2010 Opening Exercises
President Shirley M. Tilghman
September 12, 2010
Welcome and Happy New Year! Having lived my entire life on the academic calendar — as opposed to the Gregorian calendar — I consider September, and not January, the true beginning of the New Year. Growing up in my native Canada, the arrival of September conjures up memories of brilliantly colored autumn leaves crackling underfoot and crisp days and cool evenings that foreshadow the long winter ahead. September is also a time of shopping for new school shoes, sharpening pencils, and opening blank notebooks that will soon be filled with new knowledge. I recall a complicated mixture of nervous anticipation and thrilling expectation that my life might change at any moment. I hope you feel the same excitement today as you begin or resume your Princeton education.
I wish to extend a warm and enthusiastic Tiger welcome to all new members of the University community, and to those of you who are returning after the summer. To the 1,312 members of what I have every reason to believe will become the Great Class of 2014, we are delighted that you are finally here. We have been planning for your arrival for eight months now, since you pushed that "send" button and sent your life story to us. We laughed and sometimes cried at your stories, and marveled at your accomplishments, and we see in each and every one of you the potential for leadership. You hail from 48 different states of the union plus the District of Columbia — something catastrophic must have happened in Kansas and North Dakota this year! — and 47 countries on six continents. You come with 419 female first names and 314 male first names. Your favorite words include tongue twisters like mellifluous, hullabaloo, hegemony, and tintinnabulation. And I am happy to report that at least one of you considers the best line from a movie to be the one from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, when Ron exclaims, "What we did could've gotten us killed. Or worse, EXPELLED!" It strikes me that this is the right attitude to assume at the beginning of your university career. But of course, I suspect you know all that, having been Facebooking, Twittering, and texting one another since April.
To the 636 new graduate students, I offer special greetings. This year's entering class is a strikingly cosmopolitan one, as 39 percent of you are citizens of other countries, 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 to embark on a life of scholarship through doctoral studies, you have an important place in this community.
I also would like to welcome the 33 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 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 the important task of balancing our budget and keeping us healthy.
Finally, a warm welcome to the returning members of the Classes of 2011, 2012, and 2013, 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 notice that we have not been resting on our laurels over the summer. The chemists have been especially busy as they began their move from Frick Laboratory, their home for the last 80 years, to their stunning new state-of-the-art facility in what will undoubtedly be nicknamed "New Frick" for the next few years. After all, we had a "New New Quad" for years until Butler College came to the rescue. New Frick, overlooking the Princeton Football Stadium, with its cloud-filled atrium, was made possible by Edward Taylor, the A. Barton Hepburn Professor of Organic Chemistry Emeritus, who many years ago discovered a chemical in butterfly wings that could halt the growth of cancer cells. Today that chemical is a drug that is both saving lives and strengthening chemistry at Princeton. Getting to and from New Frick has now become a much less risky proposition, with the opening of Streicker Bridge this summer. For athletes and their many fans, chemists, physicists, and biologists, I am happy to report that crossing Washington Road has ceased to be a life-threatening undertaking.
I am often asked by nostalgic alumni why the campus needs to grow and 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 old buildings crumble, Princeton must be both intellectually and materially at the forefront of discovery and change.
It is now my pleasure to invite Dean of the College Nancy Weiss Malkiel to recognize the academic achievements of seven exceptional undergraduates.
I recently had dinner in Whitman College with a group of freshmen who asked if I had any advice for them as they began their Princeton education. Of course, that is the purpose of the President's Opening Exercises Address – to offer up one or two gems of advice that will help you successfully and happily navigate the University. Last year, I will confess that I got completely carried away and offered a Top Ten List of things to do, leaving the Class of 2013 completely exhausted before they even began. Having learned the lesson that less may well be more, this year I would like to explore with you two pieces of advice that come in the form of contradictions. In his essay entitled "The Crack-Up," F. Scott Fitzgerald, Princeton Class of 1917, wrote that "the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." In this address I am going to ask that you try this out, and I do so with the utmost confidence that as fellow Princetonians you are more than capable of passing Fitzgerald's test with flying colors.
Here is the first test. It may seem like I am jumping the gun, but in the blink of an eye – just under four years – you will be marching out the FitzRandolph Gates, diplomas in hand, ready to take on the world. There will be those among you who will go on to become doctors dedicated to reducing human suffering throughout the world. I hope a few of you will take up the challenge of reforming the world's financial system by making it less susceptible to catastrophic recessions. Others of you will teach and inspire in the young a life-long commitment to learning. There are future poets among you who will explore the complexity of the human condition, and future dancers and musicians who will interpret anew works of art that have been handed down through the ages or create entirely new ones. One of you might invent the next version of the Internet or start a company that takes better advantage of the one we already have. I certainly hope there are those among you who will choose the life of the mind and spend your lives uncovering new knowledge and deepening our understanding of old ideas. I am certain that some of you will use the law to protect the rights of individuals, possibly even joining the three Princetonians who currently sit on the Supreme Court, and I fully expect that there will be those who will follow in the footsteps of James Madison, Class of 1771, and Woodrow Wilson, Class of 1879, in public service to the nation and all nations.
These are just a few of the ways in which Princeton graduates have exercised the responsibility that comes with the privilege of a Princeton education. The next four years will prepare you to join the centuries-long parade of alumni who have made a positive difference in the world. Indeed, one of the reasons why generation after generation of those graduates has supported this University is their conviction that talented and committed young men and women, armed with a fine liberal arts education, are the best guarantees of a better future for all.
