2008 Opening Exercises Greeting and Address
President Shirley M. Tilghman
September 7, 2008
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.
Normally, I begin each year by introducing the freshman class to one another -- by telling you, for example, that you hail from 46 countries and 47 states as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. I usually point out that some catastrophic event must have occurred in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, because we could find no Tigers lurking there. I then go on to say that you represent 882 different high schools and have 387 different female first names and 302 different male first names. But this year I realized that you have already met one another and know more about each other than I could possibly convey in a short welcome. For you are members of the Facebook Nation! For example, on a Facebook page one of your classmates told you what he ate on the plane coming back from the Bessie Lawrence International Summer Science Institute; one of your classmates has posted very helpful top 10 pick-up lines used by physicists (with the probabilities calculated, of course), and according to a third page, one of you wants to be David Sedaris. I could go on and on, but you get the picture.
To the 600 new graduate students, I offer special words of greeting. You are a strikingly cosmopolitan group, as 37 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 whether you are embarking on a life of scholarship through doctoral studies, you have an important place in this community.
I would also like to welcome the 43 new members of the faculty whose distinguished scholarly achievements and dedication to teaching in dozens of disciplines are certain to enhance Princeton's reputation for excellence in research and in undergraduate and graduate education. I also welcome all the 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 2009, 2010 and 2011, 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've been away. The long-awaited Peter B. Lewis science library, designed by the renowned architect Frank Gehry, is now open for business. Its gorgeous soaring glass and steel enclosed spaces, which are ablaze in a sea of primary colors, are ready to welcome students for classes, for research in the stacks, for quiet study alone or in groups, for projects involving cutting-edge computing, and for generally hanging out. The new Roberts soccer stadium south of Poe Field currently boasts the most perfect lawn in the state of New Jersey -- not an easy claim in the Garden State -- and will certainly inspire our men's and women's teams to victory this fall. The E-Quad has a new addition as well -- the lovely shimmering glass and granite home for [the Department of ] Operations Research and Financial Engineering and the Center for Information Technology Policy.
I am often asked by nostalgic alumni why the campus needs to grow and to change. In their view, the campus was perfect, especially during their four years! Don't laugh -- you'll be saying the same thing in 40 years. The answer, of course, is that the best universities not only respond to change, they lead it. And so, as new ideas and ways of thinking are born, advances in technology create new fields and, of course, as old buildings crumble, Princeton must be both intellectually and materially at the forefront of discovery and change.
For those of you in Wilson College, your welcome has been far less than ideal. The unforeseen delays that occurred in the renovation project over the summer are deeply regretted, and I assure you that we are working around the clock to restore your dining hall and college as quickly as possible.
It is now my pleasure to invite Dean Nancy Malkiel to recognize the academic achievements of six exceptional undergraduates.
These Opening Exercises mark the official beginning of the new academic year and provide a moment during the exhilaration and exhaustion of freshman orientation to reflect upon the meaning of the next four years. As some of you may have already observed, emblazoned on the walls of the Frist Campus Center is an appeal to the class of 1954 from Adlai Stevenson, a member of Princeton's class of 1922, a former governor of Illinois and twice Democratic candidate for president of the United States. It says: "Before you leave, remember why you came." There's no better time to begin than now.
Of course, I fully realize that there is a great deal on your minds right now. You are hoping, for example, that your roommate was just kidding when he told you that his best friends are two Martians who live in his sock drawer. You are frantically reading the Course Offerings one more time and wondering whether that interesting-sounding senior-level seminar on semiotics is really about naval flag signals. And you are trying to figure out whether it is a wild coincidence that the initials of the Princeton University British Society spell PUBS, and whether the crew team was having you on when they said that rowing is lots of fun and hardly anyone drowns.
There is one question that I suspect is swirling around in each of your minds. "Do I really belong here? Or was I the last student to be admitted, at 4 a.m., when the admission staff had just run out of steam and good judgment?" I can answer that question unequivocally. Each one of you belongs at Princeton, and you will soon find your place here. You were chosen with enormous care from a very impressive group of applicants, and each of you brings a distinctive history and array of talents to the class of 2012. Together, you will live with and learn from one another, and through it all, you will meet those who are destined to be your closest friends for the rest of your lives. For all you know, one might be sitting beside you at this very moment.
But now that I have answered at least one of your questions, let me turn the tables and, in the spirit of Adlai Stevenson's "Before you leave, remember why you came," suggest a question that only you can fully answer. The question is, "What should I aspire to take away from my Princeton education?" To help you formulate an answer, let me tell you what not to expect. Our purpose in offering you the finest liberal arts education in the world is decidedly not to prepare you for a specific profession (and here I must apologize to any parents who were under that impression), but our goal is to prepare you for any profession, including some that haven't even been invented. We're preparing you to be responsible and engaged citizens of your own country and of the world.
Nor is this objective new. It is thought that the idea of a liberal arts education was born in Greece in the fifth century B.C., during the full flowering of Athenian democracy. Education in Athens was a mark of freedom intended to prepare individuals to be active and engaged citizens in a democracy by providing students with a firm grounding in logic and rhetoric, as well as mathematics and astronomy. The rationale for studying astronomy, by the way, was to prevent public panic during eclipses of the sun and the moon.
The close link between education and effective citizenship was also recognized by the founding fathers of this nation. John Adams memorialized this view in the constitution of the commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1779. Here's what he said:
"Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties; and as these depend upon spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people, it shall be the duty of legislators and magistrates in all future periods of this commonwealth to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences."
