2007 Opening Exercises Greeting and Address
President Shirley M. Tilghman
September 16, 2007
Good afternoon. I wish to extend a warm and enthusiastic welcome to all new members of the University community, and to those of you who are returning after the summer.
Let me begin by introducing you to one another. The 1,244 new undergraduates, in what I have every expectation will eventually become the Great Class of 2011 (once you have earned your Tiger stripes), hail from 44 countries and 48 states as well as the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and Guam. Sadly, some catastrophic event must have occurred in Montana and Wyoming, because we could find no Tigers lurking there last year. You come from 826 different high schools, you have 368 different female first names and 323 different male first names. Collectively you represent a diverse array of talents, interests, experiences and aspirations. We are delighted that you had the wisdom to apply to Princeton and that we had the good sense to admit you.
To the 581 new graduate students, I also offer special greetings. You are a strikingly international group, as 35 percent of you were born outside the United States, proof positive that Princeton is truly an international university. Whether you have come to develop your professional credentials in engineering, finance, architecture or public policy, or you are embarking on a life of scholarship through doctoral studies, you have an important place in this community.
I also would like to welcome the 45 new members of the faculty whose distinguished scholarly achievements and dedication to teaching are certain to enhance Princeton's reputation for excellence in research and in undergraduate and graduate education. I also welcome new members of the staff. This University works as well as it does because we are blessed with a dedicated staff that oversees everything from strengthening our library collections to maintaining our impressive physical plant to balancing our budget.
Finally, a warm welcome to the returning members of the classes of 2008, 2009 and 2010, as well as the graduate students and faculty who have spent the summer either here or away from campus pursuing their scholarly work. It will not have escaped your attention that the campus has undergone some dramatic changes in the months you have been away. The long awaited and stunningly beautiful Whitman College is now open for business. Soccer players will have to make do with Princeton Stadium this year while the new Roberts Stadium is being constructed on Lourie-Love and Gulick Fields. And Stanhope Hall on the front lawn of Nassau Hall is getting ready to welcome the Center for African American Studies. It is moving indeed to reflect on the fact that a building constructed at a time of slavery will now be the home for scholars and students on our campus who study the history, politics and culture of the descendants of those slaves.
The class of 2011 is arriving at a pivotal moment in the history of residential life at Princeton -- the inauguration of our four-year college system. This program has had a very long gestation period -- in some respects, it has taken 101 years to germinate. Universities are always accused of being slow to change, but this may set a record for deliberation! It was just over a century ago that our 13th president, Woodrow Wilson, first articulated a vision for the University in which undergraduates of all four classes, along with graduate students, would live together with faculty masters in what he called quadrangles -- what today we refer to as colleges. Wilson imagined a university where the distinctions between academic and non-academic activities of students would blur; where discussions that began in classrooms and laboratories would spill over into the dining halls and lounges. He imagined residential areas where students could move effortlessly from a rehearsal in a black box theater to quiet study in the college library to a lively game of foosball. (Actually, I'm not sure there was foosball 101 years ago!) He imagined a community animated by a passion for ideas and new experiences. Education, he once said, is a process of contagion, and today's colleges have been designed to be hotbeds of infectious engagement, as well as places to just put your feet up and relax. I hope your college experiences will be among the highlights of your Princeton years, whether you spend two years in them or elect to stay for all four.
One of the architects of the four-year college system is Dean of the College and Professor of History Nancy Weiss Malkiel. It is now my pleasure to invite Dean Malkiel to recognize the academic achievements of six exceptional undergraduates.
These Opening Exercises mark the beginning of the new school year, but much more importantly they mark the beginning of a grand adventure for all of you. Walking down the aisle of the chapel this afternoon, looking into your faces, I am struck by the enormous potential that resides in each and every one of you, and what a tremendous opportunity you now have, in this truly privileged place, to pursue your dreams and to soar. I look forward to watching you realize the dreams you have brought with you to Princeton, and discover new ones, making our campus and, in time, the world a better place for your having been here.
