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Princeton University

2004 Opening Exercises Greeting and Address

President Shirley M. Tilghman
September 5, 2004


Good afternoon, and welcome to an academic year that has come too quickly for some, too slowly for others, but right on time for the Class of 2008. To the newcomers in our midst -- faculty, staff, and students -- I extend my warmest greetings. To the familiar faces in the chapel, welcome back to what we have come to know as "the best old place of all!"

Although I will address you shortly, I would like to take this opportunity to say how happy I am to have the Class of 2008 -- 1,177 men and women strong -- on our campus. You have been drawn from 48 states and 50 nations, and your hometowns include O'Neill, Nebraska; Medicine Hat, Alberta; and Katmandu, Nepal. Our 541 incoming graduate students, who will greatly enrich the intellectual and social life of this University in the years ahead, are remarkably diverse as well: 38 percent of you hail from outside the United States, a sign that Princeton continues to serve "all nations" in addition to our own.

You have all prepared for this day in many ways and, it probably feels like, for many years, and we have chosen you -- and you, us -- with great care and high hopes. Every class aspires to be known forever as great, and yours will be no exception. Greatness will lie not only in what you achieve while you are here, but also in the traditions and perspectives that you bring to Princeton, and, most importantly, in how you use your Princeton education in the future to make the world a better place.

This fall we welcome 47 new members of the faculty, a group of men and women who personify Princeton's aspiration to combine the commitment to education that is normally associated with a small liberal arts college with the scholarly rigor of a great university. Our staff has also grown, ensuring that Princeton's intricate gears continue to turn smoothly. The work of the staff is often performed in places and at times that shield them from the public eye, but all of us are grateful for their contributions, and all of us would very quickly feel their absence.

I would like to extend a special welcome to our newest senior administrators: Christopher Eisgruber, who assumed the post of provost in July, and Mark Burstein, who joined us in August as vice president for administration. Princeton's eleventh provost is a member of the great Class of 1983, an eminent constitutional scholar, and the former director of our Program in Law and Public Affairs. Mark Burstein comes to us from Columbia University, where he served as vice president for facilities management and left an indelible imprint on that campus. Mark and Chris will work together closely to sustain and enhance Princeton's reputation as a truly wisely run university, and I am delighted to have them both in Nassau Hall.

I now invite Dean of the College and Professor of History Nancy Weiss Malkiel to recognize six undergraduates for their outstanding academic achievements.


As University president, I have the great, good fortune to serve as an oratorical bookend to your time at Princeton, bidding you welcome now and bidding you farewell at Commencement. The four years in between will undoubtedly be among the most important in your lives, but I warn you in advance that they will fly by with unnerving speed. During these short years you will take the last steps into adulthood, and will make friends you will cherish for the rest of your lives. And if the University has done its job well, you will be poised as you leave this privileged place to assume the mantle of the next generation of leaders in your communities and your fields of endeavor, whether it be teaching kindergarten or developing the first HIV/AIDS vaccine or working toward global security -- in places like Nome, Alaska, Laikipia, Kenya, or Shanghai, China.

However, the most immediate challenge that you face is to remain cool, calm, and collected, a mantra that also comes in handy when balancing your budget or driving on Route 1. I have no doubt that you are feeling rather nervous, and that elation and self-doubt are vying for the foremost place in your minds. It may, however, comfort you to know that what you are experiencing now is nothing new, and is shared by every newcomer who has ever sat in this chapel. A freshman, arriving on our campus 22 years ago, had this to say about her first impressions:

"When I first wandered through Holder Hall, searching for the one door with my number on it, climbing flight after flight of stairs, seeing face after unfamiliar face, I looked at my mom and thought maybe going home is not such a bad idea. Then when my key wouldn't work without violent manipulation, and I found the bathroom four flights down and four entryways over, I seriously thought about heading for the green station wagon." I am pleased to report that this woman went on to have a very successful Princeton career, and that Holder Hall is being renovated this year so that henceforth no bathroom will be more than one flight of stairs away.

Like this alumna, you will master the geography of your dormitories, you will find the room assignments for your classes, and you will not be forced to wander for eternity in Firestone Library's darkest stacks. Jadwin Gymnasium will come to feel like home court as you cheer on the Tigers, and, yes, this lofty chapel will become the place where you will want to be married. I do have one disappointment, however, for all of you who may have read The Rule of Four, the exciting thriller set on the Princeton campus and written by Ian Caldwell of the Princeton Class of 1998 and Dustin Thomason, who attended some other college north of here. You can just forget about looking for those steam tunnels -- they don't exist!

What does exist at Princeton is the opportunity for each of you to explore an extraordinarily rich smorgasbord of the world's knowledge and ideas. This fall alone we are offering 648 undergraduate and 381 graduate courses, sprinkled among 110 departments and programs, from Environmental Studies to Slavic Languages and Literatures to Applied and Computational Mathematics. When faced with this variety of choice, I understand that it is tempting to fall back upon what is familiar and safe. Don't do it -- in fact, do just the opposite and adopt the attitude of an explorer. This may be the only point in your life when you can study the comedies of Molière or conquer the paradoxes in Schrödinger's equation; you may never again have time or motivation to compose music or participate in an archeological dig or figure out how wireless computers really work.

Last year the father of a freshman told me that his son felt as though he had been released from captivity after his four years in high school, where he had felt that he had to toe the line in order to get into a university like Princeton. As he told me this story, I imagined this young man arriving for freshman orientation -- poised like a sprinter at the start of the 100-meter race -- then dashing about, relishing the freedom to explore the entire universe of ideas. I hope you feel some of this young man's excitement at the prospect of embracing what is now unfamiliar to you.

