Remarks by President Shirley M. Tilghman at Opening Exercises


Good afternoon. It is a great pleasure for me to extend a warm and enthusiastic welcome to all the members of the University who are joining us for the first time.

To the 1,166 members of what I am sure will become of the Great Class of 2006, I congratulate you on your excellent judgment in choosing to matriculate at Princeton. You have already passed your first important test. You hail from 48 states and the District of Columbia -- something untoward must have happened in Arkansas and New Mexico last year for those states to have failed to send us a student. Your home towns include Hana, Hawaii; Minot, North Dakota; Pascagoula, Mississippi; Osterville, Maine. You hail from 40 countries, representing every continent but Antarctica -- something untoward may have happened there too -- with hometowns like Victoria, Australia; Nairobi, Kenya; Caracas, Venezuela; and Shanghai in the People's Republic of China. You are an interesting and talented group of students, and we are proud to welcome you into our midst.

To the 567 new graduate students, I also offer special greetings. You too are an international group of students; 39% of you come from outside the United States. You have chosen to pursue the life of a scholar, and you represent the future of the academy. I also would like to welcome the new members of the faculty, who I know will enhance Princeton's reputation for excellence in both scholarship and undergraduate and graduate education. I also welcome new members of the staff. The university works as well as it does because we are blessed with a dedicated staff that oversees everything from the explosion of floral colors in Prospect Gardens to scheduling classes and balancing the budget.

This year has brought many changes in the academic administration as well. Today it is a special pleasure for me to welcome the new Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School, Anne-Marie Slaughter, a member of Princeton's Class of 1980 and a distinguished scholar of international law. Dean Stan Allen, a scholar, a teacher and a practicing architect joined us from Columbia University this summer to lead the School of Architecture. Finally, we welcome an old friend, Dean William Russel, as he moves across Washington Road from the E-quad to assume his new position as the Dean of the Graduate School.

Last but not least a warm welcome to the returning members of the Classes of '03, '04 and '05; the returning graduate students who have spent the summer either here or away from campus pursuing their scholarly work; and all of the returning members of the faculty and staff.

Those of you new to Princeton join a university with a long and proud history that goes back 256 years. Some of the paths on which you will walk, the books you will read and the rooms in which you will study have been graced with men and women who served this university, and then went on to serve this country and the world with great distinction. Generation after generation of Princetonians have maintained this great tradition of service -- statesmen like James Madison and Woodrow Wilson, both Presidents of the United States, were followed by Adlai Stevenson, George Shultz, Bill Bradley, and by two of our newest Trustees, Senator Paul Sarbanes from Maryland and Congressman Jim Leach from Iowa. The mantle of the great 19th century physicist Joseph Henry, who founded the Smithsonian Institution, has been assumed by our own Dean of the Faculty, Joseph Taylor, a Nobel Laureate in Physics for his discovery of a new kind of pulsar. F. Scott Fitzgerald's literary legacy has been inherited by the great modern writers John McPhee and a current Trustee, A. Scott Berg. I hope each of you is inspired by those who have gone before you, and will dedicate yourself to achieving the high goals that have brought you here.

We celebrate this beginning of the academic year on a day in which the air is full of somber remembrance of the tragic events on last September 11. This evening we will come together again -- at 7 o'clock on Cannon Green - for a memorial service in which we remember the individuals who lost their lives on that terrible day. I hope all of you will join me for that occasion.


This afternoon's opening exercises mark the official beginning of the new academic year at Princeton. When I look at the members of the Class of 2006 gathered today, and consider what is in store for you, I am filled with envy. Yes, envy - pure and simple, because you are about to embark on four years that are certain to be among the most important and exciting in your lives. During the next four years you will identify the passions that will shape your life, you will make friends who will last a lifetime, and you will make choices that will help to define the kind of person you will be. You will explore the universe of ideas, which are the true coin of the realm in a university, in a free and unfettered way that may never be available to you again. I hope you will make good use of these four years, because they will pass in the blink of an eye. If you don't believe me, just look at the faces of the seniors who know they have just nine months before they will walk out FitzRandolph Gate. What you will see there is not the specter of the senior thesis still to be written - the haunted look and nervous fidgeting that marks the true procrastinator doesn't set in until February. Rather what you will see there is the realization that they will soon have to leave this beautiful and privileged place, where they have not just been allowed to grow intellectually and personally, but have been encouraged and exhorted -- occasionally threatened -- and provided with the necessary resources.

