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Princeton University


2003 Commencement Address

President Shirley M. Tilghman
June 3, 2003

Graduating students, honorary degree recipients, distinguished members of the faculty and staff, trustees, alumni, parents, family and friends, it is a great pleasure for me to indulge Princeton’s long-standing tradition of allowing the University president to have the last word at these Commencement ceremonies. As a faculty member for 17 years, I know well the value of having the chance to sum up at the end of class. But even more powerfully as the proud parent of Rebecca, a member of the Class of 2003, it has been my experience that getting in the last word in the company of Princeton students is a rare occasion, and one not to be missed. At the same time, I understand that my victory is going to be short-lived. For in just a few minutes you will make that great leap forward and become Princeton alumni, and as we all know, Princeton alumni are always accorded the honor of the last word when it comes to their alma mater!

I want to begin with my warmest congratulations to you all for what you have accomplished in such a short time. You have amazed us with your intellectual prowess, exhausted us with your bottomless reserves of energy, surprised us with your new perspectives on old ideas, challenged us with your entrepreneurship, thrilled us with your athletic achievements, uplifted us with your commitment to social justice and moved us with your artistic performances. You have contributed in so many ways to making Princeton University a lively and interesting place to study and to grow.

As members of the Class of 2003 you arrived as teenagers and you now leave as adults. While you were here the world moved under your feet – the economy’s "irrational exuberance," that phrase made famous by Alan Greenspan, came to a screeching halt, and your job outlook responded accordingly. International terrorism, a daily fact of life for many in the rest of the world, reached the shores of the United States on September 11, 2001, and altered for the foreseeable future any sense that this country is immune from the dangers that threaten elsewhere. This spring the United States embarked on a pre-emptive war, and whatever your views on the wisdom or outcome of that action, in so doing recast the way in which this nation plays its dominant role on the international stage.

Without question the world you will enter in just a few minutes when you walk out those gates is a very different place from the day you arrived in Princeton. But whatever your elders have accomplished, for good or for ill, it is now your world – and it is your turn to shape it so that the world you bequeath to the next generation is better than the one that you now inherit. This is what is expected of you, of every generation of Princetonians. For it is only by preparing its graduates to continue to go out into the world and to make a real difference – through their work and their service to others – that Princeton can justify the faith that has been placed in it by those who have given so generously over the last 257 years to make Princeton the university it is today. By investing in Princeton, our benefactors believed that they were investing, in the words of a former trustee, in "uncommon individuals and important ideas," and through those individuals and ideas, in a better future for everyone.

The specific components of a Princeton education have evolved over time, but our central aim has remained the same: to instill in each graduate those qualities of mind and character necessary for good citizenship and wise leadership. It will not surprise you to learn that those qualities remain much as they were first articulated centuries ago. They include a broad intellectual curiosity that embraces open-mindedness coupled with critical thinking; respect for our moral and cultural heritage coupled with a capacity for innovation and change; an appreciation of the shared destiny and common humanity of all peoples; and core principles of responsibility, integrity and courage. This is the checklist against which you should judge the effectiveness of your Princeton education.

We reject the limiting notion that Princeton is preparing its undergraduates for a specific career. (I certainly hope someone told your parents that four years ago!) As Woodrow Wilson said in 1909 as he reflected on the 19th century in Princeton: "The college has been the seat of ideals. The liberal training which it sought to impart took no thought of any particular profession or business, but was meant to reflect in its few and simple disciplines the image of life and thought." The disciplines may be neither few nor simple today, but they are at the heart of our educational philosophy. It is through the immersion in those disciplines that graduates acquire the habits of mind that will serve them well, whatever their profession.

Through our distribution requirements, you have been exposed to ideas and ways of knowing across the humanities, the social sciences, the natural sciences and engineering. The civil engineers among you have read Dante with Professor Robert Hollander, and the European medievalists learned from Professor David Billington why suspension bridges don’t fall down. It is not that we expect Italian medievalists to go out and build bridges; in fact, we prefer it if they don't – at least not without a little more training. We know full well that you will forget most of the facts that you have learned. But what we hope you will retain is the capacity to integrate ideas and exercise thoughtful judgment across many aspects of human endeavor.

