Wythes Committee Report
April, 2000

contents   prev   next

Appendix B

External Factors

The Wythes Committee delivers its report to the Board of Trustees as Princeton prepares for the first years of the new millennium. Such moments in time invite reflection; to look forward, it is necessary first to look backward and understand Princeton's history. In addition, to assess the strengths Princeton brings to future challenges and potential opportunities, the University must take stock of external factors that may have an influence on Princeton and on higher education in general. As a point of departure for the Committee's work, President Shapiro provided the following essay, which presents some of his thoughts on the place of Princeton in the broader context of the history of higher education and then describes some of the external factors that may influence the University in the decades immediately ahead.


The late 19th and early 20th century was a time of enormous change in American higher education. Spurred by immigration, rising agricultural productivity and continuing innovation in the industrial sector, K-12 education was broadly deployed, and the great comprehensive "land-grant" universities and the American research university together took the leadership in transforming American post-secondary institutions. It was also a time in which new academic disciplines were founded and the university's teaching and scholarly programs were reorganized along disciplinary lines. Similarly significant changes took place after World War II with the explosive growth of federally sponsored scientific research and with the enactment of the GI Bill and subsequent student aid legislation, the civil rights movement, and the creation of community colleges and technical schools -- all of which dramatically expanded access to higher education for students from both genders; all ages, races, and income levels; and a broad range of aptitudes, aspirations, and life experiences.

For Princeton, the early 20th century was a more ambivalent moment. On the one hand, the Graduate School was founded and a new dedication to undergraduate education was inaugurated. On the other hand, Princeton moved rather slowly and hesitatingly to embrace fully the research university's new role in the rapidly expanding world of scholarship. Among the founding universities of the AAU, Princeton was unique in demonstrating both little desire to move away from the "Oxbridge" undergraduate model and little sustained interest in the reorganized and expanding professions such as law and medicine.

In the post-World War II era, this attitude changed a great deal, in part because of the great impact of both Bell Labs and the Institute for Advanced Study on the faculty's aspirations and in part because of new opportunities and new leadership. In any case, in the decades following World War II, Princeton once again established a position of leadership in both education and scholarship.

There are some who believe that the challenges and changes facing American higher education at the beginning of the 21st century are comparable in significance and scope to these earlier periods. They usually point first to the transforming effect of new information technologies, the breathtaking pace of discovery in the life sciences as well as in other fields of knowledge, and the growing interdependence of nations in an increasingly global society. But they also point to the increasing ethnic and cultural diversity of our society, some seemingly intractable social problems (including a persistent and growing gap between "haves" and "have nots"), the changing characteristics of college students, the growth of the traditional college-age population as we begin to hear echoes of the baby boom, changing attitudes and heightened expectations among higher education's patrons, increasing competition from others for the support of those patrons, changing employment conditions and governance structures in academic institutions, the growth of private sector competitors, and perennial concerns about the capacity of the U.S. economy to sustain both the remarkable diversity and the enviable quality of the system of higher education that has evolved in this country.

As we proceed with our planning for Princeton, we need to be aware of the many external forces that will shape American higher education in general and how these will shape the set of choices available to us. Most of these will be forces over which we have little if any control or influence, and while some will be at least partially foreseeable or predictable, others will not. From even a cursory review of history, we can be fairly confident of two things. First, universities have proven to be relatively sturdy institutions that have stood the test of time in providing important services to society. Thus, however they evolve, I would predict that they are likely to bear at least some continuing resemblance to their present form just as today's Princeton incorporates important aspects of its past. Equally clearly, however, if all we do is sustain our current portfolio of programs and "fast-forward" to some point in the future, we are bound to be disappointed, just as our predecessors at any point in our history would have been wrong if they expected future Princetons to look just like theirs.

What we know is that there will be change. What we do not know is exactly which changes will occur and how they will affect us. But at a minimum we can expect that the external forces shaping our future will at least include the following.