The founding fathers understood that education was not only the best way to preserve their young democracy, but that it was essential to build a vibrant nation. Citizens in the 21st century, just as in 18th-century America and 5th-century B.C. Athens, must contend with enormous challenges, from the nature of democracy itself, and whether its principles are universal and can be exported to other nations; to the potentially devastating impact of global climate change, brought on by a century of indiscriminate burning of fossil fuels; to the growing gap between rich and poor nations and the peoples within them; to the profound impact of religious intolerance and ethnic hatreds on our global security. Each of these challenges, and others like them, pose difficult and complex choices that defy simplistic or jingoistic answers. For the next four years you will be developing the knowledge and understanding, the mental agility coupled with the habits of critical thinking that will prepare you to participate as engaged citizens in addressing these threats to our future.
You will begin this intellectual journey in freshman seminars, where you will deliberate with a distinguished scholar and 10 or 12 classmates, sometimes arguing forcefully, sometimes listening quietly, but always challenging assumptions while respecting the continuity between the past and the future. The breadth of your course work will allow you to think across disciplinary boundaries and to make connections among ideas that no one has made before. After class you will continue to build up your mental muscles in conversations that go late into the night and in books that are simply impossible to put down. You will be filling your minds not with facts alone but with the power to distill from those facts a deeper understanding of the world around you. In the course of these studies, you will marvel at your capacity to learn new things and be humbled by what you don't know.
And then, in your senior year, you will put all that experience to the test, with the research and writing of your senior thesis. In this, the pinnacle of your Princeton education, you will choose for yourselves the questions that you find most fascinating, and then dive in head first -- think Michael Phelps in the 200-meter butterfly. It will be thrilling and terrifying, as every senior will tell you, and a source of lifelong pride, as all alumni will tell you.
However, to be a Princeton student is to be more than a member of a community of scholars, important though that is. Outside the classroom, you will be asked to play an active role in a variety of other communities, whether as a member of a club or varsity sports team; playing in a musical group or writing for The Prince, or engaging in the 300 or so student organizations that abound on campus. Each of these involvements requires the ability to work as a member of a team, to cooperate with others, to be willing to speak up and listen in equal measure, and if the right moment comes, to inspire others to follow your lead.
In the friendships that grow out of moments of triumph and despair -- and be assured there will be some of both -- I hope you will also acquire the capacity, as Professor of Religion and African American Studies Cornel West has so eloquently said, "To imagine what it is like to inhabit another's skin." For empathy -- a capacity to identify with the dreams and aspirations of others and thereby share with them a sense of what unites us as fellow global citizens -- is a critical part of the glue that holds this campus and all societies together.
By now you may have anticipated why, in my address, I have chosen the theme of education as the path to good citizenship. Unless you have spent the last two years on the international space station, you will be well aware that this is a presidential election year, and not just any election year. For the majority of you, Nov. 4, 2008, will be the first time you will be able to exercise that most cherished right of a citizen -- the right to vote. Since 1972, when 18- to 20-year-olds first won the right to vote, voter turnout among 18- to 29-year-olds has fallen from a high of 55 percent in 1972 to a low of 40 percent in 2000. Your age group has the lowest participation rate among all voters, which is ironic, given that you have the most at stake in an election, as you will feel the impact of the choice the longest. That discouraging downward trend began to reverse itself in 2004, and certainly the turnout during the primaries this winter and spring was very encouraging. Adlai Stevenson, in his address to the class of 1954 that I told you about earlier, pointed out that voting is not simply a right; it is an obligation that comes with the privilege of receiving a Princeton degree.
"I would suggest," he told the class, "that it is not enough merely to vote but that we, all of us, have the further obligation to think, and to maintain steadfastly the right of all … to think freely. … So you as educated, privileged people have a broad responsibility to protect and to improve what you have inherited and what you would die to preserve -- the concept of government by consent of the governed as the only tolerable way of living."
This call to active engagement with public affairs goes to the heart of our informal motto, "Princeton in the nation's service and in the service of all nations," and should be a defining feature of your time on this campus. If your education is not directed outward in the service of society, it will be an egocentric and ultimately arid exercise.
So, just as it is not too soon for you to be thinking about why you are here, now is the time for you to exercise your right as a citizen to vote or, if you are not eligible to vote, to be a keen -- and critical -- observer of this nation's democratic process. In fact, I would like to issue a challenge to the class of 2012 to take as its first class project the goal of registering every single eligible voter and ensuring that he or she votes on Election Day. I issue this challenge with the full expectation that you will vote deliberately and thoughtfully -- avoiding the influences of the 30-second sound bite or the bloviations of the chattering classes, and disregarding the irrelevancies of the color of a candidate's tie or his backdrop on TV. I urge you to approach your choice the way you will approach your Princeton education -- by taking time to learn about the records of the candidates and their positions on substantive issues, and their vision for the future of America and its place in the world, and by debating the issues with your classmates, with those who agree with you and especially those who do not. Listen, learn, deliberate and then, in an act of engaged and responsible citizenship that embodies the spirit of ancient Athens and revolutionary America, vote.
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 path through this great University. I hope that you will leave Princeton as educated citizens of this and 45 other countries, saying, as so many have before you, "This place changed my life." Welcome to Princeton!