With our particular emphasis on independent work, beginning with freshman seminars and culminating in the senior thesis -- work that is conducted in close harmony with distinguished faculty who are at the forefronts of their fields -- you have developed life-long learning habits of a scholar and acquired the confidence and the pride that comes when you have mastered a subject. Alumni from all decades tell me that their senior thesis was the most important part of their Princeton experience, which explains why a very sensible and distinguished member of our faculty came close to being publicly tarred and feathered a few years ago when he suggested that the senior thesis be made voluntary. Of course the outcry came from those who had already completed their theses – no one, to my knowledge, polled the junior class.

Our educational goals are, of course, different for those of you who are receiving your master’s degrees – whether it's in Architecture, Finance, Engineering and Applied Science and the Woodrow Wilson School. In your case our intention is to prepare you for specific careers, by providing you with a thorough exposure to the intellectual underpinnings of your chosen profession, as well as the practical skills that it requires. Here we have every expectation that the architect’s building will stay upright. For those of you who have completed your doctoral degrees, you are the future of the global academy, and thus you have a very special place at Princeton. With your commitment to the life of the mind, your devotion to discovery within your discipline, and your dedication to teaching as well as learning, we look to you to become leaders in your chosen fields and to draw upon your advanced learning, and the skills you have developed as scholars and teachers, to push back the frontiers of knowledge and help create a better world for us all.

A sense of responsibility for the well-being of others is deeply ingrained in Princeton’s historic commitment to public service for all of its graduates. Public service comes in many forms – it can involve positions in local, state or federal government or international agencies, volunteer service in your communities and schools, participation in charitable or other non-profit organizations, or speaking out for the interests of others or of the community at large. Whatever the particular circumstance, public service in today’s world requires an ability to see the world through the eyes of others who are different from you. Whether it is being able to imagine what it feels like to be a young black man who is followed by a clerk whenever he enters a store, or a gay man who is afraid to enter a bar for fear of being physically harassed, or a woman in traditional Muslim dress who is charged with terrible deeds committed by others, we are stronger individuals if we can put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, if we can ground our actions in true understanding.

This is the point that the late Princeton Nobel laureate in Economics, Sir Arthur Lewis, was conveying in the quotation that is emblazoned on the walls of the Frist Campus Center: "What distinguishes the civilized man from the barbarian is not that he lacks passion, but that his passion is mingled with compassion." Woodrow Wilson used different words to say the same thing over 100 years ago: "The real enemies of the country are not the men who deliberately propose evil but the men who are so situated that they are cut off in understanding and in sympathy from the body of their fellow citizens. One of the things that makes us unserviceable citizens is that there are certain classes of men with whom we have never been able to associate, and whom we have, therefore, been unable to understand. I believe that the process of a university should be a process of unchosen contacts."

Today’s Princeton is deeply committed to having Wilson’s "unchosen contacts" occur on our campus. This spring the University signed an amicus brief prepared by Harvard University for two Supreme Court cases involving challenges to the admission policies of the undergraduate college and the law school at the University of Michigan. The brief asked the Court to reaffirm the 1978 decision of Justice Powell in the Regents of the University of California vs. Bakke case. Powell argued that a diverse student body was a "constitutionally permissible goal for an institution of higher education," and declared that "the nation's future depends upon leaders trained through wide exposure to the ideas and mores of students as diverse as this Nation of many peoples."

