July 4, 2001 President's Page

Commencement 2001

I have had the privilege to meet many alumni during my years of teaching at Princeton-at gatherings throughout the country and here on campus. I know from these personal experiences, and from the wonderfully warm welcome I received at Reunions this June, that Princeton alumni demonstrate an unusual degree of loyalty and commitment to their University. I am fortunate to be able to serve an institution whose alumni care so deeply about its wellbeing. The press date of this issue of the PAW coincided with the end of Harold Shapiro's presidency and the beginning of mine. I am pleased to devote these pages to excerpts from Harold's last Commencement address as President.

Shirley M. Tilghman

I have always found Commencement to be an exciting moment. The different generations that gather each year on this historic green come to celebrate the achievements of a group of young people who have been part of a special community of learning that is founded on some quite traditional ideals of service, responsibility, and critical thinking that have survived the test of many generations. Yet it is also based on a set of important new ideas that have evolved as our knowledge has expanded, our moral sensitivities developed, and our societies progressed....

We, you and I, live in a world of constant change and we must bring our knowledge, our sense of humanity, and our capacity for critical thought to the task of guiding us through the next phases of the lives we will live together in the new and dynamic era that is now unfolding before us.

The great challenge that each of us here today faces as we enter the next chapter of our lives is the same challenge that confronts this University as it continues to remake itself to meet its ever evolving responsibilities. If we as individuals or if Princeton as an institution is to address the problems and seize the opportunities of the new era that is unfolding, we must find ways to build on the efforts of those who came before us. But at the same time, we must strive to develop our unique individuality, summoning the courage to put aside outdated notions and work on behalf of new ideas and innovative programs.

Here at Princeton, for example, one of our highest priorities in recent years has been making our educational experience more accessible and affordable to talented young people, no matter what their background or where they come from in this country or around the world. Through the generosity of our alumni, parents and friends, we have been able to set new national standards for the more generous financial support of both undergraduates and graduate students in need.

But there have also been other changes. Many of you here have witnessed, for example, a great physical transformation of the campus in recent years. Indeed, perhaps you have had to detour around backhoes and bulldozers on your way to class, as we built advanced new facilities for teaching and research, for athletic events and living spaces, and, of course, to strengthen our sense of community, as the brand-new Frist Campus Center is doing so splendidly. Moreover, we have continued to make great strides on the frontiers of science and engineering-pushing forward, for example, into new areas of biological research, advanced materials, optics, environmental studies, neuroscience, and astrophysics.

But as our scientific horizons expand at such an extraordinary pace, yielding new understandings of the natural world, it becomes more compelling than ever to probe more deeply into those aspects of the human narrative and the human condition that give meaning to our lives and all that we do. In the 21st century, scientists and engineers will continue to inform us regarding what we can do with our ever-expanding knowledge base, but it is our shared responsibility to decide what we should do. And deciding what we should do is the greatest responsibility we all bear as we move forward together. For example, will our new understanding of human biology be used to control the human spirit, or to liberate it? New understandings that expand what we can do are only the first step. Forging a social, political and moral consensus regarding what we should do with our increasing power is even more imperative and is the duty of engaged and concerned people everywhere.

With this awesome responsibility in mind, we must continue to search everywhere in the human experience for useful insights, including a renewed examination of all the world's cultures and civilizations, a new look at significant ancient and modern texts, debating alternative social contracts and thinking as deeply as we can about what it is that can give the greatest meaning to our labors. Here at Princeton we continue to support such work, and we have launched important new programs to explore such urgent social and political topics as the manifestations of religion in national and international life, the relationship of law to society, the role of self-determination, and the global pursuit of peace and justice. We have tried to ensure that, during their time at Princeton, while our students are acquiring so much contemporary knowledge and an understanding of their place in the long stream of human history, they are also learning to ask themselves and each other critical questions about the purpose of their lives, the significance of their actions and their moral responsibility as educated citizens.

