President's Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
Strengthening Undergraduate Education Through Continuity and Change
February 14, 2007
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Professor of History Nancy Weiss Malkiel’s appointment as dean of the college. Her influence on undergraduate life has been profound, reflecting her resolve to think creatively and critically about every aspect of our curriculum and our larger educational mission. As she celebrates this major milestone, I thought I would invite her to reflect on her work and the challenges that lie ahead. — S.M.T.
Imagine being charged with responsibility for undergrad-uate education in the University with the strongest commitment to undergraduate teaching of any research university I know. Imagine starting with an already first-rate educational program and being tasked to think imaginatively about how to build on strength. Imagine undertaking that endeavor in the company of outstanding students and exceptional faculty and administrative colleagues. Imagine having resources that make it possible to initiate programs and services that take undergraduate education to a new level of effectiveness. It is no wonder that I believe that I have the best job at Princeton.
As I look back over nearly 20 years as dean of the college, I am struck both by how much the Princeton of 2007 resembles the Princeton of 1987 and by how much it has changed. The continuities are fundamental: the deep engagement of the faculty in undergraduate education; the close interaction between students and individual professors; the conviction that an undergraduate program of study works best when it is well-structured, from general education requirements to disciplinary majors; the commitment to independent work, culminating in the demanding but enormously rewarding senior thesis; the confidence that living in a highly diverse, close-knit residential community contributes importantly to personal maturation and moral development; the certainty that undergraduate learning happens outside as well as inside the classroom, through spirited participation in activities that foster teamwork, test leadership, and develop habits of citizenship and service.
And yet, within that fundamental framework of rock-solid continuity, so much has changed.
We have new general education requirements organized in terms of approaches to knowledge instead of the old disciplinary baskets. We have a thriving Freshman Seminar Program offering 70 seminars a year, where more than two-thirds of the freshman class experiences the excitement and challenge of working in a small setting with a professor and fellow students on a topic of special interest. We have a new Princeton Writing Program that offers more than 100 intensive writing seminars, a requirement for all freshmen.
With the burgeoning of new fields of knowledge and cross-disciplinary study, we have developed intensive interdisciplinary course sequences for beginning students and greatly increased opportunities for advanced students to supplement their disciplinary concentrations with interdisciplinary certificate programs. Thanks to educational technologies, we have changed the ways in which students access information, communicate with professors and preceptors, and extend intellectual conversation beyond the classroom. We take a much broader view of subjects of study: my own department, for instance, now reaches well beyond its traditional focus on Western Europe and the United States, teaching the history of Africa, Asia, Latin America, Russia, Eastern and Mediterranean Europe, the Middle East; indeed, the history of the world. Our students study race, ethnicity, and gender across the disciplines; we offer instruction in languages from around the globe and encourage students to study and take up internships abroad. Princeton courses are taught in the field: over breaks, in the summer, for an entire semester. Through the 250th Anniversary Fund for Innovation in Undergraduate Education, we encourage and enable course development and curricular experimentation. We also support and enhance student learning through such new vehicles as the Writing Center, the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning, and the Community-Based Learning Initiative.
Thanks to the exceptional performance of the endowment, the generosity of alumni, and Princeton’s determination to build the strongest need-based financial aid program in the country, we are able to enroll the most outstanding students irrespective of family resources. We now have the highest percentage of students on financial aid of any of our peer institutions, a growing number of low-income students, and the highest percentage of international students and students of color in Princeton’s history. With the planned expansion in the size of the undergraduate student body, there are new opportunities to recruit broadly, strengthen and deepen the applicant pool, and attract to Princeton a larger share of the most talented high school students in the world.
All of this falls under the aegis of the dean of the college. All of this I have found exciting, stimulating, and rewarding in ways I could never have imagined when I took up the deanship 20 years ago. What I love best is the mix of preserving and strengthening our enduring traditions and historic commitments at the same time that we take on ambitious new challenges like the ones that occupy the lion’s share of my attention today: the development and implementation of the new residential college system; the effort to redistribute concentrators so that students study what they love and avail themselves of the full range of academic departments at Princeton; the implementation of new institution-wide grading standards; the development of an ambitious plan to make international experience a central part of undergraduate education; even the seemingly impossible task of devising a revised academic calendar that might better support our educational objectives.
Constantly challenging, always exhilarating, endlessly interesting—as I said, the best job in the University.