As I stood in a fifteen-minute line for Nomad Pizza last Sunday at the installation celebration for President Eisgruber, I felt more like I was at Chris’s personal episode of “My Super Sweet Sixteen” than his inauguration. There was a famous band whose booking agent lists their price at over $100,000, free pizza and ice cream, bubble tea, and tons of Princeton swag. I wondered whether former Princeton presidential installations were similarly extravagant. Did Shirley Tilghman also get to choose her preferred musical act, or create her own custom Thomas Sweet ice cream flavor? Was her installation an all-day party with free food from Nassau Street? I wondered whether previous presidents also used this rare occasion to further indulge Princeton students and demonstrate just how much school funding goes toward providing us with meaningless privileges.
I googled Tilghman’s installation and found that it had occurred on September 28, 2001, just over two weeks after the terrorist attacks of September 11th. As one might imagine, her speech was somewhat more somber and there was no equivalent afterparty, nor any celebration at all, it seems. The speech focused on the university’s relationship to the world and all its traumas. Where does the idyllic world of Princeton fit in the mess of current events? Tilghman took a stand on this, stating, “The medieval image of the university as an ivory tower, with scholars turned inward in solitary contemplation, immunized from the cares of the day, is an image that has been superseded by the modern university constructed not of ivory, but of a highly porous material, one that allows free diffusion in both directions. The academy is of the world, not apart from it.” Post-9/11, Tilghman found it important to remind Princeton of its role in the world. Post-9/11, her ideal Princeton would not be an insular, ivory tower. But, interestingly, Tilghman was not speaking of an ideal Princeton, but of what she considered to be the real Princeton. She was not professing that the university should strive to be of the world; rather, she was describing how it is of the world. Perhaps the tragic and confusing events had spurred her to speak about Princeton with hopeful confidence. I would speculate that 9/11, as an attack on American soil, was so foundation-shattering as to force the Princeton population to engage with the world in its aftermath.
Twelve years later, upon her successor’s installation, Tilghman’s hopeful confidence would seem more like delusion. Based on President Eisgruber’s speech and the ensuing festivities, the notion that Princeton needs to endeavor to be an active and benevolent participator in the world seems to have been lost to some extent. I wonder whether we have become desensitized to the world and the tragedies that just seemed to multiply after 9/11, whether we have lost the motivation to remain a part of it in favor of forging a better future for ourselves.
While Eisgruber spoke about the benefits of a liberal arts education for society as a whole, he also emphasized liberal arts education as a worthy investment for the individual, highlighting the economic and personal benefits of the university. Strangely, he seemed to openly portray Princeton as a corporation and students as investors seeking individual gain. In this analogy, Princeton is not only an experience or an institution, but a commodity. In this respect and in others, his speech was inward-facing, especially in comparison with Tilghman’s. He of course did not forget to tack on our motto, “Princeton in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations,” but Princeton’s service to its students seemed to be a greater focus. The “service to all nations” part was also difficult to believe considering the emphasis placed on American cultural history. As a former professor of constitutional law, he spoke much about the U.S. Constitution, and mentioned the likes of James Madison and Abraham Lincoln, referring to them as heroes.
Eisgruber’s speech was not without merit—he rather convincingly argued the value of higher education, and took care to mention its benefits not only for the individual, but also for the common good. He implied that we look to higher education in order to shape and improve ourselves, and that this in turn improves society and helps the
world. But this message does not push us as individuals to look outside ourselves. In fact, it permits us to be satisfied with what we are doing, to be okay with letting ourselves be spoiled and not really spend time considering our role in the world during our time at Princeton. And what was his celebration but an emphasis upon just how inward-focused we are here? I heard other students and myself complaining about how long lines were to get ice cream, and how they ran out of the free class of 2016 water bottles—about stuff it is silly for us to be given in the first place. In what ways does this help improve our civic-mindedness, our education, or anything but our pursuit of pleasure?