You now have these extraordinary resources at your command -- an international faculty whose members have dedicated their lives to scholarship and research in close collaboration with students; a library and a museum filled with treasures waiting to be discovered by curious minds; state-of-the-art laboratories in which the secrets of nature are being disclosed; studio and theater spaces where the spirit can soar with invention and imagination; and of course the food in the college cafeterias that is, in the words my father used to describe my mother's cooking, filling and nourishing.

All of these resources have been assembled at Princeton to make it possible for you to obtain the finest undergraduate education in the world, and to do it in a residential community dedicated to personal as well as intellectual growth. It is our responsibility as Trustees, alumni, faculty and staff to ensure that the raw materials you need to construct your experience here are in place and in good working order. Each of you, however, is in charge of deciding how -- and how fully -- you will make use of these resources. They can be used, and combined, in an almost infinite number of ways. How you do this -- through the many choices you will make in the next four years -- will determine whether you will be able to say, as so many others have before you, "Princeton changed my life." To say that honestly will require making bold and adventurous choices in every aspect of your experience here.

In making your academic choices, I hope you will avoid the natural tendency to study only those subjects in which you have excelled in high school, or to take only those courses that your friends are taking, or those that you believe will, in some narrow way, prepare you for the job market. Our distribution requirements, our freshman seminar program, our emphasis on independent work are all designed to widen your intellectual horizons so that you will leave here a cosmopolitan (a word I take from Professor Anthony Appiah, who joined us this year) - meaning a person whose spirit is informed by a deep understanding and appreciation of the world in all of its manifold subtlety and complexity. There are colleges and universities at which you could take all of your courses in one concentrated area (molecular biology, for example), or only skim the surface of a broad range of fields. By choosing to come here you rejected these models in favor of one that seeks to produce broadly and deeply educated citizens who are capable of providing thoughtful leadership in an increasingly complex and challenging world. The most difficult political, technological, ethical and social problems facing today's world will be resolved only by intelligent and well-trained minds that can think critically and decisively using understanding that draws on many fields and yet transcending disciplinary boundaries. Let me illustrate this point with two examples that have been greatly in the news in recent months.

In my own field, molecular genetics, the successful completion of sequencing the first human genome, like all scientific progress, has created the potential for both good and ill. Whether good or ill is triumphant depends on how we as a society use the enormous amount of information that is being generated about our genetic makeup. Here, again, the issue is one of choices. We can use this information to discover cures for intractable diseases like Alzheimer's, to tailor medicines to subsets of the patient population for greater effectiveness, to prevent diseases by identifying risk factors in individuals through genetic screening and to extend not lifespan, but the quality of life, during the last decades of life. But this same information could be misused to prevent individuals from obtaining health insurance or employment, to spawn a new eugenics movement that attempts to create a master race or to develop only expensive medicines that widen the gap in medical care between the rich and the poor. To navigate a path through this potential minefield we will need talented scientists, of course. Their research will allow us to realize the exciting promise of the genome and to ensure that the public debate of the issues is based on accurate scientific information. We also will need ethicists who can fairly define the difficult moral questions that we need to address, and lawyers and policy makers who can craft legislation that protects individual rights and societal values without prohibiting promising therapies, and then interpret that law wisely. But, most importantly, we need scientists who are comfortable with ethical issues, ethicists and lawyers who understand science, and politicians with ethical sensibilities and wide ranging intellects who are capable of listening with well prepared minds and then acting on a vision that sees farther than the next election.

Consider another critically important issue: this past year the United States has been marshalling its resources to fight a war against terrorism. The horrendous events exactly one year ago, and the anthrax outbreak that came shortly in their wake, left this country feeling more vulnerable to external attack than it has since the Cuban missile crisis in the early 1960's. No one questions the responsibility of the government to protect its citizens from terrorism, but it is important that this be done in a way that respects the principles articulated in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights that define us as a free democracy. We have set very high standards for ourselves as a nation, and our standards are most severely tested by the most reprehensible enemies and the most brutal crimes. It forces us to ask questions, such as: How long is it appropriate to hold accused terrorists in Guantanamo Bay without the right to habeas corpus? Are there circumstances under which we should try American citizens by military tribunals? How should we assess the arguments for racial profiling in a society built on respect for the privacy and dignity of each individual and a presumption of innocence?

