a PAW web exclusive column by Wes Tooke '98 (email: firstname.lastname@example.org)
On Making a President
new targets, old issues
By Wes Tooke '98
After having spent four
years attending Princeton and another year covering it for PAW,
I have to admit that I still have absolutely no idea what the president
of the university is supposed to do. I think I can say with some
authority that it has something to do with raising money. And dealing
with the faculty. Maybe. In fact, as far as I know President Shapiro
has spent the last 13 years playing beer-pong in his office with
a never-ending stream of big donors -- which, by the way, would
explain his consistently amiable attitude toward Prospect Ave.
So when I tried to understand
what it meant when Princeton named Shirley Tilghman its 19th president,
I came up with answers more vague than anything I've generated since
my days in the economics department. The most important immediate
impact of the announcement lies in the headlines it produced around
the country -- choosing a female scientist to lead the university
has immense symbolic significance. And picking a popular professor
who has taught a wide variety of classes during her 15 years on
campus reaffirms Princeton's commitment to being a teaching university.
But in terms of trying
to uncover any practical effects of the change in leadership, I
am completely at a loss. Over the past week members of the search
committee have spoken vaguely of Tilghman's unique "vision" for
Princeton, yet until she has an opportunity to share that vision
with the rest of us, any predictions on the changes to come under
her administration are nothing more than idle speculation. Since,
however, this column specializes in idle speculation, I see no reason
to wait for all the facts to come in before offering a round of
unsolicited advice. President Shapiro is leaving Princeton in excellent
shape: The university has gobs of money, a superb physical plant,
a superior faculty, an admissions ratio that is consistently ridiculous,
and an overachieving basketball team. Yet Princeton is far from
perfect. Below I've listed three questions that President Tilghman
should raise as early in her tenure as possible. (You will note
that these questions apply exclusively to undergraduates, as I am
assuming that President Tilghman will follow the long-standing Princeton
tradition and ignore the graduate school.)
1) Are the eating clubs
on Prospect Ave. a big piece of what makes Princeton a great university?
Or are they instead an anachronistic vestige of an old social system
that hampers the university's efforts to recruit diverse students
and helps perpetuate an anti-intellectual atmosphere on campus?
The perception under Shapiro's administration -- and this may not
be fair -- was that the eating clubs were a golden calf. Touch the
clubs, goes the argument, and you will raise a full-blown ruckus
among alumni. But this, of course, is why presidents of universities
earn the big money.
2) How big is too big?
4,500? 5,000? 10,000? Given Princeton's resources, the pressure
will always be to grow in the name of increased diversity or opportunity
or whatever the issue of the moment happens to be. Will the university
expand across Lake Carnegie? Administrators have been whispering
about that idea for several years, but the symbolic impact of extending
across the water is certain to raise another ruckus.
3) Can anything be done
to improve the intellectual atmosphere on campus? Princeton students
are undoubtedly smart, they study hard, they go to class, they test
well. Yet you cannot combine the words "intellectual" and "fervor"
and apply them to the university without adding an accompanying
dose of heavy irony. My perception, which may just demonstrate my
lack of historical perspective, is that the atmosphere on campus
has grown increasingly corporate over the last decade or two. Students
increasingly treat Princeton like a trade school, where they learn
the skills they need to get a good job after college -- which, for
example, explains why the university now possesses a finance department.
Maybe I'm mistaken to make any sort of pejorative statement about
that shift. But truly great liberal arts universities are places
where students passionately discuss ideas without having to assign
a utilitarian value to the discussion. (Regular readers of this
column might be amused to note that apparently I share David Brooks's
weakness for crap sociology.)
This list is obviously
far from comprehensive. And while I may not know exactly how the
new president of Princeton is supposed to spend her days, how she
decides to address these and the other tough questions of her tenure
will define whether she has chosen to warm her chair or use it.
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