President Shirley M. Tilghman
September 28, 2001
Discovery and Discourse, Leadership and Service:
The Role of the Academy in Times of Crisis
Faculty, students, staff, trustees, alumni and neighbors of Princeton University, distinguished guests, family and friends:
It is a deep honor for me to assume the office of 19th President of this great University. I accept with both eagerness and humility, knowing full well that I follow in the footsteps of predecessors who have provided Princeton with extraordinary leadership over the past century. Presidents Goheen, Bowen and Shapiro, all of whom are present to witness this beginning of a new presidency, have provided us with a legacy that is envied in all quarters of higher education, a legacy that we will cherish and protect, but also one that we will use as a strong foundation on which to build our future.
Our vision of that future was forever changed by the tragic events of September 11 at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania. In the aftermath of those events, I modified the address that I had been writing in order to speak with you about what is foremost on my mind. President Bush, in his address to a joint session of Congress last week, declared war on international terrorism, a war whose form and outcome are difficult to imagine. Given the enormous challenges and the uncertainty that lie ahead, what is the proper role of the academy during this crisis and in the national debate we are sure to have? How can we contribute as this great country seeks the honorable path to worldwide justice and to peace?
Today the academy holds a highly privileged place in American society because of a long-standing national consensus about the value of education. Another of my predecessors, President Harold Dodds, said in his inaugural address in 1933 that "No country spends money for education, public and private, so lavishly as does the United States. Americans have an almost childlike faith in what formal education can do for them." That faith is based on a conviction that the vitality of the United States, its creative and diverse cultural life, its staggeringly inventive economy, its national security and the robustness of its democratic institutions owe much to the quality of its institutions of higher education. The spirit of democracy is now reflected more than ever in our educational system, with opportunities open to students of all stripes, from 18-year-old freshmen to senior citizens; from students given every imaginable advantage by their parents to students who spent their childhoods living on the streets; from the New Jersey-born to students from around the globe; from students who were ignited by learning from the first day of primary school to high-school dropouts who came to formal education through the school of hard knocks. If you will forgive a biologist the impulse to use a scientific metaphor, the American educational landscape is like a complex ecosystem, full of varied niches in which a rich diversity of organisms grow and thrive.
Our society's confidence in its institutions of higher education is expressed through the generous investments of the federal and state governments in basic and applied research, investments that wisely couple support for research with support for graduate education. It is also expressed through federal and state investments that subsidize the cost of higher education for those who cannot afford to pay, investments by private foundations and charities who see colleges and universities as the best routes for achieving their strategic goals, and investments by individuals and by the private sector, who see universities as the incubators of future health and prosperity. In return for this broad support, society rightfully expects certain things from us. It expects the generation of new ideas and the discovery of new knowledge, the exploration of complex issues in an open and collegial manner and the preparation of the next generation of citizens and leaders. In times of trouble, it is especially important that we live up to these expectations.
The medieval image of the university as an ivory tower, with scholars turned inward in solitary contemplation, immunized from the cares of the day, is an image that has been superseded by the modern university constructed not of ivory, but of a highly porous material, one that allows free diffusion in both directions. The academy is of the world, not apart from it. Its ideals, crafted over many generations, are meant to suffuse the national consciousness. Its scholars and teachers are meant to move in and out of the academy in pursuit of opportunities to use their expertise in public service, in pursuit of creative work that will give us illumination and insight and in pursuit of ways to turn laboratory discoveries into useful things. Our students engage the world with a strong sense of civic responsibility, and when they graduate they become alumni who do the same. This is as it should be.
Yet the complex interplay between society and the academy also creates a tension, because the search for new ideas and knowledge is not and cannot be motivated by utilitarian concerns. Rather it depends on the ability to think in new and creative ways, to challenge prevailing orthodoxies, to depart from the status quo. We must continually strive to preserve the freedom of our students and our scholars to pursue ideas that conflict with what we believe or what we would like to believe, and to explore deep problems whose solutions have no apparent applications. This is not a privilege we grant to a handful of pampered intellectuals; rather it is a defining feature of our society and an essential investment in the continuing strength of our character, our culture, our ideas and our material lives. When the Nobel laureate John Nash developed the mathematical concepts underlying non-cooperative game theory as a graduate student at Princeton, he could not foresee that those concepts would be used today to analyze election strategies and the causes of war and to make predictions about how people will act. When Professor of Molecular Biology Eric Wieschaus set out as a young scientist to identify genes that pattern the body plan of the fruit fly embryo, he could not know that he would identify genes that play a central role in the development of human cancer. We have learned that we cannot predict with any accuracy how discoveries and scholarship will influence future generations. We also have learned that it is unwise to search only in predictable places, for new knowledge often depends upon preparing fertile ground in obscure places where serendipity and good luck, as well as deep intelligence, can sprout. Freedom of inquiry, which is one of our most cherished organizing principles, is not just a moral imperative, it is a practical necessity.