For make no mistake about it: we are a nation of many peoples. The demographics of this country have changed dramatically in the 30 years since I sat on a rickety seat like yours, as a newly minted college graduate. In 1970, 87.5% of the U.S. population was white, 11% were of African American descent, and other ethnic groups were barely measurable. Today, while African Americans as a percentage of the population have remained largely unchanged, the percentage of white Americans has fallen below 75%, as the population of Hispanics and Asian and Pacific Islanders has grown 11-fold in the last two decades. The United States – a country that was born of immigrants and whose great strength has come from its ability to productively absorb wave upon wave of immigrants who have come here to find a better life – is a much richer tapestry today. The many briefs that were submitted by colleges and universities arguing in favor of the educational value of diverse multi-cultural campuses were joined by those prepared on behalf of major corporations, unions, members of Congress, and former military leaders – all of whom argued that they depend upon colleges and universities like Princeton to educate a broadly diverse workforce. This is part of what it means to be Princeton in the nation’s service. By providing each of you with a multi-cultural education, we have prepared you for the real global community that you are about to enter.

In addition to the knowledge you have acquired, the cognitive skills you have developed, and the friendships you have formed, you leave Princeton with principles and values that will undergird everything that you do. One of the highest goals of our admission process is to identify candidates who bring with them a commitment to such qualities as integrity and courage, and then we seek to do all that we can to strengthen and reinforce those qualities while you are here.

Our commitment to integrity is embodied in the honor code that every undergraduate signs after every in-class exam. For 110 years, this pledge has symbolized the importance we place on academic integrity – on doing your own work and on properly acknowledging when you draw upon the ideas of others. Ideas, after all, are the coin of our realm, and it is essential that we uphold the value of our currency by insisting on the highest standards.

Integrity also embraces respect for the ideas and values of others, and the ability to engage in civil discourse even when differences of opinion are deeply felt. Over the last year our campus community has had many opportunities to engage in lively and occasionally difficult debates. The continuing conflict in the Middle East, where Israelis and Palestinians live with heels dug in deep while a downward spiral of suicide bombings followed by military retaliations leads to tragic loss of life, has strong voices speaking out on all sides. I am very proud that the Princeton community has been able have this discussion without rancor or the undercurrent of anti-Semitism that has erupted on other campuses.

The outbreak of war with Iraq elicited a response by our students and faculty that seemed exactly right to me: to invite prominent scholars, policymakers, practitioners from across the globe to explore the issues in settings large and small, including at the inaugural Princeton Colloquium on Public and International Affairs that was sponsored this spring by the Woodrow Wilson School. As the mission of the colloquium so eloquently stated, "by hearing historians consider the antecedents of American unilateralism; philosophers debate the moral and ethical dimensions of the good and evil dichotomy; economists and practitioners analyze its effects on global welfare; and political scientists and diplomats discuss the impact of events on the structure of the international system" we could examine the issues surrounding the war from a multitude of perspectives and discuss them with great civility. The goal of this and other forums for discussion is not to reach agreement; often that will be impossible. The goal is to learn to engage in respectful discourse on important and difficult topics on which fair-minded individuals will disagree, and out of that discourse to deepen our own understanding.

Finally, the translation of aspiration into action frequently requires courage. Courage comes in many guises – the courage to fight for what you believe is right in the face of opposition from your peers (and sometimes even your teachers); the courage to make up your own mind and not simply follow the crowd (or the polling data); the courage to keep going when everyone else is ready to give up. It takes courage to admit that you're wrong. It takes courage to play through pain or impending defeat on the athletic field, and to inspire your teammates to do the same. It takes courage to come out of the closet. It takes courage to tell your friend that he has had enough to drink, and should go home to bed. It takes courage to lose with grace. It takes courage to report a violation of the Honor Code.

Courage is hard, and the times we need to draw upon it are generally not of our own choosing and frequently arise without warning. By fostering an intellectual and residential community where integrity, tolerance and respect for others are paramount, Princeton has tried to create safe and fertile ground for your courage to be expressed, and I am proud of the ways in which you have shown individual courage over these last years. The challenges will be much greater and the havens will be less safe after you walk out FitzRandolph Gate, but I am confident that you will carry with you the spirit of Princeton and that it will give you courage as well as comfort in the years to come.

I hope that you will carry with you all that this place has aspired to teach you – the exuberance that comes from learning and discovery, the compassion to care for others less fortunate, a commitment to the highest standards of honor and integrity, the imagination to follow the unexplored path and the freedom to dream.

My very best wishes go with you all.

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