As with the first example, these questions do not lend themselves to easy answers. They require careful thinking that is informed by history, the law, moral philosophy, the practicalities of the political process and the limits of scientific technology. Finding the right answers will require proficiency in languages and knowledge about other cultures and religions. In other words, in seeking answers we need to look to cosmopolitan individuals who have experienced a broad liberal arts education of the kind that you are about to pursue.

As you begin your journey, I hope you keep in mind that you are preparing yourself for an uncertain future, and that the best preparation is to develop habits of mind that lead you to test the things you think you DO know and be curious about the things you do NOT know. Your best insurance against uncertainty and complexity is to develop an insatiable appetite for new ideas and an instinct for informed fair-minded reasoning as your first line of defense. Princeton's informal motto, "Princeton in the nation's service and the service of all nations," defines our hope and aspiration that you, the Class of 2006, will leave Princeton as your predecessors have done, prepared to make a positive difference in the world.

As you look around this chapel, I hope you will appreciate that we have chosen you and your classmates with enormous care. As I said a few minutes ago, you are drawn from every corner of the globe, from different ethnic groups, different religions and different socio-economic backgrounds. Seven percent of you are the first member of your family to attend college. This range of experiences and perspectives, my friends, was on purpose! After all, Dean Hargadon could have filled the entire Class of 2006 with only males (we actually tried that for our first 220 years of our history and wisely decided to discontinue the practice). He could have chosen only students from California, only students who play musical instruments, only students who play soccer or only students who attended a private school. Had we done any of those things, Princeton would be a lesser place, and I suspect many of you would have chosen to go elsewhere. A good part of your education in the next four years will come from conversations with your classmates and other students. Each of you will bring to these conversations a unique perspective on the world. Each of you is a resource for all the others. Whether you are in a freshman seminar on poverty, a political debate over the Palestinian--Israeli crisis, or a discussion on the meaning of religious faith, you will be learning from one another in ways that may be different, but are just as important as the ways you will learn from the faculty. (I'd actually prefer that you don't repeat that to the faculty.) So just as I have urged you to be bold and adventurous in your choices of courses, I also urge you to reach out to your classmates, especially those who are different from you and from whom you have something new to learn. Please avoid the natural tendency to seek out those who are most like you. While it is a perfectly understandable reaction to an unfamiliar environment, it is also one of the most effective ways to narrow your horizons and to reduce your opportunity to become a true cosmopolitan.

Over the next four years, you will make literally thousands of choices that will not only shape your life and career, but will define the kind of person that you are now and you want to be. Some of these will be large choices: selecting a course of study, deciding whether to become involved in community service, choosing what to do in your summers. But others will be small, sometimes imperceptible, day-to-day choices about how you will interact with those with whom you share this beautiful campus. Princeton University is a human community in which every individual matters. One of our greatest strengths is our small size that makes it possible for everyone to be an integral part of the whole. From the Nobel laureate who teaches freshman biology, to the janitor who takes care of the dorms, to the dean who hears disciplinary cases, to the librarian at the information desk in Firestone, to the night nurse at McCosh, to the groundskeeper who rakes the leaves and shovels the snow, to the coach or the adviser who provides good counsel, to the electrician whose amplifier is making my voice audible to you -- we are proud of the dedication that so many bring to our community. I hope that as you go about your busy lives here you will treat each member of this community with dignity and respect. I hope you will resist any temptation to leave a mess in your hallway for someone else to pick up, to park your car illegally and block someone else's place, or to be discourteous to someone in dining services. We have a wonderful staff here at Princeton, and I hope you not only will not take them for granted, but will get to know them as the caring individuals they are. Similarly, when friends, or classmates, or others in this community turn to you for comfort and assistance, I hope you will take the time to respond as fully as you can, and that they, in turn, will do the same for you.

So, I conclude by saying that I hope each of you is filled with a sense of excitement today. I am sure that I speak for the entire university community when I say that we are eagerly anticipating the choices you will make. We look forward to witnessing and sharing in your journey to become the Great -- and cosmopolitan -- Princeton Class of 2006.

Contact: Marilyn Marks (609) 258-3601