President’s Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
The Woodrow Wilson School: Adapting to a Changing World
December 14, 2011
One of Dean Christina Paxson’s priorities since assuming the leadership of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in 2009 has been to evaluate and, where appropriate, reshape the undergraduate curriculum to ensure that it continues to serve our students well as they, in turn, prepare themselves to serve our nation and all nations. I have invited Dean Paxson, a member of our faculty since 1986 and former chair of the Department of Economics, to reflect on this process of curricular renewal. — S.M.T.
In my nearly two and a half years as dean of the Woodrow Wilson School, I have been aware of the need for the institution to move forward while remaining true to the philosophy on which it was founded. Our recent reform of the school’s undergraduate major serves as a good example of how the balance between change and tradition can be struck.
From its beginning, the school was meant to differ from other schools of its type. Its founding director, DeWitt Clinton Poole, wrote in 1929 that the need was not for “young men minutely trained in specific technicalities” but rather for “a broad culture which will enlarge the individual’s mental scope to world dimensions.” Consistent with this view, the curriculum was designed to ground students in the subjects of history, politics and economics. Foreign language acquisition and “summer vacations abroad” were encouraged. Although most alumni were enthusiastic about the new program, others favored a more practical approach. In a letter to Poole, one alumnus wrote that the curriculum “is not immediately useful to the boy who has to earn a living.” The success of thousands of our alumni—both men and women—in the public and private spheres indicates that this last concern was entirely unfounded.
Over the years, the school’s undergraduate program has provided students with an outstanding education. However, the world has changed since 1929. The topics that galvanize student interest today—climate change, nuclear security, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic—were unknown at the time the school was founded. And old policy problems have taken on new twists. For example, although civil unrest is an old phenomenon, the use of social media to propel popular uprisings is new. Similarly, while it is as important now as it was at the onset of the Great Depression to develop appropriate responses to global financial crises, this issue has taken on new dimensions due to technological changes that (for better or worse) have led to a more interconnected global economic system.
When I started as dean, I wanted to ascertain whether the school’s undergraduate program was providing students with the education they need to address complex 21st-century problems. I charged a committee led by President Emeritus Harold Shapiro *64 and Professor Nolan McCarty (then our associate dean) with conducting a thorough review of the program. In the best of school traditions, the committee members collected the facts: they interviewed administrators, faculty and students; conducted an alumni survey; and reviewed information on the academic and career choices of our students. They also considered the big questions: what should the mission of the school’s undergraduate program be, and how should the school fit within the overall framework of Princeton University?
The committee report reaffirmed the idea that the undergraduate program should be grounded in the liberal arts rather than provide narrow technical training. However, the report noted the importance of an education that provides depth as well as breadth, and it recommended providing students with stronger policy research skills. It reaffirmed the role of history, politics and economics in the curriculum, but also stressed the importance of the disciplines that are “new” to the school—sociology, psychology and the sciences—for the understanding of public and international affairs. Most notably, the report recommended moving from a system of selective admission to one in which all students who meet the program’s prerequisites are welcome. Last spring, the faculty overwhelmingly endorsed these changes. We are now fleshing out the specifics of the new curriculum, which we plan to announce this spring.
The reforms to the undergraduate program are in step with my vision of the Woodrow Wilson School as a place where rigorous social science, informed by scientific and technological knowledge, is applied to policy problems. They also serve my goal of more tightly integrating the school with the rest of Princeton. Students from across the University are keenly interested in policy issues, and the new curriculum will offer them opportunities, regardless of their majors, to learn about topics such as environmental policy, financial market regulation, and health policy.
Along with other departments, we are developing new models of study abroad and a diverse array of international and domestic summer internship and research opportunities for Princeton students. And while those who advocated for “summer vacations abroad” when the school was founded may not have envisioned students spending their summers conducting infectious disease research in Vietnam or working with Somali refugees in Kenya, I suspect they would have approved of these activities and the renewed commitment to global learning and engagement that underpins them.