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Eisgruber tackles transition to new role as provost

By Eric Quiñones

Princeton NJ -- Twenty-five years after he arrived at Cuyler Hall to begin his freshman year at Princeton, Christopher Eisgruber is in the midst of another major transition.

Christopher Eisgruber

Christopher Eisgruber brings the perspective of an alumnus and a faculty member to his new position as provost.

Eisgruber spent this summer settling into an office in Nassau Hall and his new role as University provost. Between his appointment in February and his first day in the new position in July, he tackled a hectic schedule of fulfilling his teaching and research duties while learning the responsibilities of serving as Princeton's second-ranking official.

''Although I'm as busy now as I was during the spring semester, it's a little less dizzying to be here in the office than to be switching hats all the time,'' said Eisgruber, the Laurance S. Rockefeller Professor of Public Affairs in the Woodrow Wilson School and the University Center for Human Values. ''I spent a lot of time walking between Robertson Hall and Nassau Hall during the spring semester, and at least now I usually know where I'm supposed to be in the middle of the day.''

While adjusting to his new surroundings, he also realized how far he had come since his first days at Princeton -- his class of 1983 is now the ''parent class'' for this year's freshman class of 2008. For Eisgruber, the experience of being both a Princeton alumnus and faculty member provides insight into how the University's educational mission relates to today's students, a perspective that will undergird his work as provost.

''The perennial issues of trying to communicate complicated ideas to very smart students and alerting them to questions that they aren't even asking and haven't even thought about -- those remain the same over time,'' he said. ''In some fields more than others, changes in technology and advances in understanding have put new questions on the table. But I feel a lot of similarities as well at Princeton to what I saw when I was here 25 years ago.''

'Out of the blue'

Eisgruber is accustomed to following the road less traveled in his academic pursuits, which ultimately helped him to decide to accept President Tilghman's offer to join her administration as provost.

A physics major at Princeton, Eisgruber switched gears to earn a master's in politics at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, followed by a law degree from the University of Chicago. Now a prominent constitutional scholar, he joined the Princeton faculty in 2001 to run the Program in Law and Public Affairs after 11 years as a law professor at New York University.

At NYU, Eisgruber gained administrative experience by chairing the law school's personnel committee, working with then-Dean John Sexton, now the university's president. Sexton said that Eisgruber is ''one of those rare individuals who always found time to help build the common enterprise. By the time he left for Princeton, he clearly was one of the leaders of our faculty -- and of legal education throughout the country. It is no surprise to us that he has been tapped for a leadership position at one of the world's great universities.''

The opportunity to serve as Princeton's provost ''in many ways came out of the blue,'' Eisgruber said. ''I had always been interested in university administration, but I had not thought about now as the time I would make that move. I was very happy teaching, writing and running the Program in Law and Public Affairs, so I was not looking for a move.''

''But when President Tilghman and I began talking about it, the opportunity soon seemed irresistible. That's partly because of her leadership as president, it's partly because of the way I feel about Princeton, and it's partly because as I thought more and more about the job I realized it would help broaden me as a person and teach me about new and interesting areas of research that I would not otherwise have had any occasion to encounter,'' he said.

In announcing Eisgruber's appointment, Tilghman cited his broad knowledge of the University as a student and a faculty member. ''He is well known to many of us on campus for his creativity, his intellectual curiosity, his colleagueship, his commitment to high standards and his sound judgment,'' she said.

In preparation for his new role, Eisgruber met with faculty members and administrators across campus and worked closely with his predecessor Amy Gutmann, now the president of the University of Pennsylvania, to get a firsthand look at the issues she faced.

''It was enormously reassuring to know that there would be such a smooth transition with Chris as provost at Princeton,'' said Gutmann, who spent 28 years at the University as a faculty member and administrator. ''It was also a pleasure to work with him as such a capable colleague.''

Nurturing new ideas

As provost, Eisgruber supervises the overall academic program and works with faculty and other administrators on staffing matters. He oversees many of the University's support and administrative operations and chairs the Priorities Committee, the faculty-student-staff committee that makes annual operating budget recommendations to the president.

The importance of these roles is magnified by the University's plans to increase the undergraduate class by 500 students, or 11 percent, and introduce a four-year residential college system in fall 2007.

''Bringing the additional students to Princeton is an extraordinary opportunity. We're going to preserve all the strengths we have right now, and we're going to enhance our student body in many ways at the same time,'' Eisgruber said.

''Whitman College will really be a signature addition to our architecture and to the shape of campus. We will be looking to enhance our academic programs, including by getting students in departments that now are yearning for more students. And we will have to be thinking about how we accommodate these extra students in all areas, from dining services to classroom facilities,'' he added.

In addition to focusing on new administrative issues, such as physical planning and technology resources, Eisgruber is excited by the ''creative possibilities'' in academic disciplines throughout the University.

''I view what the provost does as finding ways to implement the president's priorities and finding ways to nurture the exciting projects that are going on around campus,'' he said.

Among the current academic initiatives he cited are plans to reshape teaching and research in the School of Engineering and Applied Science; enhancements in international studies in the Wilson School and the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies; and interdisciplinary research and teaching being conducted in the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics.

''There also are opportunities in areas like creative arts and neuroscience where it would be wonderful to make the University even stronger,'' he said.

At the same time, Eisgruber must contend with the limitations on his own scholarly work. While he won't return to the classroom in the near future, he hopes to continue writing. He is completing a book on religious freedom in the United States with Lawrence Sager, a University of Texas law professor and former NYU colleague. This summer he co-wrote two papers with Mariah Zeisberg, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Politics -- one examining the existence of a ''constitutional people'' and another on religious liberty in the United States and Canada.

''I think the summers will provide a real opportunity to write, and I'm going to try to sequester some time during the year to do some writing,'' he said. ''I find it therapeutic, and it keeps me connected with the intellectual sources of my commitment to the University.''