July 2, 2003: President's Page

Curiosity, Compassion, Service, Integrity, Courage

By tradition, presidents have used these last pages of the year to share their Commencement remarks or to reflect on the year now coming to a close. In many ways, this has been an excellent year for Princeton. Readers of this page have heard from the new leaders of the Woodrow Wilson School, the School of Engineering and Applied Science and the School of Architecture—two of them Princeton alumni. You have read about faculty and students and about some of the lively issues that I have been discussing on campus and in my travels with alumni. In my Commencement remarks this year I looked at some of Princeton’s central and enduring goals and values—goals and values that we, with the help of our alumni, are working every day to strengthen and build upon. I would like to share the following excerpts with you.

I want to begin with my warmest congratulations for what you have accomplished in such a short time. You have amazed us with your intellectual prowess, exhausted us with your bottomless reserves of energy, surprised us with your new perspectives on old ideas, challenged us with your entrepreneurship, thrilled us with your athletic achievements, uplifted us with your commitment to social justice and moved us with your artistic performances.

While you were here the world moved under your feet, the economy’s “irrational exuberance” (that phrase made famous by Alan Greenspan) came to a screeching halt, and your job outlook responded accordingly. International terrorism, a daily fact of life for many in the rest of the world, reached the shores of the United States on September 11, 2001, and altered for the foreseeable future any sense that this country is immune from the dangers that threaten elsewhere. This spring the United States embarked on a pre-emptive war, and whatever your views on the wisdom or outcomes of that action, in so doing recast the way in which this nation plays its dominant role on the international stage.

Without question the world you will enter in just a few minutes when you walk out FitzRandolph Gate is a very different place from the day you arrived in Princeton. But whatever your elders have accomplished, for good or ill, it is your world—and it is your turn to shape it so that the world you bequeath to the next generation is better than the one you now inherit. This is what is expected of every generation of Princetonians. For it is only by preparing its graduates to continue to go out into the world and make a real difference—through their work and their service to others—that Princeton can justify the faith placed in it by those who have given so generously over the last 257 years to make Princeton the university it is today. By investing in Princeton, our benefactors believed they were investing, in the words of a former trustee, in “uncommon individuals and important ideas,” and through those individuals and ideas, in a better future for everyone.


The specific components of a Princeton education have evolved over time, but our central aim has remained the same: to instill in each graduate those qualities of mind and character necessary for good citizenship and wise leadership. It will not surprise you to learn that these qualities remain much as they were first articulated centuries ago. They include a broad intellectual curiosity that embraces open-mindedness coupled with critical thinking; respect for our moral and cultural inheritance coupled with a capacity for innovation and change; an appreciation of the shared destiny and common humanity of all peoples; and core principles of responsibility, integrity, and courage. This is the check-list against which you should judge the effectiveness of your own Princeton education.

Through our distribution requirements, you have been exposed to ideas and ways of knowing across the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, and engineering. The civil engineers among you have read Dante with Professor Robert Hollander ’55, and the European medievalists learned with Professor David Billington ’50 why suspension bridges don’t fall down. It is not that we expect Italian medievalists to go out and build bridges; in fact, we prefer it if they do not—at least not without a little more training. We know full well that you will forget most of the facts that you have learned. But what we hope you will retain is the capacity to integrate ideas and exercise thoughtful judgment across many aspects of human endeavor.

With our particular emphasis on independent work, beginning with freshman seminars and culminating in the senior thesis, you have developed lifelong learning habits of a scholar and acquired the confidence and pride that come when you have mastered a subject. Alumni from all decades tell me that their senior thesis was the most important part of their Princeton experience, which explains why a very sensible and distinguished member of our faculty came close to being publicly tarred and feathered a few years ago when he suggested that the senior thesis be made voluntary. Of course the outcry came from those who had completed their theses—no one, to my knowledge, polled the junior class.

Our educational goals are, of course, different for those of you who are receiving your master’s degrees—in architecture, finance, engineering and applied science and the Woodrow Wilson School. In your case our intention is to prepare you for specific careers, by providing you with a thorough exposure to the intellectual underpinnings of your chosen career, as well as the practical skills that it requires. Here we have every expectation that the architect’s building will stay upright, for example. Those of you who have completed your doctoral degrees are the future of the global academy. With your commitment to the life of the mind, your devotion to discovery within your discipline, and your dedication to teaching as well as learning, we look to you to become leaders in your chosen fields and to draw upon your advanced learning, and the skills you have developed as scholars and as teachers, to push back the frontiers of knowledge and help create a better world for all of us.

A sense of responsibility for the well-being of others is deeply ingrained in Princeton’s historic commitment to public service for all its graduates. Public service comes in many forms—it can involve positions in local, state, or federal governments or international agencies, volunteer service in your communities and schools, participation in charitable or other nonprofit organizations, or speaking out for the interests of others or of the community at large. Whatever the particular circumstance, public service in today’s world requires an ability to see the world through the eyes of others who are different from you. Whether it is being able to imagine what it feels like to be a young black man who is followed by a clerk whenever he enters a store, or a gay man who is afraid to enter a bar for fear of being harassed, or a woman in traditional Muslim dress who is charged with terrible deeds committed by others, we are stronger individuals if we can put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, if we can ground our actions in true understanding.

