President's Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
Conversations with Students
December 19, 2001
This year I have enjoyed spending time with students, introducing myself to them and hearing first hand what is on their minds. You might think that after having spent fifteen years teaching and mentoring students in the Department of Molecular Biology I would already know what students are thinking. However, it was not until my daughter Becca joined the Class of 2002 that I began my true education about Princeton from a student’s perspective.
My continuing education begins with office hours, a tradition that Harold Shapiro wisely advised me to continue. Once a week students are invited to come to One Nassau Hall on a first come, first served basis to talk to me. There is only one ground rule: students cannot use their time to ask for money! I decided to disperse the discretionary “President’s Fund” for students and student activities to the Dean of the Graduate School, the Vice President for Campus Life and the Dean of Undergraduate Students. Because these senior administrators can put all requests into perspective, they are better able to distribute funds fairly for such worthy causes as senior thesis research, student performances, and medical emergencies. Now that the president’s office hours are no longer viewed as a venue for soliciting funds, the conversations between me and the students are more wide-ranging (and more interesting).
What do we talk about? Students in organizations visit office hours to do some self-promoting: they want the President to know their group exists. The Katzenjammers went so far as to offer me a chance to learn about their organization first-hand by participating in a performance. Others want to ensure that I am aware of their good work on behalf of others. The campus Princeton Environmental Action group reviewed with me an audit they conducted about how the University can be a more environmentally responsible institution, and the Workers Rights Organizing Committee came to discuss the well-being of the lowest paid workers in the university. Graduate students in the Woodrow Wilson School offered their perspectives on education in public policy and their aspirations for the next dean of the School. Occasionally the topics are personal: students came in large numbers after the September 11 attacks to talk about their personal response to the events and to suggest ways that students could help, from giving blood to reaching out to New York City youngsters who lost parents in the attacks.
Students come to talk about the future. We talk about whether they should take a year off and, increasingly lately, about how they will find employment after Princeton, especially in an uncertain economy. Although I can’t fix many of their concerns, my sense is that they are incredibly grateful that the President of Princeton is accessible and willing to listen, and I believe that these conversations contribute to making Princeton a caring community that values highly each individual student.
Occasionally these conversations leave me with my own concerns. At meetings in less structured settings, especially over meals—breakfast at Lowrie House, coffee at Café Vivian in the Frist Campus Center, or dinners at eating clubs and residential colleges—students talk freely about how they spend their time at Princeton, and it does not take long before the topic of alcohol and alcohol abuse on campus comes up. First-year undergraduate students often express their shock at the role of alcohol in social life on campus. For older students, the shock has worn off, and while they often express concern, especially about binge drinkers, the question of how to change the culture and what responsibility students themselves have to effect change remains a tough one. This is a complex, multi-faceted problem that exists on campuses throughout the nation. Princeton has taken positive steps through the Trustee alcohol initiative to create alternative social activities such as a “concert under the stars” by the Wind Ensemble over house parties weekend or the UFO (Undergraduate Film Organization), which sponsors late-night showings of recent movies at the Frist Campus Center. But it is obvious that there is work that still needs to be done to improve the campus climate with respect to alcohol abuse.
I often ask students about what they do to relax; occasionally I feel as if I have to explain this verb to students who have been high-energy achievers their entire lives. My lead question is usually, “What books have you read lately?” I have yet to find a student who claims to have read a book during term that is not assigned reading. One student told me she does not read without a highlighter in her hand! It is not that students are spending free time in other ways—playing video games or picking up a musical instrument to play for pleasure. They just don’t have much free, unstructured time. And what “discretionary” time they do have they tend to spend in structured activity such as working out at the Stephens Fitness Center, or participating in student organizations or student government. There is a positive aspect to this high level of productive activity, but a part of me regrets that we don’t yet know how to bend time and space to allow for reading for pleasure, for long and meaningful conversations with friends, and for the serendipitous encounters that lead to new ideas and friendships.
On the other hand, my question “What would make Princeton better?” is often met with furrowed brows, followed by suggestions such as “Make it a five-year universitiy,” which makes me think that students generally know that they are having the experience of a lifetime. I know that I am, as I get to know these extraordinary students.