Just as we have an obligation to search widely for knowledge, so we also have an obligation to insure that the scholarly work of the academy is widely disseminated, so that others can correct it when necessary, or build on it, or use it to make better decisions, develop better products or construct better plans. In the days ahead, I hope that our country's decision makers will draw on the knowledge that resides on our campuses, on historians who can inform the present through deep understanding of the past, philosophers who can provide frameworks for working through issues of right and wrong, economists whose insights can help to get the economy back on track, engineers who know how to build safer buildings, scientists who can analyze our vulnerabilities to future attack and develop strategies for reducing those vulnerabilities, and scholars in many fields who can help them understand the motivations of those who would commit acts of terrorism here and throughout the world.
American universities have been granted broad latitude not only to disseminate knowledge, but to be the home of free exchange of ideas, where even the rights of those who express views repugnant to the majority are vigorously protected. Defending academic freedom of speech is not particularly difficult in times of peace and prosperity. It is in times of national crisis that our true commitment to freedom of speech and thought is tested. History will judge us in the weeks and months ahead by our capacity to sustain civil discourse in the face of deep disagreement, for we are certain to disagree with one another. We will disagree about how best to hold accountable those responsible for the attacks of September 11. We will disagree about how broadly the blame should be shared. We will disagree about the ways in which nationalism and religion can be perverted into fanaticism. We will disagree about whether a just retribution can be achieved if it leads to the deaths of more innocent victims. We will disagree about the political and tactical decisions that our government will make, both in achieving retribution and in seeking to protect against similar attacks in the future. We will disagree about how and when to wage war and how best to achieve a real and lasting peace.
The conversations we will have on our campuses are not intended to reach a conformity of view, a bland regression to the mean. Rather, we aim to come to a deeper appreciation and understanding of the complexity of human affairs and of the implications of the choices we make. Perhaps, if we are very dedicated, we will find the wisdom to see an honorable, yet effective, path to a world in which terrorism is a thing of the past. With generosity of spirit and mutual respect, we must listen carefully to one another, and speak with our minds and our hearts, guided by the principles we hold dear. By conducting difficult discussions without prejudice or anger, by standing together for tolerance, civil liberties and the right to dissent, by holding firm to core principles of justice and freedom and human dignity, this University will serve our country well. By so doing, we will be true patriots.
Let me now turn to the third obligation that we have to society: the education of the next generation of citizens and leaders. Princeton's view of what constitutes a liberal arts education was expressed well by Woodrow Wilson, our 13th President, whose eloquent words I read at Opening Exercises:
"What we should seek to impart in our colleges, therefore, is not so much learning itself as the spirit of learning. It consists in the power to distinguish good reasoning from bad, in the power to digest and interpret evidence, in the habit of catholic observation and a preference for the nonpartisan point of view, in an addiction to clear and logical processes of thought and yet an instinctive desire to interpret rather than to stick to the letter of reasoning, in a taste for knowledge and a deep respect for the integrity of the human mind."
Wilson, and the presidents who followed him, rejected the narrow idea of a liberal arts education as preparation for a profession. While understanding the importance of professional education, they made it clear that at Princeton we should first and foremost cultivate the qualities of thought and discernment in our students, in the belief that this will be most conducive to the health of our society. Thus we distinguish between the acquisition of information, something that is essential for professional training, and the development of habits of mind that can be applied in any profession. Consequently, we celebrate when the classics scholar goes to medical school, the physicist becomes a member of Congress, or the historian teaches primary school. If we do our job well as educators, each of our students will take from a Princeton education a respect and appreciation for ideas and values, intellectual openness and rigor, practice in civil discourse and a sense of civic responsibility. During these troubled times, our students and our alumni will be called upon to exercise these qualities in their professions, their communities and their daily lives. By so doing, and through their leadership, their vision and their courage, they will help to fulfill Princeton's obligation to society and bring true meaning to our motto, "Princeton in the nation's service and in the service of all nations."