On the other hand, you should also feel free to respond to the interests and the passions that you bring to Princeton. Neil Rudenstine, the past president of that college someplace north of here and -- I am happy to say -- a graduate, former provost, and current trustee of Princeton, addressed the role of these "subjective passions" at our Opening Exercises in 1980, and I would like to share his words with you.

"Education is what results when we pursue those interests and concerns that have the strongest and most irresistible hold on us. It comes from those moments when we are drawn by something and feel compelled to understand as much as we possibly can about it -- whether it is some part of nature, or a work of art, or a mathematical problem, or an historical event, which we simply cannot leave alone until we have done all we can to explain or master it, and in some sense take advantage of it."

I urge you, then, to take possession of the questions that excite you most, whether you find them in books, in Petri dishes, or in computer programs. If you do so unreservedly, you will find that the bewildering number of choices that confronts you now will narrow to the point that you can advance with confidence. There will still be plenty of room for side trips, but you will never lose sight of your ultimate destination.

You may also find it helpful to bear in mind that your primary mission at Princeton is less to acquire a specific body of knowledge than to master the skills you need to make the most of any body of knowledge. A university education is more than studying the structure of DNA or the sources of the Enlightenment, important though these subjects may be. Your overriding goal should be to hone the intellectual tools you need to discriminate fact and fiction; to pose tough questions and provide full answers; to observe acutely and interpret soundly; to articulate your arguments in a concise and cogent fashion; and to be open to other ideas without surrendering your own.

This brings me to another challenge that all of you will face in varying degrees. In the presence of so much erudition, it is easy to assume the passive role of scribe, absorbing the pearls of wisdom that your professors share with you and deferring to their indisputable expertise. You may have led your class in high school, but now you are surrounded by a veritable galaxy of stars, and so -- you say to yourself -- perhaps it would be best if I let their light subsume my own. This would be a terrible mistake, for in a true community of scholars, knowledge springs from dialogues -- the livelier the better.

Our preceptorial system that was established by Woodrow Wilson in 1905 is predicated on this free exchange of ideas and gives you, the student, both an opportunity and an obligation to uphold your interpretations, muster your arguments, and test your hypotheses. As Wilson put it, "If you want to know what I know about a subject, don't set me up to make a speech about it, because I have the floor and you don't.... If you really want to know what I know, sit down and ask me questions, interrupt me, contradict me, and see how I hold my ground.... If that method were followed, the undergraduate might make a consoling discovery of how ignorant his professor was, as well as many a stimulating discovery of how well informed he was."

So, please, take Wilson's words to heart. Your professor may be a Nobel laureate in medicine or a Field medalist in mathematics or a Pulitzer-Prize winner in poetry, but he or she can still learn something from you, just as you have much to learn from him or her.

Of course, your Princeton education does not begin or end in the classroom, but spills out into the playing fields, the performance stages, and indeed into the community. Here, too, you will be forced to make wise choices about how you will invest your undoubtedly most precious resource -- which is your time. Last year our campus harbored no fewer than 226 registered undergraduate student organizations, ranging from the Princeton Redheads Society -- I kid you not -- to Theatre Intime to club, intramural, and varsity sports. When you visit the Student Activities Fair at Dillon Gym on Friday, you will encounter possibilities that could leave you without free time for the next four years. These activities are sources of friendships, fun and relaxation, and personal growth, and they will form a very important part of your Princeton experience.

For the next four years, you will have the luxury of living in a place that many view as just "This Side of Paradise," the title of F. Scott Fitzgerald's famous novel about Princeton. This campus is indeed stunningly beautiful, our campus family is close and very supportive, and the greater Princeton community in which we reside is safe and welcoming. In important ways, the tranquility of our ivy-clad setting encourages you to lose yourself in your studies, whether you are exploring the past or imagining the future.

But let us not forget that the purpose of this four-year hiatus is to prepare yourselves for the world outside the FitzRandolph Gates--which, by the way, will return to their appointed place fully restored long before you are ready to leave. The challenge facing you is to embrace your studies in a way that only a university such as ours allows, but to do so without losing sight of the ultimate purpose of those studies. This purpose, in its most basic form, is to make our world a better place ethically, economically, socially, politically, environmentally, and in a host of other ways, not just because you have to live in this world yourselves but because more than 6.3 billion other people do as well.

It is sometimes thought that our unofficial motto -- to serve our nation and all nations -- only applies to students once they graduate, but this is not the case. Even as freshmen, you should be thinking of ways in which you can establish a connection with the world and the issues that confront it. This summer, I spent 11 days in Africa, a continent with mind-numbing problems but also immense potential. One of my stops was Kenya's Mpala Research Centre, which owes its existence to George Small of the Class of 1943. In this arid but beautiful place, students and faculty study the delicate ecosystem that must sustain both people and wildlife, helping not only Kenyans but all who struggle to maintain this crucial balance. The Mpala Research Center is only one example of the many international resources that are open to you. Indeed, thanks to the recently created Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies, you will see a new emphasis on bringing the world to Princeton, and taking Princeton to the world. As one of our trustees declared, global awareness should be "built into the DNA" of Princeton, words that, of course, warmed my scientific heart. I am happy to say that each of you has an opportunity to make this aspiration a reality through study abroad, international internships, and a wealth of courses and events within walking distance of this chapel.

Let me conclude by expressing my hope that the next four years will not only meet your expectations, but surpass them. For myself, I am looking forward to getting to know each of you and to cheering you on inside and outside the classroom as you chart your course through this great University. I hope that you will leave Princeton saying, as so many have before you, "This place changed my life." Welcome to Princeton!

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