President’s Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
Nancy Weiss Malkiel
May 11, 2011
Although many members of our faculty have deftly filled administrative roles at one point or another, none has done so with greater dedication or for as long as Professor of History Nancy Weiss Malkiel. This June, after 24 years as dean of the college, with broad responsibility for Princeton’s undergraduate academic program, Nancy is returning to the ranks of our faculty, which she joined as a young assistant professor in 1969. She leaves behind a remarkable legacy that arises from her deep and abiding commitment to ensuring that each student receives the finest possible liberal arts education. In the words of Provost Christopher Eisgruber ’83, “When scholars write Princeton’s history in the future, they will undoubtedly regard Nancy Malkiel’s 24-year deanship as one of the University’s greatest.”
The reasons for this begin with Nancy’s own pursuit of excellence in the service of Princeton’s educational ideals. In word and action, she has affirmed that ours is “a world-class research university with the heart and soul of a liberal arts college,” which means that undergraduate teaching premised on close faculty-student interaction, a broad and rich curriculum, and the integration of academic and residential life are central to our mission. From the outset of her deanship, she has challenged us to enhance these qualities.
In 1988, when many new deans would still be testing the proverbial waters, Nancy publicly identified six ways in which the undergraduate curriculum could be strengthened—by expanding “small-group learning experiences” for freshmen, by bringing greater coherence to the senior year, by improving the teaching of science and technology to humanists and social scientists, by teaching writing more effectively, by invigorating introductory courses throughout the curriculum, and by encouraging a wider distribution of academic concentrations. And that was just for starters!
Armed with this agenda—and strongly supported by President Harold Shapiro *64—she set about the task of giving substance to her vision of undergraduate education. While it would take several President’s Pages to fully enumerate her contributions, let me touch on three broad themes that have defined her deanship.
Firstly, she has impressed on our faculty the importance of their role as teachers by fostering an environment in which effective and creative pedagogy is actively encouraged, be it through the 250th Anniversary Fund for Innovation in Undergraduate Education, which underwrites new or re-imagined courses, or through the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning, which helps faculty and students to transmit and acquire knowledge more effectively. Her efforts to rein in “grade inflation” and her insistence that faculty provide substantive feedback to their students spring from a strong conviction that providing full, fair, and meaningful evaluations is a critically important aspect of the teaching and learning process.
A second and closely related area of focus for Nancy has been curricular enrichment. Under her leadership, Princeton’s distribution requirements were revised for the first time in half a century with the goal of exposing students to different “modes of thinking,” such as quantitative reasoning or social analysis, rather than to disciplinary areas per se. In 2001, she introduced sweeping changes to our undergraduate writing program, primarily through the formation of freshman writing seminars. She has also championed—and greatly expanded—our Program of Freshman Seminars in the Residential Colleges, which introduces students to scholarly inquiry in small-group settings under the guidance of accomplished members of our faculty and staff. Still another legacy of Nancy’s is the Major Choices Initiative, which has successfully broadened the range of concentrations that our undergraduates pursue, reflecting her firm belief that students “should be choosing their concentrations on the basis of their intellectual passions, not because of what they (or their parents) believe to be the presumed utility and practicality of a field of study.” Her determination to broaden our students’ intellectual horizons can also be seen in her advocacy of increased opportunities for study and work abroad. “Global competence,” she rightly argues, “should be a part of every Princeton undergraduate’s education.”
Nancy’s third major contribution has been to immeasurably strengthen our undergraduate residential colleges, not only by supporting their expansion from two years to four, but also by making them centers of academic advising and other forms of intellectual and social enrichment and support. For her, a Princeton education is not confined to the classroom, and drawing on her own experience as Mathey College’s first master from 1982 to 1986, she has played a central role in shaping the programs that have made our six residential colleges the vibrant and integrative communities they are today.
Nancy has described her position as “constantly challenging, always exhilarating, endlessly interesting,” but these are, in fact, a tribute to her own great passion for her work and her devotion to this University. And all of us—faculty, students, and alumni—are better for it!