Societal Changes

We know that the echo of the baby boom generation will produce a one-third increase in the college-age population in the next decade. We also know that birth rates among most minority groups are higher than they are for whites, so our society is becoming increasingly diverse. We do not know what immigration policies our country will adopt over time, but these policies inevitably will affect both the composition of our national population and our ability to bring students, faculty, and staff from other parts of the world to Princeton. We also do not know whether there will be significant changes in high school graduation rates and college enrollment rates (or whether there will be changes in the depth, breadth, and quality of high school curricula, and therefore what level of academic accomplishment high school graduation will come to connote). As the baby boom generation ages and life expectancies increase, we know there will be growing numbers of senior citizens, but we do not know how many of them will be interested in returning to school -- or perhaps attending for the first time. We have no good way to project the future demand for Ph.D.'s, or for masters programs in various fields and professions -- or, for that matter, what students or employers will expect masters programs to encompass. More generally, we do not really know whether the economic benefits of an undergraduate degree will continue to grow over time, or whether an increase in the number of citizens holding degrees, changes in the nature of work, greater emphasis on the acquisition of specifically measurable skills, the availability of the "internet," an erosion in the general quality of a traditional undergraduate education, or other factors will lead to a devaluation of the undergraduate liberal arts degree -- if not from all colleges and universities, at least from some.

These kinds of societal changes will affect the population that American higher education should try to serve and the value citizens attach to the college experience. Even if demand for higher education remains strong, society's capacity to support it will depend on the overall strength of the economy. Society's willingness to subsidize higher education will depend both on the political and social philosophies of those in office and the extent to which taxpayers perceive higher education as conferring public as well as private benefits as well as on the vitality and responsiveness of higher education itself.

Finally, the increasing globalization of our society and our economy has a number of implications for our programs and aspirations. It potentially affects the composition of the student body, the nature of the curriculum and our distribution requirements, the opportunities we provide for study and travel overseas, and our scholarly initiatives and priorities.

Changes among Patrons

All colleges and universities are shaped by the interests and capacities of their patrons.

While of relatively modest direct importance to Princeton, the nature and level of state support will continue to play a major role in shaping the overall contours of American higher education over the coming decades. Although the fiscal health of most states -- and state universities -- is very strong, state budgets could become constrained by economic slow downs and by the demands of their citizens both for other state services or for tax relief. In many states there has been a significant decline in the proportion of public college and university budgets that is provided by the state, with these declines then offset by some combination of increased charges to students, more aggressive private fundraising, and in a few cases reductions in the quantity and/or quality of their programs. What is clear is that the most distinguished state universities are formidable competitors of the best private universities in the competition for the best faculty and students and for federal research grants.

Of much greater direct importance to Princeton is the role that the federal government chooses to play in supporting research in science and other disciplines, graduate education, undergraduate financial aid, and other initiatives of importance to colleges and universities. The federal government also provides valuable indirect support for higher education through the tax exemptions it provides for charitable institutions and the tax incentives it provides for charitable giving, and it can have a major impact on colleges and universities through the regulations it adopts in areas ranging from the recovery of indirect costs to environmental matters to equal opportunity and affirmative action. In recent years we have seen proposals, for example, that would arbitrarily cap indirect cost recoveries at levels well below those we currently receive; suggestions that colleges and universities no longer deserve to be considered "charitable" institutions for tax purposes; and court decisions regarding Title IX that over time could substantially affect the size and nature of our athletics program. We also have seen how quickly and dramatically political currents can change: just two years after the 1994 Congressional elections gave rise to predictions that federal student aid programs would be decimated and federal support for science would be cut by more than a third, in 1997 Congress enacted more than $40 billion in new tax breaks to assist students and their families in paying for college, and leading members of the majority party introduced legislation that is designed to double federal spending on scientific research over the next decade. Looking ahead, it is very difficult to predict the future of federal science policy, tax policy, expenditure policy, or regulatory policy, although it is easy to predict that each of these policies individually -- and the sum of them collectively -- can have a major impact on American higher education, and especially on American research universities. In addition to federal and state governments, community colleges receive important support from their counties or municipalities.

Beyond governments, higher education's other patrons include companies, foundations, individual donors, and of course the individual students and families who make choices about what they want to buy and how much they are prepared to spend (or, perhaps, invest) for higher education. The interests and priorities of companies, foundations, and individual donors have changed -- and undoubtedly will continue to change -- over time, with consequent changes not only in which institutions they choose to support, but which programs and activities within those institutions they find most compelling.

