Presidential Installation: The Ideal of a Liberal Arts University

Sept. 22, 2013

As prepared for delivery on Sept. 22, 2013, on the front lawn of Nassau Hall

Friends, colleagues, students, teachers, Princetonians:

I am honored to be standing here this afternoon, and I am very touched, indeed a tad bit overwhelmed, by the generosity of the remarks delivered by the speakers who have preceded me at this podium. I am grateful for their gracious words. I am also honored by the presence here on stage of three great presidents of this University, Bill Bowen, Harold Shapiro and Shirley Tilghman.

In the past weeks, people have occasionally asked me whether I could have imagined, in the days when I was a student here, that I might someday be the University president. I reply very honestly that it never crossed my mind, not when I was a student and not, for that matter, when I returned to join the faculty in 2001. My dream job, both as a student and a faculty member, was to be a Princeton professor teaching about the Constitution. And, when my dream came true, when I came back to Princeton as a member of the faculty, I reckoned that I had been very clever. I thought that by becoming a law professor at a university without a law school, I had reduced if not eliminated any chance that large administrative assignments might ever distract me from the teaching and research that I loved.

Of course, by returning to Princeton, I had also come home to a university that I loved more than any other, and where the responsibilities of administration would be more meaningful to me than anywhere else. Princeton’s wonderful 19th president, Shirley Tilghman, realized that before I did, and she changed my life by offering me the opportunity to become her provost.

I suppose that all of us, as we move through this complicated world, require some time to realize what matters most in our lives. The path to and through adulthood takes unexpected turns. Childhood heroes show hidden flaws; youthful causes lose their luster. If we are lucky, though, 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 — even if it has now become an administrative office building into which few students ever venture. Nassau Hall was also briefly, in 1783, the home of the Continental Congress, and so the seat of this nation’s government. And Nassau Hall was, as Hunter Rawlings has so movingly described, the site where James Madison (undergraduate Class of 1771, graduate Class of 1772) acquired the learning that eventually made him the father of America’s Constitution.

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 one of the most famous passages from 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, Fed. 51; Rossiter ed. 322] 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 equally well 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. I am especially pleased that in attendance today are two teachers whose mentorship has guided me throughout my career: Mr. Pat Canan, who taught me physics at Corvallis High School; and Professor Jeffrey Tulis, who taught me about the Constitution and political theory when I was an undergraduate at this University.

I have kept in touch with both of these teachers for more than 30 years now. Thirty years is a long time. As I have already said, education, like constitutionalism, is a long-term enterprise. 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 short-term 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. And, as I have said in the past, great universities are also 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, and Princeton University must be boldly active within them.
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.” (Fed. 49, Rossiter 315).
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. [P. Angle, Created Equal: the Complete Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858, at 130 (Ottawa); see also id., at 40 (Chicago)]. 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.
I would not presume to enumerate all of those principles, but 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. Thank you!