Nov. 8, 2006, marking 70 years since freshman
Goheen came to Princeton (Photo: Ricardo Barros)
Sept. 27, 1957, with Harold Helm '20, left, and President
Harold Dodds *14 on Goheen's inauguration day. (Photo: Delmar Lipp)
Robert Francis Goheen '40 *48
Memories of a leader who mastered the art of listening
By Christopher Connell '71
Traveling through New Jersey in the late 1960s with two classmates from Harvard,
Stephen Goheen stopped back home in Princeton, where his father, the president
of Princeton University, invited the trio out to lunch. Cambridge, even more
than Princeton, was gripped by antiwar protests and unrest. Stephen, who later
would perform alternative service as a conscientious objector, recalls that his
father asked all manner of questions. Afterward it dawned on him that the elder
Goheen had been "conducting research. He was trying to learn what we were
That was Robert Francis Goheen, always listening.
After the man who led Princeton into the modern era died of heart failure
March 31, many tributes touched upon Goheen's ability to listen to other points
of view and, as in the case of coeducation, to change his mind. "I have
never known anyone with so little ego investment in winning an argument. Quite
simply, he wanted to do right," says Marvin Bressler, professor emeritus
of sociology. "In a community in which many people confuse self-interest
with principle, he led through the exercise of moral force."
Taut, crew-cut, and bow-tied, Goheen, Princeton's 16th president, could appear
somber and aloof; even admirers admit he tended toward the formal. It was easy
to picture Bob Goheen in his orange Class of '40 blazer and boater, but not its
The onetime classics scholar who served as president for 15 years brought
a keen eye for talent and a natural instinct for leadership to Nassau Hall. After
expanding the faculty, facilities, and research capacity during what he called "the
halcyon days" of his first decade, he made strategic moves over the next
five years that made Princeton better and stronger, from creating the provost's
job and lining up economist William Bowen *58 as heir apparent to forcing the
trustees' hands on coeducation. He hired a young assistant professor from Harvard,
Neil Rudenstine '56, as dean of students when he realized that nobody in Nassau
Hall really had a clue about the late-'60s generation. Earlier, he had brought
in Carl A. Fields, the first black administrator in the Ivy League, to help overcome
Princeton's reputation as a place where minority students were not welcome. Then,
he gave the faculty and even students a say in University governance. However
imperious Goheen may have looked, he engineered these changes not by dictate,
"He was a genuinely kind and thoughtful person," says Charles Fuqua
'57, whom Goheen and his wife, Margaret, hired to babysit their six children.
Fuqua majored in classics after taking a class from Goheen and, like his mentor,
wrote his dissertation on Sophocles. He served in the Navy after graduation and
was spending the summer of 1960 back in Princeton when he encountered Goheen
on the street. The president promptly invited him to move into Prospect for the
summer, while the Goheen family was summering on Cape Cod. "That I did,
and it was a most pleasant change of quarters," remembers Fuqua, a Williams
College professor emeritus of classics.
To Venkatarama Krishnan *59, Goheen was a welcoming host who invited him
and other Indian students to his home on Orchard Street; the MIT professor emeritus
still counts his Princeton diploma, "signed by Robert Francis Goheen ...
[as] my prized possession." Journalist Don Oberdorfer '52 recalls Goheen
as an "open and approachable faculty member" who Oberdorfer felt would "knock
off the cobwebs and lead the University into a new era" as president.
Silvia S. Bennet, widow of John R. Bennet '30, remembers the dashing figure
that Goheen cut at Reunions in 1960. She paints this scene of the P-rade: "Through
'79 Arch with Woodrow Wilson's flag flying overhead swung the band; then, there,
at the top of the steps in full 20th reunion uniform, was the young president!
When a girlfriend of Malcolm J. Odell '62 painted a landscape on the bare,
cinderblock wall of his dorm in the New New Quad, the University immediately
served notice that it would have to be repainted at Odell's expense. He drafted
a formal apology --- in Latin, no less -- and presented it to Goheen while the
president was reading a newspaper in the Student Center. Odell tells the rest
of the story: "Peering up over his half-glasses, [Goheen] smiled and inquired, ‘And
what is it, pray tell, that you are apologizing for?' I briefly outlined the
situation, the art, and my request that the mural be allowed to stay. ‘I'll
look into it,' he said with a wry smile, returning to his paper. That evening,
returning to my room I was intercepted by the custodian. ‘The mural stays!'
he said with delight. ‘The president appeared here this afternoon, looked
it over, and gave the order to Buildings and Grounds that the mural stay. We
In 1965, freshman class president Paul G. Sittenfeld '69 and fellow officers
were summoned to Nassau Hall to settle an impasse over Sittenfeld's plan to sponsor
a Princeton entry in an intercollegiate elephant race in California. Goheen negotiated
the compromise: The Class of '69 could sponsor a turtle in an intercollegiate
race in Maryland.
