Web Exclusives: Tooke's Take
a PAW web exclusive column by Wes Tooke '98 (email: cwtooke@princeton.edu)

June 6 2001:
On Making a President
New administration, 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.

You can reach Wes at cwtooke@princeton.edu