Tilghman: Federal proposals jeopardize strengths of higher education

Princeton president says value of a college education is best measured by how it is used

During her June 5 Commencement address, Princeton President Shirley M. Tilghman said that the best way to measure the value of a college education is not by any standardized test, but by the ways graduates put their degrees to work once they leave the University.

Expressing concern about recent proposals by the U.S. Department of Education that "for the first time in American history" could impose standardized testing on colleges and universities, Tilghman said "the notion that a federally mandated standardized test could be used to measure learning flies in the face of one of the great strengths of the U.S. education system -- the tremendous diversity among universities and colleges."

She told the crowd assembled on the front lawn of Nassau Hall that faculty members already spend a significant percentage of their time assessing student learning and providing feedback to students. And, with a system that is the envy of the world, students are able to choose the kind of institution that best suits their learning needs -- from a large public research university to a small private performing arts conservatory. The goal of a college education, she said, is to nurture and develop students' "distinctive talents and interests and motivate them to find not one, but many ways to use their education to make our world a better place. 

"The homogeneity bred by standardization would almost certainly drain color and vitality from this rich national tapestry," Tilghman said. "Where we see our students as prime numbers, standardization sees them as elements of the least common denominator."

Imposing federal standards also would depart from the long revered tradition in this country of respecting academic freedom, she added, which gives institutions the right to decide what will be taught and how it will be taught, but carries with it a responsibility for self-regulation by all members of the university community.

"When applied from outside the academic community, standardized testing as a means to assess student learning jeopardizes the freedom that universities need to craft their educational programs and fulfill the individualized goals of their students," she said.

In the end, Tilghman said, "it is impossible to imagine a set of standardized tests that could accurately measure what our faculty aspire to impart to our own students," she said. "As Woodrow Wilson, Princeton's 13th president, said so eloquently 100 years ago: 'What we should seek to impart in our colleges … is not so much learning itself as the spirit of learning. … It consists in the power to distinguish good reasoning from bad, in the power to digest and interpret evidence, in a habit of catholic observation and a preference for the non-partisan point of view, in an addiction to clear and logical processes of thought and yet an instinctive desire to interpret rather than to stick in the letter of the reasoning, in a taste for knowledge and a deep respect for the integrity of the human mind.'

"Those qualities do not lend themselves to standardized testing," Tilghman said. "The value we place on those qualities is the reason why we require that our students participate in what we believe is the most rigorous test of all -- the writing of a comprehensive thesis or the completion of a major independent research project."

Tilghman said that when she is asked "How do you know you are providing your students with a good education?" her answer is: "We can't really know until their 25th Reunion, because the real measure of a Princeton education is the manifold ways it is used by Princetonians after they leave the University."

Drawing from the undergraduate and graduate classes of 1982, who were on campus to celebrate their 25th Reunions the weekend before Commencement, Tilghman cited several examples:

• David Spergel of the undergraduate class of 1982, who is the chair of Princeton's Department of Astrophysical Sciences. His work with NASA's Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe has changed the way scientists think about the universe.

• Eileen Guggenheim, who received her Ph.D. in art history from Princeton in 1982. She helped establish the New York Academy of Art, a graduate school of fine arts, and has served as a member of Princeton's Board of Trustees.

• Bart Gellman, a member of the undergraduate class of 1982, who shared the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting with two colleagues at the Washington Post for their investigation into international terrorism in the wake of 9/11.

• Eve Thompson of the class of 1982, who has directed a program to enhance the effectiveness of the national legislature of Guinea Bissau, promoted environmental advocacy in Brazil, led a program at the United Nations University International Leadership Academy in Amman, Jordan, and helped to draft the South African constitution.
• Jeffrey Merkley, who earned an MPA from the Woodrow Wilson School in 1982 and is a five-term member of the Oregon House of Representatives, currently serving as speaker of the house. He also has been executive director of Portland's Habitat for Humanity.

• Lynda Clarizio of the class of 1982, who is president of Advertising.com, a subsidiary of AOL, which she joined after coordinating the U.S. Foreign Policy Project, a study of human rights and foreign-policy issues. She continues her commitment to international human rights by serving on the board of Human Rights First.

"These six Princetonians, while hardly a random sample, are splendid representatives of the graduates of 1982 who have used their education to make lasting contributions to and beyond their chosen fields," Tilghman said. "They have done what Princeton asked them to do -- serve this nation and all nations, and make the world a better place for us all."

"I hope that you, the graduates of 2007, will likewise use your Princeton educations to lead well-considered lives in service to the common good; that you will be open to new ideas and have the courage to stand up for your beliefs and the rights and dignity of others; and that you will adopt a global sensibility and a lifelong devotion to justice and freedom, always informed by the highest standards of integrity and mutual respect," she continued. "Your success in meeting these challenges will be judged in 2032, and not by any standardized test!"

Tilghman concluded, "And so, as you walk, skip or run through the FitzRandolph Gates today, as educated citizens of this and many other nations, I hope you will carry forward the spirit of Princeton. And I expect you will continue to do as you have done here -- to aim high and be bold."