Impact of Technology

Even if we assume that Princeton will continue to be a residential university where students and scholars engage in face-to-face conversation or work side-by-side in its libraries and laboratories, there is no question that new communications and computation technologies will lead to further changes in how we teach and learn, how we conduct research, and how we interact with each other and the outside world. We know that these technologies also will have major implications for the role and function of the Library of the future and for scholarly publishing. If, as some suggest, these new technologies exacerbate the division between society's haves and have nots -- or the opposite -- they have a potential impact on the composition of our student body and the nature of our admission process. To the extent that they overcome constraints of time and space, they open many new opportunities for Princeton students, Princeton alumni -- and potentially others outside the campus -- to benefit more fully from Princeton's educational programs and to participate in additional ways in the life of the University.

For American higher education more generally, these new technologies already have given rise to opportunities for "distance learning," where offerings (of currently uncertain quality) that range from individual courses to entire degree programs are available electronically to anyone who wishes to participate. Shortly after World War II, half of all American college students attended private colleges and universities. Now that percentage has declined to less than 20 percent. With the growth of distance learning and the likely continued expansion of for-profit "proprietary" schools and educational programs offered by companies who have discovered important student needs that are not being met by existing institutions, we may discover a similar decline in the 21st century in the percentage of students who are educated in what we might now call traditional collegiate settings.

Finally, universities are also affected by the changing cost of communicating information, which historically has been very high, and now, thanks to new technologies, is rapidly approaching zero. However, just as the cost of transmitting information is approaching zero, the amount of information threatening to confront us is growing exponentially. In this environment the economic premiums available to those institutions that can most credibly evaluate the massive amounts of information now being aimed at and delivered to our offices and homes may also grow exponentially. While the future is difficult to predict, universities may be ideally positioned to perform this function and benefit financially from doing so, since we have evaluation processes that are demanding, open and focused on well-understood, respected, and relevant standards. Thus, while new telecommunications technologies are likely to change a great many of our practices, universities may also be asked to assume some new and/or expanded roles.

Changes within the Academy

Just as Princeton is buffeted by a host of social/political/economic currents, it is also shaped by changes in the nature of academic institutions and of the academic profession broadly defined, by competitive pressures from other colleges and universities, and by ever-changing expectations of what colleges and universities can and ought to accomplish.

Teaching and Research. One of the major forces shaping any college or university is society's expectations about what will be studied and what will be taught, and who will decide. Even if there is a consensus (which there may not be) that colleges and universities in general, and research universities in particular, should both preserve and pass on the cultural inheritance and traditional values of the past and challenge traditional understandings, critique accepted practices, and explore new ideas, we know that in different eras -- and among different observers -- there will be disagreement about where the emphasis should be placed. Within the academy itself there are different views about the respective priorities of different fields and how they should be taught. To cite just one example: Princeton has received considerable national attention recently for its decision to study the pluralism of American society within its American Studies program, rather than through a proliferation of programs focused on particular ethnicities. In the sciences, one of the major questions is whether the post-World War II pattern of control of the science agenda by scientists is about to be replaced by more direct control of the scientific agenda by the financial supporters of the research enterprise (largely corporations and government). The ultimate question, of course, is who controls the scientific agenda and to what end, and the answer will help determine which science is conducted, and where, and by whom and at what levels of quality.

The Academic Profession. Nationally, a growing number of faculty are being appointed outside the tenure system, and therefore may not be part of the long-term faculty of the institution. This trend could have profound effects on the attractiveness of the academic profession, the role of faculty in institutional governance, and the status of academic freedom, and may exacerbate the tensions that already exist in many venues between tenure track faculty and those with temporary positions. Since tenure is a system designed to protect academic freedom as well as a key aspect of faculty governance, some worry about the future of academic freedom in this new environment. Others believe either that tenure does not provide ironclad protection of academic freedom (since even tenure contracts can be terminated under certain conditions), or that tenure is no longer necessary to protect academic freedom. Still others argue that academic freedom is an outmoded concept, or that tenure (understood as essentially unlimited job security) is a concept society can no longer afford. Whatever the future holds in this respect, it is clear that such forces as difficult budget constraints, new notions of accountability, the elimination of mandatory retirement, and in some cases the lack of a good match between faculty skills and student needs, are putting strains on the traditional tenure system and are raising questions about the nature and mode of faculty appointments and promotions.