Passion mingled with compassion

This is the point that the late Princeton Nobel Laureate in economics, Sir Arthur Lewis, was conveying in the quotation that is emblazoned on a wall of the Frist Campus Center: “What distinguishes the civilized man from the barbarian is not that he lacks passion, but that his passion is mingled with compassion.” Woodrow Wilson used different words to say the same thing over 100 years ago: “The real enemies of the country are not the men who deliberately propose evil but the men who are so situated that they are cut off in understanding and in sympathy from the body of their fellow citizens. One of the things that makes us unserviceable citizens is that there are certain classes of men with whom we have never been able to associate, and whom we have, therefore, been unable to understand. I believe that the process of a university should be a process of unchosen contacts.”

Today’s Princeton is deeply committed to having Wilson’s “unchosen contacts” occur on our campus. This spring the University signed an amicus brief prepared by Harvard University for two Supreme Court cases involving challenges to the admission policies at the University of Michigan. The brief asked the Court to reaffirm the 1978 decision of Justice Powell in the Regents of the University of California vs. Bakke case. Powell argued that a diverse student body was a “constitutionally permissible goal for an institution of higher education,” and declared that “the nation’s future depends upon leaders trained through wide exposure to the ideas and mores of students as diverse as this nation of many peoples.”

Make no mistake about it: we are a nation of many peoples. The demographics of this country have changed dramatically in the 30 years since I sat on a rickety seat like yours, as a newly minted college graduate. The United States—a country that was born of immigrants and whose great strength has come from its ability to productively absorb wave upon wave of immigrants who have come here to find a better life—is a much richer tapestry today. The many briefs that were submitted by colleges and universities arguing in favor of the educational value of diverse multicultural campuses were joined by those prepared on behalf of major corporations, unions, members of Congress, and former military leaders—all of whom argued that they depend upon colleges and universities like Princeton to educate a broadly diverse workforce. This is part of what it means for Princeton to be in the nation’s service. By providing each of you with a multi-cultural educational environment, we have prepared you for the real global community you are about to enter.

In addition to the knowledge you have acquired, the cognitive skills you have developed, and the friendships you have formed, you leave Princeton with principles and values that will undergird everything you do. One of the highest goals of our admission process is to identify candidates who bring with them a commitment to such qualities as integrity and courage, and then we seek to do all we can to strengthen and reinforce those qualities while you are here.

Our commitment to integrity is embodied in the honor code that every undergraduate signs after every in-class exam. For 110 years, this pledge has symbolized the importance we place on academic integrity—on doing your own work and on properly acknowledging when you draw upon the ideas of others. Ideas, after all, are the coin of our realm, and it is essential that we uphold the value of our currency by insisting on the highest standards.

Integrity also embraces respect for the ideas and values of others, and the ability to engage in civil discourse even when differences of opinion are deeply felt. Over the last year our campus community has had many opportunities to engage in lively and occasionally difficult debates. The continuing conflict in the Middle East, where Israelis and Palestinians live with heels dug in deep while a downward spiral of suicide bombings followed by military retaliations leads to tragic loss of life, has strong voices speaking out on all sides. I am very proud that
the Princeton community has been able have this discussion without rancor or the undercurrent of anti-Semitism that has erupted on other campuses.

The outbreak of war with Iraq elicited a response by our students and faculty that seemed to me exactly right: to invite prominent scholars, policymakers, and practitioners from across the globe to explore the issues in settings large and small, including at the inaugural Princeton Colloquium on Public and International Affairs that was sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson School. The goal of this and other forums for discussion is not to reach agreement; often this is not possible. The goal is to learn to engage in respectful discourse on important and difficult topics on which fair-minded individuals will disagree, and out of that discourse to deepen our understanding.

Aspiration into action requires courage

Finally, the translation of aspiration into action frequently requires courage. Courage comes in many guises—the courage to fight for what you believe is right in the face of opposition from your peers (and sometimes even your teachers); the courage to make up your own mind and not simply follow the crowd (or the polling data); the courage to keep going when everyone else is ready to give up. It takes courage to admit when you are wrong.

It takes courage to play through pain or impending defeat on the athletic field, and to inspire your teammates to do the same. It takes courage to come out of the closet. It takes courage to tell your friend that he has had enough to drink, and should go home to bed. It takes courage to lose with grace. It takes courage to report a violation of the honor code.

Courage is hard, and the times we need to draw upon it are generally not of our own choosing and frequently arise without warning. By fostering an intellectual and residential community where integrity, tolerance, and respect for others are paramount, Princeton has tried to create safe and fertile ground for your courage to be expressed, and I am proud of the ways in which you have shown individual courage over these last few years. The challenges will be greater and the havens will be less safe after you walk out FitzRandolph Gate, but I am confident that you will carry with you the spirit of Princeton and that it will give you courage as well as comfort in the years to come.

I hope that you will carry with you all that this place has aspired to teach you—the exuberance that comes from learning and discovery, the compassion to care for others less fortunate, a commitment to the highest standards of honor and integrity, the imagination to follow the unexplored path, and the freedom to dream.

My best wishes go with you all.



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