Installation: The Ideal of a Liberal Arts University

Oct. 23, 2013

Published in the Oct. 23, 2013, issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly

I was genuinely touched by the presence of the many Princetonians — students, alumni, faculty, staff, trustees, and our former presidents William Bowen, Harold Shapiro, and Shirley Tilghman — who joined me in front of Nassau Hall for my formal presidential installation on September 22. Here is part of what I told the audience. The full text can be found at — C.L.E.

If we are lucky, we find certain ideals from which we can draw enduring inspiration and to which we can commit our life’s energies. In my life, there have been two: constitutional democracy, as manifested personally for me in the American constitutional tradition, and liberal arts education, as exemplified especially by the blend of research and teaching at this great University. The iconic building behind me combines these traditions. Nassau Hall was once all of Princeton University, and this University’s alumni still regard it as the symbolic heart of their alma mater. Nassau Hall was also briefly, in 1783, the seat of this nation’s government. And it was the site where James Madison acquired the learning that eventually made him the father of America’s Constitution.

Publicly taking the presidential oath of office administered by Board of Trustees Chair Kathryn Hall (left), as President Emerita Shirley M. Tilghman looks on. (Photo by Denise Applewhite)

Constitutionalism and liberal arts education also have deeper connections, ones that depend not on the contingencies of history and geography but on their relationship to human nature. Both of them are long-term institutions that recognize simultaneously humanity’s virtues and its imperfections, and that aim to cultivate our talents, orient us toward the common good, and make us the best that we can be.

In his extraordinary arguments on behalf of constitutional ratification, Madison wrote, in Federalist 51, “What is government … but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” Madison used gendered language, but I have no doubt that in this respect at least James Madison was a feminist: He meant his skepticism to apply equally to both sexes. If people were angels, they would cooperate, look out for one another, and generally do good deeds. They would need no laws, no courts, and no constitutions. But people are not angels, so they need constitutions that create institutions, define processes, and separate powers.

We might add that if people were angels, they would have no need for teachers. Students would need no one to inspire their studies or correct their errors. If students were angels, they would need, at most, a few syllabi, a library, some laboratories, a computer, and perhaps a few Massive Open Online Courses. They might then all be more or less self-taught, as were Benjamin Franklin and Abraham Lincoln, those almost superhuman, if not quite angelic, heroes of the American constitutional tradition.

But people are not angels, and very, very few students are like Franklin and Lincoln. The generations of students who have come to Nassau Hall, including the great James Madison, have wanted teachers to fire their imaginations, dispel their misconceptions, explode their prejudices, stir their spirits, and guide their passions. And students have found mentors here, not just in professors and preceptors, but also in chaplains and coaches, counselors and graduate students, conductors and directors, deans and administrators.

I expect that all of you in the audience today can look back upon your lives and identify teachers whose support and guidance were valuable beyond measure, and without whom you could not have achieved the successes that matter most to you. Great teachers, and great universities, make extraordinary investments in students and research in anticipation of future benefits that are usually unknowable and occasionally implausible. Perhaps the seeds you plant in the mind of 19-year-old students today will guide careers that blossom and mature many decades hence. Or, to take an example from our Department of Chemistry, perhaps your curiosity-driven research into the pigmentation of butterfly wings will, 50 years later, produce a drug that improves the lives of cancer patients.

If human beings were angels, we would cheerfully focus on long-term goods. We would invest enthusiastically in schools and colleges for our own children and for everybody else’s children, so that they could become productive, engaged citizens in the future. We would happily support speculative research projects so that we could reap the benefits of discovery and innovation. We would gladly nurture humanistic inquiry because it provides an essential foundation for understanding what makes life meaningful and sustains the wellsprings of civil society.

Indeed, we need not be angels to do these things. We would do them if we were perfectly rational investors, because economists like Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz have shown convincingly that education and research are powerful drivers of economic prosperity.

But we are not perfectly rational any more than we are angels. We live embodied in the present, sensitive to shortterm pleasures and pains. Notions of the common good and promises about future returns feel abstract and feeble by comparison to the intensity of immediate experience.

This bias seems especially fierce in America today. Our world features a non-stop news cycle, continuous political campaigns, and an obsession with quarterly earnings statements. We demand that messaging be instant, and we talk in tweets.

This short-term perspective threatens America’s colleges and universities. Already it has done significant harm. Our nation has reduced its support for public colleges and universities, and it has squeezed the funding needed for research, innovation, and scholarship.