Governance Issues. In an idealized world, society entrusts its colleges and universities to groups of either appointed or elected individuals (usually known as trustees or regents) who adopt a mission for the institution in the public interest and then employ faculty and administrators to carry out that mission. Traditionally, trustees or regents have looked to faculty to play a central role in the governance of the institution, and especially in developing policies and practices regarding the academic program. Both of these delegations of authority -- from the "state" (directly or indirectly) to the trustees or regents, and from the trustees or regents to the faculty -- require a certain amount of self-discipline on both sides and considerable mutual understanding about what the respective roles entail. But these are not immutable arrangements, and over time we could see some change in the distribution of authority and responsibilities within colleges and universities. As fields of knowledge emerge and evolve we also may find increasing need for structures for teaching and research that are more flexible and permeable than the departments into which most colleges and universities currently are organized.

Student Aid. While Princeton was not alone among private colleges in beginning to provide scholarships as early as the 18th century (in our case to "poor and pious youth"), and while the "land-grant" universities were designed from the beginning for students from families of more modest means, it was not until after World War II that America began to create a system that aimed to make it possible for every deserving student not only to attend college, but to attend the college -- public or private -- that could best meet the student's needs and best fulfill the student's aspirations. Three major developments were (1) the commitment of some of the leading private colleges and universities to admit students without regard to financial need and then to meet the full estimated financial need of each admitted student, which allowed schools to seek out and admit the strongest candidates they could find irrespective of financial circumstances and allowed students to eliminate, at least in part, price as a factor in choosing among these schools; (2) the development of federal grant, work-study, and loan programs that were intended to assure both "access" and "choice" for needy students; and (3) the dramatic expansion of the public system of higher education, including state colleges and universities and community colleges, which provided heavily subsidized educational opportunities (and therefore charged very low tuition) to students from all income levels.

Over recent years this system has often showed signs of eroding in a number of significant respects. As federal programs and institutional resources have failed to keep pace with rising costs, very few private colleges and universities can afford a "need blind, full need" policy. Most private colleges and universities either take need into account (at least for some part of the admission process), or admit at least some students without meeting their full estimated need. Moreover, until recently both federal and institutional programs have increased the proportion of aid they provide in the form of loans rather than grants. At the same time, many state universities are considering whether they should significantly increase their charges so that families with means can shoulder a greater portion of the cost of providing educational opportunities to their children. Both private and public institutions are making greater use of merit scholarships unrelated to need to increase the enrollment of their most desirable applicants. Some institutions have adopted practices known as "enrollment management" where financial aid officers tailor each financial aid offer to the particular circumstances of each applicant to maximize the likelihood of that applicant enrolling. In the aftermath of the antitrust settlement involving the Ivy institutions and other private colleges and universities, more and more students and families appear to be challenging their financial aid awards and trying to negotiate increases based on the offers of other places. Recent legislation has introduced a new set of tax credits for tuition, along with greater incentives for college savings, and we may well see the expansion of state (and probably the introduction of private) prepaid tuition programs.

The whole question of who pays for college, how much they pay, and how financial aid packages (or "tuition discounts") are determined and allocated is under active discussion in Congress, state legislatures, and institutions around the country. The outcome of these discussions could have significant strategic and financial implications for Princeton, and could lead to major changes nationally in the composition of student bodies at different kinds of institutions.


We have carried out this planning process assuming that Princeton will continue to be a geographically coherent community of students and scholars engaged in conversations across the generations that are aimed not only at understanding our cultural inheritance and that of others, but at developing skills, perhaps molding character, and pursuing a better understanding of the natural world and the human societies that inhabit it. Princeton's key overall objective is to attract, retain, support, and energize exceptional students, faculty, and staff, and provide them with the resources they need to push the limits of their abilities and aspirations. Whether and how the University can achieve these goals will depend not only on Princeton's own determinations and commitments, but on a broad array of external factors that will shape the institution and the environment in which it operates. A fundamental challenge is to anticipate and understand these factors as well as possible -- and to accept the inevitability and even desirability of change -- even as we recognize that our ability to foresee the future will always be imperfect, that new factors will emerge over time, and that the factors we do identify will themselves always be subject to change.

Harold T. Shapiro


contents   prev   next