Tougher challenges lay directly ahead. At a rally outside Nassau Hall on
May 2, 1968, students and faculty pressed demands that the University oust the
Institute for Defense Analyses (a nonprofit corporation that did research for
the Pentagon), divest stock from companies doing business with South Africa,
and scrap the last vestiges of in loco parentis rules governing student life.
Peter J. Kaminsky '69, who was both the Undergraduate Assembly president and
a leader of Students for a Democratic Society, penned a fond tribute to Goheen
in The Daily Princetonian the day after Goheen's death. The president was never
inquisitorial or "too disapproving, even when politics divided us," he
Goheen was on the scene at virtually every major event during the period
of campus unrest. Prince reporter and later chairman Richard K. Rein '69
heard him mutter, "This isn't Princeton," as local police hauled away
30 students who had blockaded the IDA's doors in October 1967. Goheen later explained
that he meant it literally -- leased Von Neumann Hall was under the IDA's control.
Indeed, the University never called the police onto campus, even when the Association
of Black Collegians occupied New South, an administration building, for 11 hours
in March 1969. The black students left of their own accord, and ABC leaders later
got an audience with the trustees' financial committee to press their case for
divestiture. Lee Neuwirth '55 *59, a mathematician who was deputy director of
the IDA's Princeton operation, says, "In the bull's-eye during that tumultuous
period in the University's history, President Goheen walked a tightrope with
dignity, grace, and great skill." Health-care lawyer Brent L. Henry '69,
an ABC member who became the first graduating senior elected to the board, says
that when he observed Goheen running trustees' meetings, it was clear "he
was the agent of change in that room."
Goheen's change of heart on coeducation -- erstwhile Prince reporter
Robert K. Durkee '69, now Princeton's vice president and secretary, broke the
scoop during reading
period in May 1967 -- estranged some alumni. An alumni group opposed to coeducation
sought unsuccessfully to get Herb W. Hobler '44, owner of WHWH radio in Princeton,
elected to the board. Today, Hobler thinks Nassau Hall could have handled alumni
critics better back then, but he came to support coeducation and says, "I
think Bob did a magnificent job. He had vision. He handled the things going on
... better than most college presidents."
President Jimmy Carter's appointment of Goheen as ambassador to India in
1977, five years after he retired as University president, was a grace note to
a career of service. Upon returning from New Delhi, he became a senior scholar
at the Woodrow Wilson School; later he helped create Princeton Future, which
sought to preserve the downtown's character. To the end, he embraced progress
and adaptability: About 18 months ago, Goheen asked his class secretary, William
N. Kelley, for a list of class e-mail addresses (20 of the 125 survivors, including
Goheen, had them). At recent Reunions, when marshals complained that the Class
of 1940 was slowing down the P-rade, the former president would exhort classmates
to use canes, as he did. "He said, ‘This is no time to be proud. This
is a very practical item, and I couldn't get along without it,'" says Kelley
(eventually marshals made the entire class ride in golf carts).
John V. Fleming *63, the Chaucer scholar and faculty lion whom Goheen recruited
to be Master of Wilson College, says, "Bob's role was never to impose his
private views on reluctant colleagues, but to lead his colleagues to a fuller
and shared vision of the particular institutional genius of Princeton. That was
no mean accomplishment: to demonstrate that sometimes dramatic change was not
a departure from, but rather the fulfillment of, a traditional mission of liberal
and humane education." Fleming, now emeritus, adds that Goheen's "profound
sense of public service, of duty, of citizenship, and eventually of education
itself, was derived in large measure from the traditions of Christian humanism
in which most of our great educational institutions, conspicuously including
Princeton, were themselves founded. This source of inspiration was for President
Goheen rich, generous, liberating. There was nothing narrow in the man, nothing
constricted or dogmatic."
Goheen was the kind of person "with whom one could sit comfortably in
silence," recalls Marsha Levy-Warren '73, an author and psychoanalyst who
was the first woman to win the Pyne Honor Prize and be elected an alumni trustee.
An exchange student in India before entering Princeton, she and Goheen sometimes
would talk about the food, the music, the smells and colors of that place. They'd
remember something together, she says, and then sit without speaking.
"He was a quiet and calming leader," Levy-Warren says. "People
don't realize how difficult it is to listen -- and he did it naturally."
That was Robert Francis Goheen.
Christopher Connell '71 is a freelance writer in Alexandria, Va., and former
assistant chief of the Washington bureau of The Associated Press.