President's Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
Trustees on Retreat
March 7, 2007
This year’s January meeting of the Princeton Board of Trustees began with a retreat, designed to give trustees, faculty, and senior administrators an opportunity to reflect on several critical issues that the University faces. Ruth Simmons, the president of Brown University and a former vice provost at Princeton, was our keynote speaker for the first session, which looked at the quality of the residential experience of our students. This discussion could not have come at a more opportune time, as we prepare to launch the new four-year residential college system next fall and as we continue to see greater geographic, ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic diversity among both undergraduates and graduate students. Our own survey data tell us that under-represented minorities and low-income students are less satisfied with their lives outside the classroom and sometimes feel that they do not “belong” at Princeton. Simmons joined trustees in urging us to commit to closing that gap, not by attempting to homogenize the experiences of all Princeton students, but by affirming that there are multiple ways to be an integral part of Princeton’s fabric. The retreat attendees also focused on creating a safe environment for all students and emphasizing to incoming freshmen that in joining the Princeton community, they take on a set of well-defined responsibilities for the wellbeing of one another. The Honor Code has served us well over time as a set of very high expectations for integrity and mutual respect inside the classroom, and we need to be just as clear that there are similar high expectations for conduct outside the classroom.
Friday afternoon was taken up with a discussion of the campus master plan that has been in development for the last 18 months. One of Princeton’s greatest assets is our extraordinary campus, and the trustees consider the stewardship of the campus to be one of their primary responsibilities. Our principal consultant, Neil Kittredge of Beyer Blinder Belle, described our current thinking about how the campus will adapt to growth and change in the next decade. He was joined by two “critics,” Henry Cobb, architect of the Friend Center and the forthcoming Butler College dormitories, and Stan Allen *88, Dean of our School of Architecture. They reviewed the likely sites for growth, including the arts neighborhood south of the Berlind Theatre, the expansion of the natural sciences on either side of the southern end of Washington Road, and plans for enlarging the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at the E-Quad. You will notice that these locations lie at the periphery of the campus, as it is our judgment that there are few opportunities left for “in-fill” within the central campus. Several important themes recurred throughout the discussion. We were all conscious that while the master plan is intended to guide us through the next decade, we need to preserve as much flexibility as possible for future generations. We also need to think hard about the nature of the “neighborhoods” that have evolved on campus – for example, the undergraduate residential neighborhood in the historic campus, the natural science neighborhood on Washington Road, and the athletic fields and facilities to the south. While the value of these functional adjacencies is clear, mixing functions within a neighborhood encourages intellectual interaction and multi-disciplinarity, and allows for liveliness within a neighborhood at all times of the day and night. There was a consensus that the trend toward functional neighborhoods should be tempered with some mixed use as we consider future sites for additional health, recreation, daycare, and residential buildings.
On Friday evening at dinner we were joined by President Emeritus Charles Vest of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As a longtime president of MIT and president-elect of the National Academy of Engineering, Vest is one of the nation’s most influential engineers and educators. He talked about his experiences on two very important commissions. One was the Spellings Commission on the Future of Higher Education, which issued a report this fall highlighting several issues of significant import for Princeton. The commission recommended a greater commitment to need-based financial aid and a simplification of the federal programs that provide loans and grants to low-income students; greater transparency across higher education for prospective students about cost and graduation rates; and a greater attention to ensuring that students are really learning. Vest was also a member of the National Research Council committee that authored the report “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” about which I wrote in the January 24 issue of the PAW, and he reiterated the message of that report—that investments in science, mathematics, and engineering education and research are critical to the future wellbeing of the United States.
President Emeritus Gerhard Casper of Stanford University opened the Saturday morning session with reflections on the impact of globalization on Princeton and its mission. This is a subject of special interest to alumni, many of whom are now working and traveling on a regular basis outside the United States. Casper urged us to begin by considering how we organize and teach the history, languages, cultures, economies, and religions of the world outside the United States on campus. He noted that there had been a national decline in the number of regional studies departments, and he commended Princeton for sustaining such strong programs in both East Asia and the Near East. On the other hand, trustees and faculty alike were united in the view that classroom learning needs to be complemented with educational opportunities outside the United States, to ensure that every Princeton graduate is fully prepared to live and work in a globalized community. Now that the University has largely erased the institutional and financial barriers that traditionally discouraged students from studying abroad, the new challenge is to persuade the students themselves of the benefits of international travel and study as part of their Princeton education. Three issues rose to the fore: the importance of developing a rich menu of term, summer, and postgraduate opportunities for our students to conduct rigorous academic work abroad; recruiting talented foreign students and integrating them fully into the life of the University; and communicating early and often to freshmen why international study should be an essential part of their plans.
By the end of the retreat, we all had a clearer sense of where we should direct our energies as we work to improve the quality of student life outside the classroom, shape a campus that will serve us well for many years to come, and strengthen Princeton’s commitment to international education. While these are not the only major issues that we face, they are among the most important—and well worth thinking through at every level of our University community.