President's Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
Beginning a Conversation
September 12, 2001
Since 1977, the PAW has provided up to 20 pages a year to the University for messages to alumni. During his presidency, Harold Shapiro used more than 200 of these pages and gave them an identity as “The President’s Page.” I am planning to continue that practice, and I welcome suggestions about topics that you would like me to address.
In this, my first page, I would like to share some of the comments I made to alumni who gathered in Alexander Hall on Reunions Saturday to “meet the new president.” I began by noting that when I first came to Princeton more than 15 years ago, I knew relatively little about the University, beyond the fact that it had made a commitment to building excellence in the new field of molecular biology. No sooner had I arrived, however, than I had my first encounters with the breathtaking quality of Princeton students.
The first two undergraduates to complete senior theses in my lab were Tyra Wolfsberg ’88 and Jimmy Leung ’88. Tyra was a spectacular student who wanted to use computational approaches to understand genetic information. Today she is a sought-after scientist in the very exciting field of bio-informatics, working at the National Human Genome Research Institute. Jimmy stayed on after graduation to work for another two years on a major collaborative project with the great scientist Eric Lander ’78, head of MIT’s Genome Center and a winner of the Woodrow Wilson Award. Jimmy is now a radiologist in Arizona, writing articles about how molecular biology will revolutionize medical imaging.
My first graduate student, Cami Brannan, was equally memorable. She picked up the toughest and most intractable problem in the lab and turned it into what has become the most exciting area we have studied for the last 10 years. She recently e-mailed me to say she has been awarded tenure at the University of Florida.
So, with a succession of wonderful undergraduates, graduate students and post-doctoral fellows, I learned first-hand that Princeton captures the loyalty of its faculty through the extraordinary quality of its students. I learned on a personal level how Princeton captures the loyalty of its students when, three years ago, my daughter, Rebecca, became a member of the Class of 2002. I became a Princeton parent, and found myself further caught up in the fabric of this special place. I also became very well acquainted with the Development office. I have felt the constant tug on my wallet just as you have, and I think I understand all the compelling reasons for it, just as you do.
When my daughter chose her major, she migrated with lightning speed as far from molecular biology as she could get, landing in art history. When I read her junior paper on Albert Barnes, the creator of the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, I was struck by the maturation in her thinking and writing that took place just this past year. Princeton takes students and turns them into scholars by having them interact in the closest imaginable way with faculty on the farthest frontiers of research and discovery. It is the heart and soul of what makes a Princeton education second to none.
After I had been at Princeton for several years, I was asked to serve on a university-wide committee to study how well we were teaching science to students in the humanities and social sciences. In other words, what could we do with the dreaded science distribution requirement? That experience hooked me on thinking about pedagogy, and how important it is to communicate the beauty and excitement of science to all our students. But it also impressed on me the remarkable way in which Harold Shapiro questioned every aspect of our campus life. He was never satisfied with doing okay. He wanted us to do everything better. That absolute dedication to excellence breeds devotion and pride among all members of our University community.
Among the formative experiences and important influences of my time here at Princeton, I have to mention lacrosse. Several years ago, a varsity player named Dennis Kramer ’97 took one of my courses. I had never seen a lacrosse game in my life, but Dennis was the best student in the class and he asked if I would go watch him play. I was hooked by the end of the first quarter, and in the words of Coach Tierney, I became a “lacrosse junkie.” Dennis just graduated from medical school, and I saw him at this year’s NCAA finals where Princeton played one of the finest games I have ever witnessed. For me, attending these kinds of extracurricular events—thankfully, not all of them as heart-stopping as the Syracuse game—has been a wonderful way to get to know our students with all their many talents and interests. I am looking forward to doing much more of this in the years to come.
I believe I now have the best job in higher education. With Harold Shapiro’s extraordinary stewardship and the generosity of our loyal alumni, Princeton is financially sound, with challenging and innovative academic programs, superb faculty, our gates wide open to students from every background and culture, and a carefully considered blueprint for the future in the Wythes report. We now must continue to strengthen the bonds of community on campus, to renew our commitment to the nation’s service and the service of all nations, and to ensure that our students learn not only in the classroom, lecture hall and laboratory, but also on the playing field, in the rehearsal hall, in the dining hall, and in late-night conversations about politics, painting, literature, and, yes, genomics.
Princeton is a place that both honors its traditions and vigorously pursues innovation. I will do everything I can to hold this University to the highest standards and lead it toward even greater aspirations. I hope to enlist your help, your support and your ideas as we move ahead on many fronts. I look forward to what I hope will be a long and rewarding conversation.