President's Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
October 24, 2007
On September 27, Princetonians gathered to dedicate Whitman College and the buildings that constitute this magnificent collegiate Gothic complex. As many of you know, the new college has been under construction for the past three years, rising like an enchanted castle from land once occupied by tennis courts. Built largely from hand-set fieldstone and encompassing 250,000 square feet, its 10 buildings represent one of the most ambitious construction projects in Princeton’s history. Five hundred undergraduates from all four classes and 10 graduate students now call Whitman home, and our entire University community, to say nothing of visitors, can enjoy its beautiful courts, cloister, and tree-dotted grounds.
We are indebted to Whitman’s distinguished architect, Demetri Porphyrios *74 *80, for envisioning a college that honors Princeton’s rich tradition of collegiate Gothic architecture. He has created a college that merges seamlessly with its surroundings, so much so that even now, with the paint barely dry, it gives the impression of always having been there. Yet, Whitman is also distinctive, as every college should be, inviting us to cross its western “moat” or eastern lawns and enter a community within a community—a place where students do not simply sleep and eat, but can also study, participate in seminars, hone their writing skills (Whitman houses the Princeton Writing Program), and even rehearse in a dance studio or perform in a 65-seat theater.
Some may argue that a cutting-edge research university with a distinguished School of Architecture should be promoting modern architectural forms, just as we encourage new kinds of scholarship and research. But from my perspective, the language of collegiate Gothic architecture has endured since the Middle Ages for a reason. Its beauty and solidity evoke quiet contemplation and seriousness of purpose, while its imaginative flourishes and inter-connected yet separate spaces reflect the individuality and solidarity to be found within a community of scholars. Moreover, Whitman College was being built at the same time as the Frank Gehry-designed Peter B. Lewis Science Library on Washington Road—proof positive that Princeton is able to celebrate modernity while honoring its traditions.
Whitman has also made it possible to expand the size of our undergraduate student body by 11 percent, fulfilling the mandate set forth by the Wythes Committee in 2000 and allowing us to extend the benefits of a Princeton education to a greater number of gifted students than ever before. Furthermore, Whitman has enabled us to do so in a way that dramatically enhances the quality of residential life, for this is the flagship of our newly inaugurated four-year residential college system.
The introduction of four-year colleges has made it possible for both under- and upperclassmen, graduate students, and a small number of regular and visiting faculty to live beneath one roof. In this sense, Whitman (together with Mathey College and, beginning in 2009, a rebuilt Butler College) embodies a dream first championed a century ago by Woodrow Wilson when he sought to bridge the divide between academic and social life by creating “quadrangles” in which all undergraduates would live and dine in the company of resident faculty masters and preceptors.
Unlike Wilson’s ill-fated quadrangle plan, however, the four year-college system is not designed to compete with, let alone replace, the eating clubs but rather to give juniors, seniors, and graduate students more living and dining options and to enrich the intellectual and social life of the freshmen and sophomores with whom they interact. Prior to this fall, Princeton’s colleges were limited to first- and second-year students, and upperclassmen were obliged to choose between joining an eating club and living independently. Now, all students will enjoy a formal affiliation with a college throughout their time at Princeton, and approximately 100 juniors and seniors will have an opportunity to live in each of Whitman, Mathey, and Butler Colleges. The residents of all six colleges will enjoy an expanded program of activities, assisted by new directors of residential life, as well as menus prepared by executive chefs who will give each college a distinctive culinary flavor. Students who prefer to join an eating club—and most will continue to do so—are entitled to eat two meals a week in the college of their choice, and for those who do not want to choose between the colleges and eating clubs, an innovative shared meal plan has been developed.
While the four-year college system is still in its infancy and its impact will not be fully known for many years, the opening of Whitman represents an important stage in the evolution of residential life. Upperclass students have already voted with their feet, filling their allotted spots in Whitman and Mathey Colleges and signing up for the shared meal plans. Graduate students have also signaled their enthusiasm for collegiate life; their rooms were oversubscribed by a factor of two!
Last but not least, Whitman is a marvelous expression of the loyalty and generosity of our alumni, and of their desire to strengthen the residential and broader educational experience of future generations of Princetonians. Named in honor of eBay CEO Meg Whitman ’77, whose belief in this project and tangible support were critical to its success, Whitman was built with major gifts from over 30 named and anonymous donors. Their faith in Princeton is an inspiration for us all.