December 6, 2000: On the Campus

The vision thing
University presidents need it too--and students need to understand it

When President Shapiro announced in October that he would be stepping down, the news - among the most important with which a university has to deal - should have reverberated throughout the student body for weeks. And yet, after a few days of almost obligatory Prince coverage, campus discussion of the Princeton presidency quickly moved on to talk of midterms and the national election.

Most students, myself included, have only a very vague idea of what President Shapiro does for the university on a daily basis, and as a consequence the office of University President seems unconnected to daily student life. To an extent, the president is uninvolved in the day-to-day activity of campus, and students recognize that the deans and lower-level administrators are more directly responsible for student life. Even so, most students express a desire to see the president - and evidence of his immediate impact - much more frequently.

If students have a difficult time understanding the president's broader role in molding university strategy, it is even more difficult for them to appreciate, over the course of only four years at Princeton, the tangible outcomes of that strategy. And perhaps that is the source of the disconnect between students and broader administrative efforts to define Princeton's future direction.

Asked what they believe the role of the president is, many students cite finance and fundraising - yet to those same students the recently completed capital campaign seems chiefly an opportunity to lower tuition, an issue of significance to them. Few are aware of the broader programs, such as initiatives in teaching, the new genomics center, and expanded academic offerings, that the campaign is helping to fund -- largely because it is difficult for the administration to get students to think long-term about the university.

This communication problem seems particularly pronounced at present, because President Shapiro's personal vision, while critically important, is particularly intangible to students. Some point to his efforts to put Princeton on truly solid financial ground, while others name his efforts to maintain a viable physical campus space, but it is hard for students to identify the immediate effect of an enormous endowment, a new building, or fresh landscaping on their lives.

Students, instead, want strategic agendas to which they feel connected. Senior Todd Johnson, asked what the principal strategic driver for the next president should be, calls for "less focus on physical infrastructure, and more on social infrastructure - the university community," citing the creation of the residential college system in the early 1980s as an example. Senior Joseph Wheatley, on the other hand, believes the next crucial strategic issue is "keeping the concept of the university relevant - juggling a physical university with technology and distance." While very different from each other, both of these agendas are closely tied to student life and issues of student interest. Most important, both are visions in which students can identify their place.

Whether the next president will pursue those types of visions is yet to be determined. And whether the next president will choose to play a more visible role in daily student life remains to be seen; despite student complaints, being a good president does not require it. But one thing, at least, is clear: Whoever the next president is, and whatever his or her vision for Princeton, students need to be given a better idea of how the university's vision - the president's vision - relates to them. That way, even if the president chooses not to be active among students, they still will have a handle on that president's role. And in the long run, that sense of connectedness will allow students to feel a part of the long-term institution of Princeton rather than part of a mere four-year blip - which will build a stronger alumni base for the next president's capital campaign. And then, no doubt, this process of choosing a new president and a new vision will begin again.

Alex Rawson ( is a senior from Shaker Heights, Ohio.

Editor's note: The writer's father chairs the presidential search committee.


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