In so doing, we risk squandering a national treasure. America’s colleges and universities are a beacon to the world. Parents around the globe dream of sending their children here, scholars dream of landing a place here, and nations dream of creating universities like America’s. Yet, here at home, we see a parade of reporters, politicians, and pundits asking whether a college education is worth it — even though the economic evidence for the value of a college education is utterly overwhelming.

People discount this evidence because they worry, quite understandably, about the cost of college. They say that higher education should be more efficient so that it can be cheaper in the short term and equally valuable in the long term.

Make no mistake about it: Those of us who lead universities must make our institutions as efficient as possible. We must also ensure, through financial aid and other programs, that our colleges are accessible and affordable to students from every sector of our society. But there is a difference between expense and inefficiency. Expensive investments can be both efficient and valuable if their returns are sufficiently high.

When professors provide individualized attention to students, their time is expensive and valuable. When scholars strive day and night to enhance our understanding of the world, their activity is expensive and valuable. Great colleges and universities are not cheap. They require big investments, and they are also among the very best investments that this nation, or any nation, can make. Great universities are places where the human spirit soars. They are special communities where students, teachers, and researchers strive to transcend their limitations and, on occasion, to expand the boundaries of human achievement.

I am grateful to be joined on this stage by Princeton alumni, and by former Princeton faculty members and administrators, who now serve as presidents of an extraordinary range of colleges and universities from throughout the world. Their presence here today symbolizes our need to work together on behalf of higher education. It also reminds us of Princeton’s obligation and opportunity to play a leadership role in public discussions about the value of research and collegiate education today. Those debates are urgently important to the nation, to the world, and to this University’s mission.

Long-term institutions, be they educational or political, can flourish only if they inspire energetic commitment in the short term. Madison knew this. Even “the most rational government,” he said, must have the “prejudices of the community on its side.”

In his famous debates with Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln called attention to this country’s annual celebrations on the Fourth of July. He insisted that the “cannon which thunders [the] annual joyous return” of our independence serves to remind us of the basic principles upon which this country is founded and which unite us as a people. Civic pride, and the colorful and noisy celebrations that go with it, can reshape self-interest and motivate people to care about their collective future.

We, too, at Princeton have traditions of joyous return. We even have cannons — though our most famous one is buried deep in the ground behind Nassau Hall and none of them thunder anymore. But joyous return: We do that very well. “Going back to Nassau Hall” is woven into the music and the soul of this place. We go back to Nassau Hall for Reunions, for Commencement and Baccalaureate, for Alumni Day and the Service of Remembrance, and occasionally for special ceremonies like this one. In so doing, we renew the camaraderie that enlivens our commitment to this University, and we rededicate ourselves to the principles for which Princeton stands and upon which it depends. Prominent among them are these basic convictions:

  • That liberal arts education is a vital foundation for both individual flourishing and the well-being of our society;
  • That residential and extracurricular experience both supplement and reinforce the lessons of the classroom, building character and skills that last a lifetime;
  • That rigorous research and scholarship are indispensable for understanding the human condition and improving the world;
  • That learning, discovery, and understanding are valuable not only instrumentally but also for their own sake, as sources of the joy and fulfillment that make a human life worth living;
  • That scholarship and teaching are mutually reinforcing activities — that scholars learn from their students’ questions, and that students learn best when they are exposed to, and can participate in, research that extends the frontiers of knowledge;
  • That we must cultivate new generations of talent enthusiastically and unselfishly;
  • That all social and economic groups should have access to the educational resources of this great University and to higher education more generally;
  • That we as a University, and we as alumni, must constantly rededicate ourselves to the nation’s service and to the service of all nations; and last, but most certainly not least,
  • That a great university can and should be the heart of an alumni community that not only engages in a lifetime of learning, leadership, and service, but that continues to do all it can to sustain, strengthen, and nourish this University — ensuring that it can live up to these principles and achieve its highest aspirations through all the generations yet to come.

I am honored to accept the presidency of this, our beloved University, and I will work with you enthusiastically to sustain the excellence of what we are doing now; to realize more perfectly the ideals to which we are committed; and to demonstrate by argument and deed the extraordinary value of Princeton University, and of all the colleges and universities that help to bring out the best in the people of this country and this world.

Thank you for welcoming me so warmly this afternoon, thank you for coming back once more to Nassau Hall, and thank you, most of all, for your sincere commitment to this place and this community that matter so deeply to all of us.