Now I use the word "adventure" advisedly, as opposed to something more somber, such as "educational experience" or, heaven forbid, "training for a profession." If you are even half as talented as we think you are, your next four years will be filled with exuberant engagement and exploration -- with ideas, with members of the faculty and with your fellow students. Princeton's unique curriculum reflects its twin missions -- to educate the next generation of leaders and to discover new knowledge. This is a research university, after all, but what is unique about Princeton is that these two aspirations of education and scholarship are so intertwined that you truly cannot tell when one ends and the next begins. Starting with your freshman seminar and concluding with your senior thesis, you will be preparing not just to gain command of a body of knowledge, but to add to it as well.
The best part of an adventure of learning and discovery is that it often leads to surprises. It is common to start out with a hypothesis, or a supposition or a thematic idea and conclude with your understanding completely transformed. Let me give you some examples, beginning with one of my own. When I was a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institutes of Health in the late 1970s, I set my sights on understanding the mammalian genome, that is, understanding how information encoded in genes -- the blueprint of each organism -- is organized within the DNA of our chromosomes. To simplify the problem, I was developing recombinant DNA technology that would allow me to sift through the roughly 3 billion bases of DNA in the mouse genome to find the few thousand bases that encoded a single gene -- the one that encoded for the red cell protein hemoglobin -- truly a needle-in-a-haystack problem. If someone had asked me before I began what I expected the structure of the hemoglobin gene to be, I would have quickly said that it would look just like its product, hemoglobin messenger RNA. I would have based my reasoning on what we knew at the time about the organization of genes in much simpler organisms like bacteria and viruses.
With that expectation firmly in mind, I was thunderstruck when I finally succeeded in isolating the gene and examined its structure in an electron microscope. It looked nothing like I expected. In fact, it was twice as long as the messenger RNA because it contained two extra segments of DNA that interrupted the messenger RNA coding sequences. My first reaction was "How did they get there? Why weren't they transcribed into messenger RNA? Did I make a terrible mistake when I cloned the gene?" Once all the artifactual explanations were excluded, I was left with only one conclusion -- that the mammalian genome was organized in a completely different manner than bacterial genomes, and that biochemical machinery must exist to delete those extra bases before the mature messenger RNA was sent to the cytoplasm to be translated into hemoglobin protein. Thus the field of RNA splicing was born.
Surprises are not restricted to scientific research, but arise in virtually every field of scholarship. Several years ago Professor of Sociology and Public and International Affairs Katherine Newman began a research project with her colleagues to understand the pathosociology of school shootings, which had been mysteriously on the rise in the 1990s. In her groundbreaking book, "Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings," Professor Newman describes a careful ethnographic study of school shootings in Kentucky and Arkansas that overturned conventional wisdom about these tragic events. Her first surprise came when she examined where school shootings occur -- in small towns, not big cities. As she said to me, "We often think of small town America as the epitome of what sociologists call 'social capital,' with interlocking networks of parents and children, friends and neighbors whose high levels of trust and communication ensure that deviant behavior will be monitored." But when Professor Newman looked at the distribution of these tragedies in the United States, she found that they were almost always taking place in exactly these kinds of small communities, not in big cities, which we normally associate with street violence and the prevalence of firearms.
Her explanation was even more surprising. It turns out that there is a dark underbelly to social capital that inhibits adults from circulating information about troubled kids. They do not want to risk the loss of friends by acting as the bearer of bad news about a neighbor's children. The tight knit quality of adult friendships and the geographic isolation leaves them with few alternatives for making new friends, and thus the fear of rejection is far greater than it is for city dwellers. Likewise, small town shooters, who often act out of a feeling of marginalization and ridicule from their peers, have no other place to turn in a small town for friendship or for solace. In describing her work, Professor Newman reflected, "Social scientists learn that they have to turn their assumptions inside out and consider every alternative, testing it against the empirical data they collect. And sometimes that discovery process leads to counter-intuitive conclusions that make a genuine difference in the way we understand the world we live in."
