First published in the October 2020 issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly.
Addressing the incoming class from my office in Nassau Hall
On August 30, I welcomed the Great Class of 2024 to Princeton University over Zoom. Here is what I told them. — C.L.E.
It is my pleasure to greet Princeton’s Great Class of 2024! Opening Exercises is always one of my favorite events of the year because our incoming students provide this University with a fresh burst of talent, imagination, and spirit.
We may be on Zoom right now instead of on campus, but I feel the same way this year. I cannot see you, but I know you are out there, a spectacular group of Tigers who will dazzle and amaze us over the coming years.
And though today you are literally dispersed throughout not only the country but indeed the world, I know that all of you are destined to come here to New Jersey and to this campus. I look forward to that day and to welcoming you to Princeton in person.
You are an extraordinary collection of people, and you begin your Princeton journey in unprecedented circumstances. Though none of us would have chosen this remote beginning to launch your Princeton experience, my expectation is that you will rise to the challenge, and that you will emerge as one of the special classes in this University’s history.
My expectation is that your class will be special because you, and all of us, are living through one of history’s pivotal moments. The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted life to an extent we have not seen since World War II. Your generation is not being required to risk your lives in battle, but you, like all of us, have been asked to make sacrifices, to adapt, and to do difficult things so that we not only persist successfully through this pandemic but indeed emerge from it stronger than before.
For our part, my colleagues and I on the faculty and in the administration are committed to finding new ways to teach, and to connect and build community with you. We want to make sure that you get the best education we can deliver in these challenging circumstances, and we are working with energy and creativity to do that.
We also recognize that you are doing something difficult, and admirable, by persisting with your education. Even in the best of times, learning requires hard work and commitment. A college education is not something that students receive or consume; it is something that you make, by investing your effort and your time to confront provocative questions, to understand complicated ideas, and to sharpen your thinking. That is part of what makes learning so challenging—the need to persist, to keep going, to put in the hard work even when it doesn’t feel like you’re making progress.
We know that these hard things get even harder when we cannot be on this campus studying together and supporting one another. That gives all of us a mission, a mission to create virtually the community that would normally exist physically, the community that helps us all to succeed and achieve our goals. We need to reach out to one another, connect with one another, support one another, as teachers and as students together. You have a responsibility to be there for each other—and both the opportunity, and the responsibility, to ask for help when you need it. We are here for you.
Creating this virtual community won’t be easy. It’s not something that any incoming Princeton class has ever had to do before. It’s not something for which there is a standard playbook. But I am confident we can do it together. You are, after all, Princeton’s Great Class of 2024, and I expect you will do many unprecedented and amazing things during your time as students and beyond.
To create an online community of learning, we need not only to develop personal connections but also to share certain values. One of the most important values, which will be the subject of your upcoming session about Princeton’s honor code, is academic integrity. That value has unified generations of Princetonians. I want to say a bit about academic integrity, because in the online environment that value becomes at once more demanding and more important than ever to the constitution of our community.
Academic integrity is about honesty. It is about telling the truth about how you came to your conclusions, and it is about standing up for what you believe. It means being clear about which ideas are your own, and which are not. It is about being true to other people by giving them credit for their ideas.
It is also about being true to yourself by taking full advantage of your education. As I said earlier, your education is what you make of it. No one learns anything by cheating.
I want to be clear about this: getting something wrong—that’s honorable. Trying hard and failing— that’s honorable. Failing is part of learning for all of us. My own freshman year here was really tough. You will find, as I did, that there are people here who understand what you are going through and who will support you. But cheating—that’s never okay, because it is a betrayal of the whole practice of learning.
Mutual respect is another value that defines Princeton as a community of scholarship and learning. That value is particularly important now, because you begin your college career not only during a pandemic, but in a period of political turbulence unlike any we have seen in the United States for at least fifty years.
When this summer began, people marched in the United States and around the world to protest the unjust killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Rayshard Brooks. As the summer concludes, the disturbing news continues: the nation has been outraged again after a Kenosha, Wisconsin, police officer shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back.
We are in the midst right now of a great national reckoning with America’s long history of racism. That reckoning, moreover, takes place during a bitterly contested, profoundly consequential presidential election that both political parties describe as a battle for the nation’s soul.
Historian Jill Lepore, the author of this year’s Princeton Pre-read, “This America: The Case for the Nation,” speaking with Tejas Gupta, a member of the Class of 2024, during the Pre-read assembly.
The American nation is, of course, the subject of this year’s Pre-read by Jill Lepore, who will speak with all of you later today. Her book’s opening epigraph is from the great historian W.E.B. DuBois. As you may remember, it goes this way:
Nations reel and stagger on their way; they make hideous mistakes; they commit frightful wrongs; they do great and beautiful things. And shall we not best guide humanity by telling the truth about all this, so far as the truth is ascertainable?
Few quotes are so apt to our moment. Our nation is indeed reeling and staggering. We need to be honest about our nation’s hideous mistakes and frightful wrongs, as well as about the things that make it great and beautiful.
We at this University must stand firmly against racism and for equality and justice. In late June, I asked the University’s leadership to consider how best we can combat systemic racism, and you will be hearing more from me about that work during the coming week and in the months ahead.
We also need, as part of our scholarly and teaching mission, to do what DuBois urged us to do. We must seek the truth about our nation and about racial justice. I invite all of you to embrace and participate in that conversation. Accepting that responsibility will require difficult and sensitive conversations, in class discussions and beyond. It will call upon us both to speak up bravely for what we believe and to treat those with whom we disagree with respect. In a time when the pandemic has rendered our interactions virtual and remote, we will need to find ways to connect humanely, sympathetically, and compassionately.
I have asked for a lot in my remarks this morning, I know. You become Princeton Tigers not in easy times but in hard ones. You have genuinely daunting challenges to confront. And you are up to it. I am confident of that—as I have said before, you will amaze us. To the Great Class of 2024: I am glad that you are Princetonians, and I look forward to getting to know you in the years ahead. Welcome to Princeton.