government that flourished in the cause of liberty. Princeton's sixth president, John Witherspoon, who signed the Declaration of Independence, was a eminent teacher of history, fine arts, moral philosophy and sedition - and he had plenty of apt pupils, like Light-Horse Harry Lee of the Class of 1773 and James Madison of the Class of 1771.

Witherspoon not only incited his students to fight for their freedom, he exhorted them to think about what they would do if they actually won their freedom. He called upon them to lead - and prepared them to lead - in what would become a time of extraordinary peril and uncertainty, and in the latter part of the eighteenth century, he shaped a distinctive Princeton philosophy that has continued to influence our thoughts and actions into the 21st century.

As Professor Woodrow Wilson - a member of the great Class of 1879 - put it at the turn of the last century: "Princeton is not likely to forget the sharp school of her youth when she first learned the lesson of public service. She shall not easily get John Witherspoon out of her constitution."

And now, on this beautiful commencement day, when the events of the past year have made the danger and uncertainty in the world so horribly real to us, it is fitting to recall this fundamental lesson of public service - and the spirit of this place that has flowed through Witherspoon, through Wilson, through Princetonians like those who addressed you this week - James Baker of the Class of 1952 and Meg Whitman of the Class of 1977 - and certainly flows through all of you.

You who are graduating today will leave Princeton prepared by a rigorous education and steeped in a singular tradition, and as beneficiaries of this legacy, you bear a responsibility. But such a responsibility can also be a wonderful source of happiness and satisfaction, and the call to serve others can take many forms.

This winter, in Washington, I had the pleasure of meeting Rajiv Vinnakota, a member of the Class of 1993, who had been working in the business world as a management consultant when he started thinking about effective ways to educate disadvantaged students. As he learned more and more about the subject, what really struck him were the stark differences between the elite private schools and the inner city schools. And he decided that if kids from very poor neighborhoods were going to succeed in school, they needed not only a challenging academic setting but a safe, nurturing place to live.

Surmounting countless barriers, he soon turned his vision into bricks and mortar, opening the Seed School - the nation's first urban public boarding school, with dormitories, cultural enrichment programs and a college-prep curriculum. I visited the Seed School this year, and in the face of what so many people think of as intractable problems, I was impressed to see how much knowledge and confidence these students were acquiring and how absolutely committed they were to being the first in their families to attend college.

In his determination to deliver upon the American promise of an excellent public education for every student in America, Raj Vinnakota has given new substance to the ideal of Princeton in the nation's service. And in a very different realm, so too have two renowned molecular biologists: Eric Lander, of the Class of 1978 and Robert Waterston of the Class of 1965.

They were leaders of the team that organized the immensely ambitious government-funded effort to sequence the human genome - and two years ago the monumental success of that project was announced at the White House and heralded on the front pages of national newspapers. What is less well known is the role that these Princetonians played in establishing the ethical rules by which the data in the genome was to be shared throughout the world.

In the life sciences, it has been common practice to allow researchers a certain grace period before they are expected to share their results - time to keep the data secret until they mine it for a return on their initiative and creativity. But Lander and Waterston argued that the genome project was so important and the information from it so critical that established proprietary conventions did not apply. They saw to it that new data were released from the genome sequencing centers daily, so that every scientist around the globe could make use of the latest results. This was a sea change - with profound ramifications in the life sciences and medicine - that was brought about by two Princetonians who were serving in the nation's interest ... and indeed, in the interest of all humanity.

However varied their endeavors may be, what Raj Vinnakota and Eric Lander and Bob Waterston share is a passion for their work, a tenacity of purpose and a sense of individual achievement that is rooted in advancing the greater good.

These enduring values - the foundation of your Princeton experience - will sustain and inspire you as you face a future that is at one and the same time highly perilous and wonderfully promising. To confront the peril and fulfill the promise, you must command a global perspective that we hope you have acquired on this campus, and you must continue to deepen your understanding of cultural complexities, the roots of conflict and the seeds of mutual prosperity. Someone who has served splendidly to enlighten our thinking in this way is another former occupant of those durable plastic chairs - Sheryl WuDunn of the Woodrow Wilson School's Graduate Class of 1988.

Her own passion to understand the ancient cultures and modern realities of the Far East led her to become a foreign correspondent for The New York Times, and when the cry for democracy was drowned out by the rumble of Red Army tanks in Tiananmen Square, she was there. With her husband and writing partner Nicholas Kristof, she endured hardship, harassment and danger to help the world comprehend the issues that were transforming East Asia, first through their reporting - which won a Pulitzer Prize - and then through their books China Wakes and Thunder from the East.

From reports on major developments in politics, economics and human rights to stories about the lives and hopes of ordinary Asians and what she has called "their ferocious will to succeed," Sheryl WuDunn's work represents yet another important dimension of Princeton in the service of all nations.

On this historic green, a special plaque honors the alumni of Princeton for their devotion to service and their dedication to this great University. Today, in the ceremony of commencement, you yourselves become members of this diverse and world-wide family, who will look to you to carry forward their long and distinguished traditions, whether your destiny is local, national or global, whether your future is starting a school, changing a science, or bridging the gaps between continents and cultures.

As you walk through FitzRandolph Gateway today, I hope that you will take with you not only the lessons learned in classrooms and the life-long friendships that you have formed, but also the strong values of leadership, intellectual rigor, and most especially, civic duty that you have embraced in your time on this campus. In June of 1910, just before Woodrow Wilson left the presidency of Princeton to embark on his own remarkable adventure in service to the nation - and indeed in the service of all nations - he spoke to the senior class about what he himself had found on this campus. "There is a sense," he said, "a very real sense, not mystical but plain fact of experience, in which the spirit of truth, of knowledge, of hope, of revelation dwells in a place like this."

I urge you to take Wilson's words to heart. Carry forward the spirit of Princeton and all this place has aspired to teach you - the exuberance that comes from learning and discovery, the courage to stand up for what you believe and for the rights of all, the compassion to care for others less fortunate, the imagination to follow the unexplored path and the freedom to dream.

Thank you, and congratulations to you all.

top     back     home