Extending Core Values into a Dynamic Future

March 8, 2016

Published in the March 2, 2016, issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly.

The strategic framework reaffirms the University’s commitment to residential liberal arts education. Here, Assistant Professor of Politics Ali Valenzuela dines with his advisees in Rockefeller College.
The strategic framework reaffirms the University’s commitment to residential liberal arts education. Here, Assistant Professor of Politics Ali Valenzuela dines with his advisees in Rockefeller College. Denise Applewhite

Reaffirm Princeton’s commitment to residential liberal arts education. Expand the undergraduate student body. Elevate attention to the Graduate School. Increase socioeconomic diversity. Embrace the value of service. Cultivate the innovation ecosystem around the University. Facilitate research and scholarship that will address profound questions and urgent problems.

These are among the headlines in the strategic framework published by the Board of Trustees in early February. Designed to be a flexible and revisable guide to decisionmaking about Princeton’s future, the document is a major milestone in the planning process we launched two years ago. It incorporates insights developed through trustee deliberations, campus conversations, and the listening tour that began my presidency. At 24 pages in length, the document is relatively short, and I encourage alumni to read it online at www.princeton.edu/strategicplan/framework/.

The framework’s publication occurs at a time of impassioned public controversy about the value of liberal arts education and the role of research universities. Politicians and pundits have questioned whether college is worth the cost and have urged universities to focus on vocationally oriented programs. People speculate about how technology might make traditional forms of education obsolete. At the same time, the demand for places at Princeton and other selective colleges is greater than ever.

Like virtually all of the Princeton alumni with whom I have spoken, the trustees endorsed emphatically the value of a liberal arts education. As the board observed, the case for this kind of education is powerful even if made in purely economic terms.

Princeton’s mission, however, turns not upon the private economic value of a degree, but on the ways that a great research university serves the public good. Liberal arts education and scholarly research are rooted in a recognition of the long-term value of learning. The students whom we educate today will call upon their educations decades hence to address problems that we can scarcely imagine, and curiosity-driven scholarship can generate insights of surprising and transformative power.

Princeton’s strategic framework observes that the longterm perspective of a liberal arts university is both especially needed and increasingly rare in an age dominated by short time horizons, utilitarian attitudes, and diminishing attention spans. This gives Princeton a special responsibility to use the resources that have been entrusted to it to strive not only for the highest levels of quality but also for “significant and lasting impact in pursuing its mission of service to the nation and the world.”

One obvious way to increase our impact is to admit more students. We turn down a higher percentage of qualified applicants today than at any other moment in our history. I have no doubt that if we could admit more of these talented young people, they would make positive contributions to our campus and the world. I am delighted that the framework authorizes my administration to begin planning for the addition of about 500 students, which will require the construction of a seventh residential college.

I am equally pleased that the framework highlights the quality and importance of Princeton’s graduate programs. Because Princeton’s commitment to undergraduate education is so rare in the world of research universities, past planning documents and mission statements have sometimes overlooked our superb Graduate School, and the extent to which it is critical to the University’s teaching and research mission.

The framework devotes special attention to the impact of technology on our world and on higher education. Technology is reshaping the questions that students and researchers ask and the means by which they ask them. Because Princeton has a world-class engineering school thoroughly integrated with the tradition and values of liberal arts education, the University can offer a distinctive perspective on the challenges and opportunities that come with technological change.

Technology also requires the University to develop a more robust innovation ecosystem around the campus. Students and faculty alike are seeking opportunities to collaborate with non-academic partners to advance the University’s teaching and research mission, and facilitating such initiatives will be important to Princeton’s future.

There is much more in the framework, including priorities related to visible leadership in the arts and humanities, environmental studies, regional and world affairs and cultures, and engineering. Incorporated in the framework are a mission statement and an identification of the University’s defining characteristics and aspirations. I hope Princeton’s alumni will contribute to the ongoing conversation about the framework—it represents a milestone in our planning process but not its completion.

Much remains to be done. The observations, perspectives, and support of alumni are invaluable as Princeton continues to do everything it can to demonstrate, in the words of the framework, that “Princeton’s distinctive model and mission are today more vibrant, valuable, and relevant to the world’s problems than ever.”