President's Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
May 15, 2002
This year I have been living two lives: one as a university president and a second as a professor of molecular biology. From Monday until Thursday and on weekends I don my new role and work in Nassau Hall, or elsewhere on campus, meeting with faculty, staff, students and alumni on university affairs. But on Friday I revert to my old identity and spend the day in Lewis Thomas Laboratory thinking about mammalian genetics with members of my laboratory. We have a lab meeting in which one member of the lab presents his or her work and receives critical feedback on both the execution and interpretation of results. We work on manuscripts to be submitted for publication and plan future experiments. During April, I also taught the introductory molecular biology course, MOL214, in the beautiful new Friend Center for Engineering Education.
This double life is both a necessity and a blessing. When I was named president last May, I was the head of a large enterprise composed of two members of the Class of 2002 who had just begun work on their senior theses, three graduate students who were in the midst of their Ph.D. training, eight postdoctoral fellows gaining additional experience before heading off to positions in academia and industry and three technical staff members. The work of these young scientists needed to continue until they received their degrees and completed their fellowships; hence the necessity. The blessing comes from the chance to continue the intellectual work that has been so exciting and rewarding. In this way I have been able to avoid going “cold turkey” on the work that has engaged me so completely for the last 30 years.
One of the most striking things I have discovered about this double life is the contrast between the approach of a scholar and that required of a university president. To be successful scientists must focus on one or a few important problems to the exclusion of all other things. Scientists are burrowers: once a good problem has been identified, it is essential that you dig deeply into it, paying close attention to the details, ignoring the peripheral issues that will distract you from getting to the essence of the problem. Good scientists live with their primary data, pouring over it again and again to extract its essential meaning. At the same time, scientists need to guard against becoming overly narrow. If you are too narrow, you can miss essential connections that are often the key to making the next leap forward.
Here is where teaching is so valuable to a working scientist. In a very real sense teaching and research are complementary activities. It is through teaching that scientists are forced to think broadly so they can present to students a coherent picture of the discipline. I became a much better scientist when I began to teach at Princeton in large part because of the breadth of my teaching assignments. A freshman seminar on developmental biology forced me to stand back from the details of my own work on mammals and identify the common ideas that are used to direct the development of all organisms. By reading with students classic papers from well outside my own specialty I gained new insights into my own work.
Teaching also forces you to come face to face with the limits of your knowledge. There is no more effective way to reveal the superficiality of your understanding of a subject than to contemplate standing in front of a class of bright and curious students, trying to explain how something works.
A university president must, of necessity, function completely differently from the burrowing scientist. Most of the time breadth must trump depth as enormously diverse issues come to my office every day, from strategic decisions for the investment of the endowment, to the role of sororities and fraternities in campus life, to the future of neuroscience to the quality of our benefits plan. It is impossible to be an expert in all these areas, and therefore I must rely on my colleagues to do the hard work of thinking through such questions carefully before bringing them to me for discussion. Instead of the luxury of having large blocks of time to devote to a single question, as I would in the laboratory, I spend my time in a large number of short meetings. Although some of my time is spent analyzing and solving problems, as I would in science, my work as president has a distinctly different flavor to it—I no longer know more than anyone else about most of the subjects at hand.
Princeton has a strong tradition of drawing its presidents from the faculty, and I am inspired by the example of my predecessors who made the transition I am going through this year. I also know that my Fridays in the laboratory, and my teaching in Friend Center, allow me to immerse myself directly in our fundamental mission—the education of talented undergraduate and graduate students who will go on to serve this nation and the world with distinction.