But for now – for the next four years – I want you to set aside that pesky question, "What will you do when you graduate from college?" For answering that question should not be foremost in your mind as you embark upon this extraordinary intellectual journey. Instead – and this brings me to the heart of the first contradiction – I hope you will consider the next four years as a time for unconstrained exploration and discovery of the world of ideas, not résumé building. Never again will you live in such a rich intellectual and cultural milieu as the one that is waiting for you here. You have at your fingertips in Firestone Library one of the greatest research collections in the world; you will be taught by faculty who are without peer in their fields, and you have at your disposal world-class laboratory facilities; you have astounding classmates who will challenge you to think hard about everything you believe, and coaches, conductors, directors, and advisers who will stretch you to do things you never thought possible and, when needed, comfort you. This is a time for pulling out the mental stops, taking off any blinders, and pursuing what ignites your curiosity, not a time to worry whether what you are doing is practical or preparing you for a specific career. One of the great benefits of attending Princeton is that your education will prepare you for not one career but any career. In fact, it would be foolhardy to single-mindedly prepare for a single job at this stage in your lives, for demographic data predict that you will change jobs multiple times. Our goal therefore is to inculcate mental flexibility, resilience, and openness to change so that you are prepared for literally anything.
The second piece of contradictory advice is evident from even a casual reading of the Undergraduate Announcement and Course Offerings websites. I suspect most of you have been searching through those guides all summer, salivating at the prospect of taking this course, intimidated by the thought of that one, mystified by the title of another. In your browsing you will undoubtedly have noticed that the course offerings are arranged by discipline, many of which will be very familiar to you from high school – English, physics, history, computer science. Others will be less so – anthropology, cognitive studies, public policy, operations research. By organizing the curriculum by discipline and offering degrees only in those subjects, we create the impression that all knowledge can be neatly segregated into "buckets" – and that you will spend your first two years choosing into which deep well of knowledge you wish to dive and the second two years swimming around in it. It is certainly the case that the experience of immersing yourself fully in a question that fascinates you as you write your senior thesis is an intoxicating one for our students, especially in retrospect. Learning how to pose an important question; digging into the literature so you understand and appreciate that you are part of a continuum of seekers for truth; balancing different viewpoints and eventually taking a position yourself; and defending your conclusions to others are skills that will serve you well, independently of what you do in the future. Through the senior thesis you will learn how to become a master of a subject, and it is that mastery, rather than the specific body of knowledge, that is most important.
But is this the purpose of a liberal arts education? The answer is not entirely, and herein lies the second contradiction. Increasingly, the world requires individuals with deep disciplinary expertise who can also bring broad understanding and vision to bear on their work. Narrow expertise is necessary, but it is not sufficient to contribute to complex problem-solving, while, on the other hand, a jack-of-all-trades who is a master of none brings little to the table. Your liberal education will reconcile this contradiction by endowing you with the mantles of both expert and generalist.
Let me illustrate what I mean with one of the most vexing challenges facing our world that your generation will have to contend with, and hopefully meet. Within the next few decades, sustainable life on our planet will require that we discover alternative forms of energy and ways to remediate the damage that has already been done to our ecosystem. At first blush you might think that this is the sole task of future engineers and scientists, but nothing could be further from the truth. The development of new energy sources and protection of the environment are challenges that call out for expertise in everything from moral philosophy to legislative policymaking to behavioral economics, in addition to the clear need for the sciences and engineering.
I can best illustrate this point by recounting the topics of senior theses written by members of the Class of 2009. Devon Ahearn, a Woodrow Wilson School concentrator, wrote a senior thesis entitled "A Seat at the Table: Participation and the Effectiveness of Environmental Justice Policy"; Denali Barron chose to write her anthropology thesis about the value, purpose, and controversy in America's national parks; a math major, James Burgess, constructed a perfect plasticity approximation forest model; and Meredith Wall wrote about environmentally sustainable rural road development in Liberia to satisfy her geosciences senior thesis. What is striking about these topics is the very different disciplinary expertise each student brought to bear on an environmental issue. Yet their contributions would be destined to have limited impact if they were unable to frame them and integrate them into a much broader context.
An example that illustrates what happens when "experts" fail to communicate with each other occurred over the efficacy of corn alcohol. It was only a few years ago that policymakers in Washington began lobbying for a major investment in corn alcohol as an alternative to fossil fuels. This became a major issue in the 2004 presidential election, with candidates rushing to advocate for corn alcohol and, of course, those Iowa farmers who grow that corn. On the surface, the idea of a clean-burning fuel from an abundant and cheap crop had much to recommend it. The bubble was burst when scientists pointed out that the fossil fuel required to generate the fuel was 29 percent greater than the energy value of the product, and according to studies by environmentalists, the "direct and indirect environmental impacts of growing, harvesting, and converting biomass to alcohol far exceed any value in developing this energy resource on a large scale." By requiring that you sample the breadth of human knowledge through the distribution requirements at the same time as you are learning how to master a single question, the University is preparing you to avoid siloed thinking and the missteps that can easily arise from it.
And so, as you set forth on the great adventure that we call a Princeton education, I hope you will embrace the contradictions I have described this afternoon – that you can best advance the specific careers that lie before you by preparing yourselves for any career and that knowledge can only serve you well when you both delve deeply and cast widely in your quest for new understanding. By making this your approach, you will go a long way to ensuring that the next four years will be among the most exciting and rewarding of your lives.
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. And I hope that you will leave our campus, saying, as so many have before you, "This place changed my life." Welcome to Princeton!