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A letter from an alum about the President's Page, November 19, 2003

February 1, 2004

President Tilghman’s “President’s Page” on improving undergraduate education from the November 19 issue embodies an attitude that is leading Princeton in an unfortunate direction.

The president of the University and the dean of the college are apparently agreed that the best way to improve undergraduate education at Princeton would be to change the way students are distributed across the departments. Instead of looking for ways to improve the University, they bemoan the fact that students don’t study what the University would like them to, and they use this as evidence to question whether students really know what they want to study. This arrogance toward students’ choices seems increasingly to be the University’s approach to issues of undergraduate life. Slowly but surely, it is compromising Princeton’s identity and uniqueness.

President Tilghman cites the “heavier teaching load for faculty members in these [excessively popular] departments” and the fact that “other departments with exceptional faculty are not being as fully engaged in advising as they could be” as problems that could be addressed by a redistribution of students. She concludes that “…this disproportionate concentration of majors may mean that students are choosing their majors without a full appreciation of the other opportunities available to them…” Then she asserts that students may not be finding and pursuing their “real intellectual passions.” In this view, imbalances are the fault of the students, not the University. The nature and structure of the University are simply assumed as given.

It does not seem to have occurred to President Tilghman and Dean Malkiel that perhaps most students are pursuing their real intellectual passions, and it is instead the University that needs adjusting. It is the University that has chosen to underfund large departments while expending resources on niche departments that apparently hold little appeal for students. Perhaps these departments are important for reasons of scholarship, but that does not absolve the University of its obligation to be responsive to student interests and to ensure that all students receive a similar caliber education.

Rather than acknowledge this responsibility, the University instead chooses to see the students as the problem. If only those pesky students knew what was good for them! This attitude, which has crept into many parts of the University, threatens to change the very nature of Princeton, and not for the better.

Certainly the University should not slavishly respond to students’ academic demands, and clearly it should encourage students to sample less mainstream intellectual pursuits. But when students don’t make the choices the University would like them to make, this should be seen as intellectual independence to be lauded, not a problem in need of fixing.

The freedom of students to make their own choices used to be a hallmark of Princeton. I have often cited it as one of Princeton’s main advantages over its rivals. By the time we were all seniors, my friends from high school who chose to attend Yale and Harvard were bored: they were sick of living with the same pool of people, whom they hadn’t chosen in the first place, and they felt that classes no longer offered much of a challenge. They also felt helpless to change their circumstances.

I, on the other hand, was invigorated: I had left my college to room with friends from other colleges; I had chosen an eating club that was the right fit for me; and my lighter course load allowed me to be engrossed in my thesis, the topic of which had been my choice, of course. For me, this independence and control of my own circumstances is what made my Princeton experience so fantastic.

It seems today, however, that this proud tradition and distinctiveness is disappearing. The proposal for one four-year college has now mushroomed into three; how long before it is all of them?

The University seems to be moving inexorably towards taking choices away from students and instead assigning them to places they may or may not belong or want to be. The University seems increasingly to believe that imparting its wisdom is more important than fostering and nurturing the students’ own wisdom — or that the students’ wisdom should be judged according to how little it varies from the University’s.

Allowing students to make their own choices is frustrating to social engineers who want to realize their vision of an academic utopia, but in the long run, students are much better-served by the messy process of self-determination. Engineered utopias have an exceedingly poor historical record; time and again, history has demonstrated the superiority of self-determination as an organizing principle.

My only serious academic dissatisfaction at Princeton was the lack of upper-level seminars reserved for majors in my department (politics), which resulted from a dearth of faculty. Upper level courses were oversubscribed and slowed down by students from other departments who did not possess a sufficient depth of understanding of the subject. For a major who was truly passionate about political science, this was very frustrating. Certainly I did not blame the other students; they are to be commended for taking challenging courses outside their majors. Rather, the fault was with the University for not ensuring sufficient faculty and resources to satisfy the demand for politics courses.

Instead of bemoaning the fact that the University does not allocate students among majors the way it apparently intends to do with residential colleges, the president and dean of the college would be better advised to figure out how to ensure that students who choose to major in the “big four” departments have an academic experience of equal quality to those who choose more offbeat fields. With the kind of tuition students pay to attend Princeton, they should be entitled to such a guarantee. And as the top students in the nation and the world, they should also be entitled to the University’s trust in deciding for themselves where their intellectual passions lie.

I am not suggesting that smaller departments be eliminated, and I do agree that elite universities have responsibilities to scholarship as well as to students. But Princeton has tremendous resources at its disposal; surely these do not have to be mutually exclusive goals. Perhaps if the administration were less obsessed with erecting shiny new buildings, there would be more resources left over to devote to teaching and scholarship.

Jim Cohen ‘89
Bethesda, Md.

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