Let me give you another example from the work of Professor of Music Simon Morrison. His biggest research surprise happened when he least expected it -- during his work on a biography of the great Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev. In preparing to write about Prokofiev's most famous ballet, "Romeo and Juliet," he was not expecting to learn much that was new, as a great deal had already been written about this ballet. On the other hand, he had recently been granted sole access to the composer's papers in the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art, and he was intrigued by a strange legend that Prokofiev had conceived "Romeo and Juliet" with a happy ending, only to face such a storm of ridicule over the idea that he discarded it in favor of the traditional tragic ending.
Professor Morrison discovered in the archives that Prokofiev had indeed written a happy ending, with glorious music and instructions for the orchestration and staging that had never seen the light of day. As Professor Morrison reports, "Prokofiev, it seemed, could not bear the thought of Romeo and Juliet perishing in a tragic mix-up; instead, he imagined that they had both simply gone to sleep, and that the fantastic energies in their relationship remained unaffected by potions and daggers." So what happened to this version? Well, Professor Morrison discovered that it was censured in 1935 by Soviet cultural officials and that Prokofiev had then composed a tragic ending against his will. If he had not done so, the archive revealed, the ballet would not have been approved for performance. In the words of Professor Morrison, "The ballet was no longer familiar to me. Exploring its history reminded me that academic research always has the potential to make the known unknown and that archival documents are tremendous storytellers. They might be dust-covered, but they live and breathe, much like the title characters of Prokofiev's ill-starred ballet."
A final example of encountering the unexpected in the course of academic exploration comes from the work of Professor of Economics and Public and International Affairs Alan Krueger. Like all of us, he heard many statements of political leaders in the wake of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, that terrorists are impoverished, poorly educated people who attack out of desperation. For example, in a 2002 speech in Mexico, President George W. Bush said, "We fight against poverty, because hope is an answer to terror. We will challenge the poverty and hopelessness and lack of education and failed governments that too often allow conditions that terrorists can seize." These were widely held views. But to a labor economist like Professor Krueger, such statements were making an economics argument without any empirical evidence. So he and his colleagues set out to test whether poverty or inadequate education could explain the genesis of terrorism.
Their short answer is no. In his new book, entitled "What Makes a Terrorist: Economics and the Roots of Terrorism," Professor Krueger reports his careful research conclusions that most terrorists are from reasonably well-off families and that many are well-educated. Further, terrorists are not more likely to originate from low-income countries than from middle- or high-income countries. Just the contrary -- terrorist incidents are actually higher in countries that spend more on social welfare programs. Moreover, public-opinion polls in Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan and Turkey find that the higher the level of education, the more likely that people believe suicide attacks against Westerners are justified. So what explains the support of terrorism among some individuals and not others, and in some countries and not in others? Professor Krueger's current hypothesis is that terrorists arise among educated and politically committed individuals when non-violent means of political protest are unavailable, and there is widespread suppression of civil liberties and political rights. Perhaps one of you will take up this hypothesis in your own senior thesis!
For the next four years you will be encouraged -- and indeed sometimes even exhorted -- to develop the qualities of mind that allowed Katherine Newman, Simon Morrison and Alan Krueger to change what we know about the world. Those qualities are the willingness to ask an unorthodox question and pursue its solution relentlessly; to cultivate the suppleness of mind to see what lies between black and white; to reject knee-jerk reactions to ideas and ideologies; to recognize nuance and complexity in an argument; to differentiate between knowledge and belief; to be prepared to be surprised; and to appreciate that changing your mind is not a sign of weakness but of strength. We ask you to be open to new ideas, however surprising; to shun the superficial trends of popular culture in favor of careful analysis; and to recognize propaganda, ignorance and baseless revisionism when you see it. That is the essence of a Princeton education.
Let me conclude by expressing my hope that the next few years will be full of such adventures and surprises. For myself, I am looking forward to getting to know each of you and to cheering you on inside and outside the classroom as you chart your course through this great University. I hope that when you leave Princeton, you will leave saying, as so many have before you, "This place changed my life." Welcome to Princeton!