Tilghman: Academy has great obligations in times of crisis

President Shirley M. Tilghman's installation address is available via Webcast by clicking here or in full text by clicking here .

Princeton University -- like all U.S. institutions of higher learning -- has an obligation to help this country through its current crisis and onto an "honorable path to worldwide justice and peace," Shirley M. Tilghman told the audience shortly after she was installed as the institution's 19th president on Friday.

"With generosity of spirit and mutual respect, we must listen carefully to one another, and speak with our minds and our hearts, guided by the principles we hold dear," she said. "By conducting difficult discussions without prejudice or anger, by standing together for tolerance, civil liberties and the right to dissent, by holding firm to core principles of justice and freedom and human dignity, this university will serve our country well. By so doing, we will be true patriots."

Tilghman told the crowd assembled on the front lawn of Nassau Hall that she had modified her address following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to be able to address a topic that is foremost in her mind: the proper role of the academy during this crisis and in the national debate that will take place.

Taking a historical view, she discussed the "highly privileged place" the academy holds because of the great faith American society has had in education.

"That faith is based on a conviction that the vitality of the United States, its creative and diverse cultural life, its staggeringly inventive economy, its national security and the robustness of its democratic institutions owe much to the quality of its institutions of higher education," Tilghman said.

In return, American society expects much of its colleges and universities, she said. "It expects the generation of new ideas and the discovery of new knowledge, the exploration of complex issues in an open and collegial manner and the preparation of the next generation of citizens and leaders," she said. "In times of trouble, it is especially important that we live up to these expectations."

Tilghman spoke of the interplay between the academy and the world in the search for new knowledge, disputing the medieval notion of the "ivory tower." "The academy is of the world, not apart from it," she said. "Its ideals, crafted over many generations, are meant to suffuse the national consciousness. Its scholars and teachers are meant to move in and out of the academy in pursuit of opportunities to use their expertise in public service, in pursuit of creative work that will give us illumination and insight and in pursuit of ways to turn laboratory discoveries into useful things."

At the same time, the academy must be allowed to conduct this search for new knowledge without constraints, Tilghman said.

"We must continually strive to preserve the freedom of our students and our scholars to pursue ideas that conflict with what we believe or what we would like to believe, and to explore deep problems whose solutions have no apparent applications," she said. "This is not a privilege we grant to a handful of pampered intellectuals; rather it is a defining feature of our society and an essential investment in the continuing strength of our character, our culture, our ideas and our material lives."

Colleges and universities also have an obligation to widely disseminate their scholarly work so that others can build on it or use it to make better decisions, she said. This propagation of knowledge is especially important in times like these.

"In the days ahead," Tilghman said, "I hope that our country's decision makers will draw on the knowledge that resides on our campuses, on historians who can inform the present through deep understanding of the past, philosophers who can provide frameworks for working through issues of right and wrong, economists whose insights can help to get the economy back on track, engineers who know how to build safer buildings, scientists who can analyze our vulnerabilities to future attack and develop strategies for reducing those vulnerabilities, and scholars in many fields who can help them understand the motivations of those who would commit acts of terrorism here and throughout the world."

She said the wide-ranging discussion that accompanies the dissemination of knowledge is also crucial during times of crisis.

"Defending academic freedom of speech is not particularly difficult in times of peace and prosperity," Tilghman said. "It is in times of national crisis that our true commitment to freedom of speech and thought is tested. History will judge us in the weeks and months ahead by our capacity to sustain civil discourse in the face of deep disagreement, for we are certain to disagree with one another."

"We will disagree about how best to hold accountable those responsible for the attacks of Sept. 11," she continued. "We will disagree about how broadly the blame should be shared. We will disagree about the ways in which nationalism and religion can be perverted into fanaticism. We will disagree about whether a just retribution can be achieved if it leads to the deaths of more innocent victims....We will disagree about how and when to wage war and how best to achieve a real and lasting peace."

The goal, she said, is not to reach agreement, but to come to a "deeper appreciation and understanding of the complexity of human affairs and of the implications of the choices we make."

Finally, she said, the academy has an obligation to provide this country with a new generation of citizens and leaders who can not only acquire information, but can demonstrate good reasoning skills and interpret knowledge.

"If we do our job well as educators, each of our students will take from a Princeton education a respect and appreciation for ideas and values, intellectual openness and rigor, practice in civil discourse and a sense of civic responsibility," she said.

"During these troubled times, our students and our alumni will be called upon to exercise these qualities in their professions, their communities and their daily lives," she concluded. "By so doing, and through their leadership, their vision and their courage, they will help to fulfill Princeton's obligation to society and bring true meaning to our motto, 'Princeton in the nation's service and in the service of all nations.'"

Tilghman took office on June 15, succeeding Harold T. Shapiro, who retired from the presidency following more than 13 years of service. A member of the Princeton faculty since 1986, she has served as the Howard A. Prior Professor of the Life Sciences and as the director of the University's Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics. To read the full news release announcing Tilghman's appointment, click here .

Contact: Marilyn Marks (609) 258-3601