As I walk across the campus every day, I am moved not just by the new programs and buildings we have put into place, but also by the many personal experiences and encounters that have, during these past fourteen years, been so fulfilling, so inspiring, so hopeful and so much fun. My kaleidoscope of memories also includes joyous commencements, the annual excitement and anticipation of Opening Exercises, the colorful pageant of Princeton reunions, and the friends that I have made among so many Princetonians. I think that each of us has our own list that evokes for us the Princeton experience. For me there also have been the rewards of teaching first-year students about bioethics and the social history of higher education in the small seminars that have become a hallmark of our freshman experience, as well as supervising senior theses. There has been the intellectual excitement of reading the books that Princeton faculty publish in so many different fields and that express so many different ideas and that all, one way or another, advance our understanding of the natural world and the human condition. There is also the excitement and joy of listening to deeply resonant melodies -from Bach to Aaron Copland-played on the great Chapel Organ, or the many spectacular performances of the University Orchestra and other student groups, or the sheer enjoyment of experiencing the music and lyrics of Willie Nelson on Cannon Green!

Talking about excitement, who will ever forget this year's men's Lacrosse Team's sixth national championship since 1992 with two one-goal victories over this last Memorial Day Weekend? Indeed, I would like to congratulate all those members of Princeton's intercollegiate teams who have represented Princeton so well.

My own life has taken many different turns, many of them quite unexpected. It certainly never occurred to me when I came to Princeton as a graduate student that I would someday return as President. Nor could I anticipate the enormous rewards of working together with Princeton faculty and students in a common effort to advance teaching and learning, research and scholarship, discourse and dialogue here on our campus. For these many experiences, I want to thank all Princetonians-faculty, students, staff, alumni and parents-for the inspiration and friendship they have provided and for their devotion in keeping Princeton-this place, this idea-flourishing.

I also want especially to thank the Trustees of Princeton University, for having enough faith in me, not only to elect me as President, but to support the many initiatives we have undertaken in the last fourteen years. And finally, I want to thank my family, particularly my wife and life-long partner, Vivian, and our four daughters, sons-in-law and, indeed, our 11 grandchildren for the understanding, the support, the joy, and even the loving criticism they bring to every day of my life.

For today's graduates, I hope that wherever your own life's journey takes each of you, you will always be conscious of how your own actions affect others, of your obligations to those less fortunate than yourselves. It is in your relationship to others that your lives will be defined and your humanity most fully expressed. The responsibilities of all citizens are great, but for those who have had the benefit of a Princeton education, the responsibilities are greater still. It is these greater responsibilities that you must carry forward with commitment and vigor to fulfill the promise of this University's longstanding and now expanded mandate: "Princeton in the Nation's Service and in the Service of All Nations." The challenge of meeting this responsibility will not be easy, but I hope that each of you, in your own special way, will pursue it with a spirit of pride and humility. It is easy to talk of a lofty goal, it is a challenge to pursue it, it is a victory to attain it, and, finally, a great nobility of purpose to sustain it. It is this nobility of purpose to which all of today's graduates are now summoned.

As I think about the great global Princeton community, I often focus on the inspiring individual accomplishments of our faculty, our students and our alumni, but I am even more awestruck by what a group of people spanning many generations working together with a shared sense of purpose and a deep affection for this special place can help Princeton yet become. During our formal commemoration of the University's 250th anniversary, we dedicated the stone in the middle of this very green to our alumni in recognition of their continued devotion to Princeton. Today, each of you becomes part of this wonderful alumni body, at this place where so many campus paths come together and from which you will follow so many different paths in your lives.

Perhaps every year at Commencement time, each of you will think back on your experiences here, and perhaps these thoughts will encourage you to participate in an always changing, always renewing Princeton, as we prepare for the generations of your children and grandchildren and beyond. Twenty-two years ago, I gave my first commencement address as a university president, and I closed those remarks with an ancient, but well-known, Celtic blessing. I would like, therefore, to end these Commencement remarks-my last as Princeton's president-with the same blessing for all of you.

May the road rise to meet you.

May the wind always be at your back...

And, until we meet again,

May God hold you in the palm of his hand.

Good luck and Godspeed to you all.