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Tilghman: 'Ivory tower' must have foundation in real world

By Ruth Stevens

Princeton NJ -- Universities should play an important role in providing safe spaces where students and faculty can "dream their impossible dreams" and "create their alternate realities." But they also should put the knowledge they generate to work in meeting the challenges of today's world, President Tilghman said in her Sept. 7 Opening Exercises address.

"The breath-taking beauty of the campus landscape and the medieval echoes of its gothic architecture might give you the impression that you have arrived at an ivory tower, where ideas and learning can be pursued in isolation from the hurly burly of the modern world percolating just outside our gates," she said.


President Tilghman greeted students after her address at Opening Exercises, during which she encouraged them to take an active role in their education.


But, she continued, there is more to today's universities. "Modern research universities are decidedly not ivory towers, nor would we want them to be," she said. "They are very much 'of the world' -- in fact, they shape the world through the students they educate, the knowledge they discover and the ideas they generate."

The University Chapel was filled for the interfaith service that traditionally marks the beginning of each academic year. The procession of faculty members and administrators in their academic regalia was led into the chapel by people flying colorful kites on long poles and a band of musicians playing drums, accordion, saxophone and trumpet. As part of the event, undergraduate students were recognized for their academic achievements (see story on page 6) during the previous year.

Tilghman began her remarks to the undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and staff assembled by addressing the freshman class. She said she asked her daughter Rebecca, a 2003 Princeton graduate, what she would liked to have been told at the beginning of her time on campus.

"Her first suggestion was a lament -- I was to warn you that the next four years will fly by at warp speed, and that Princeton will forcibly and cruelly cast you out the FitzRandolph Gates well before you are ready to leave of your own accord," she said. "For most of you, this will be all too true. If past is prologue, I can safely predict that the next four years will be among the happiest and most transforming years of your lives, but they will also be the most fleeting. So make the most of them."

The second piece of advice concerned the relationship of the freshmen with their classmates. Tilghman said that her daughter wished she'd known at the outset "that everyone feels intimidated and daunted in their first months at Princeton" as they are surrounded by other high-excelling students.

"This is one of the most difficult adjustments you will have to make in your life, but it may help to know that everyone is feeling exactly the way you do," Tilghman said. "It may also help to recognize that over your years here you will befriend many of these remarkable classmates, and that both you and they will grow enormously from living and learning with each other."

Committed to being 'of the world'

Turning to the entire crowd, Tilghman focused on the mission of the University. She quoted from "Rights, Rules, Responsibilities," a handbook given to all members of the University community.

"Its first sentence states: 'The central purposes of a University are the pursuit of truth, the discovery of new knowledge through scholarship and research, the teaching and general development of students, and the transmission of knowledge and learning to society at large,'" she said. "These fundamental purposes form a seamless continuum, so tightly interlocked at the best universities that it is not possible to tell when one stops and the next begins."

Tilghman encouraged students to link learning and research by taking an active role in their education. She shared an example from her own undergraduate experience that led to her becoming a molecular biologist. She described research that she had conducted on penicillin, and the day when she found something unusual in her work.

"The hair on the back of my neck stood on end, and my heart started beating wildly," she said. "I experienced the joy that comes from discovering something, and on that day I knew I would become a scientist." Her laboratory-scale experiment soon was turned into an industrial-scale process by a pharmaceutical company.

"As 'Rights, Rules, Responsibilities' states, our goal is not simply to discover new knowledge; we also have an obligation as a university to encourage the application of knowledge to help meet the challenges of the world in which we live," she explained.

Princeton reflects that kind of commitment to being "of the world" rather than separate from it, Tilghman said, in its informal motto: "Princeton in the nation's service and in the service of all nations." She said the motto also captures a value that goes back to the beginning of the school: "the obligation to put one's education to good use in the service of others."

She told the students that they have an especially significant duty, given today's issues: the increasing gap between rich and poor nations and between the rich and poor in this country; the spread of HIV-AIDS; ecological catastrophes; and the manifestations of terrorism.

"The challenges we face as a nation and as a global community are truly daunting, and they will require civic engagement throughout your lives," she said. "As citizens of the world who will have had the privilege of receiving an excellent education, your responsibility will be particularly great."

She implored the students to "embrace the vision of Princeton 'of the world' and respond with a passion to serve."

"By doing so," she concluded, "you will be following in the footsteps of extraordinary individuals who have come before you, who have devoted their lives to the service of this and all nations. As of today, you become a part of a proud heritage, but one that can only be sustained by your own actions."

President Tilghman's full address is available online at

The event also was Webcast live and will be available in
WebMedia's archived special events at


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