Aspire – The Largest Fundraising Campaign in University History, and It’s Not For You

by Chris Goodnow ’14

“Aspire” is an intentionally ambiguous term, a word that forces our eyes to grow wide and our hearts to croon with optimism as we revel not in the substance of our aspirations, but in the sheer act of aspiring. Given this spirit of the word “aspire,” it is perfectly befitting that President Tilghman has named the University’s current fundraising campaign “Aspire, A Plan for Princeton,” a $1.75 billion effort to “enhance the programs and commitments that form the core of the Princeton experience,” according to the Aspire Campaign website. The campaign boasts six strategic areas to specify this overarching goal: “Annual Giving,” “Engineering and a Sustainable Society,” “Exploration in the Arts,” “New Frontiers in Neuroscience,” “Citizenship in the World,” and “The Princeton Experience.” Each of these goals is undeniably meritorious in both concept and motive, yet their benefit to us, the undergraduate community, is dubious. Therefore, we are left to wonder whether Aspire wishes to uphold and strengthen Princeton’s commitment to undergraduate education, or whether it seeks to metamorphose Princeton into the behemoth research university that so many of us purposely avoided by electing to matriculate here.

Most apropos of this increasingly potent identity crisis is the “Engineering and a Sustainable Society” objective, a $325 million initiative within the Aspire Campaign to thrust Princeton to the forefront of “green” research and exploration through interdisciplinary collaboration between the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, the Woodrow Wilson School, and the Princeton Environmental Institute. This strategic area is in large part funded by a $100 million donation made by Gerhard Andlinger ’52, who claimed that his hope in establishing the “Center for Energy and the Environment” was to find “cleantech solutions to the most important problems facing our society today.” It is nearly universally accepted, at least here among the Princeton community, that our country and our world must begin to utilize effective and affordable alternatives to fossil fuels as our primary source of energy, and Aspire makes it wholly evident that Princeton strives to be a leader in pursuing this lofty goal.

At the same time, however, it provides no strategy as to how undergraduates will be involved with this ambitious project. While all of us had the aspiring scientist in our information session that asked if there were opportunities for undergraduate research, and we all remember the peppy admissions officer who relayed the usual list of University-approved responses, we must realistically admit that few undergraduates will be doing this world-altering research. Indeed, it seems inevitable that the more ground-breaking the research, the less accessible it will be to students, rightfully leaving this task to Princeton’s brilliant faculty and scientists. While a group of undergraduates, albeit a very selective and small group, will be included as assistants and have an unparalleled learning opportunity, the vast majority of the student body will not benefit directly from this initiative. As if to preempt this argument, the Aspire website makes a wide and unsubstantiated claim that this initiative will “make engineering an essential component of every undergraduate’s experience.” However, there is no specific plan provided as to how engineering will be integrated into our academic life, and it seems unlikely that engineering will play much of a role in the experience of students who elect to concentrate in humanities-based majors such as philosophy or comparative literature.

This commitment to revolutionary scientific inquiry is also manifest in “New Frontiers in Neuroscience,” a $300 million initiative to create the “Neuroscience Institute” that will “assume a preeminent role in fundamental aspects of brain research.” Currently, Princeton only has a certificate program in neuroscience that is affiliated with the psychology department, so one would logically assume that under this initiative the University would be planning to create a neuroscience department. President Tilghman was even so bold as to proclaim, “We cannot be a great university in this century without a major presence in neuroscience,” leading undergraduates to believe that we would have new opportunities to study this fascinating field. While this may be in the back of the University’s mind, all literature concerning this initiative points to studying and researching the brain, not teaching undergraduates.

Together with the engineering initiative, the $625 million that will be spent on scientific advancements in the Aspire Campaign are not primarily directed to edify the undergraduate academic experience, but to propel Princeton to the forefront of scientific fields. Quite frankly, this shift in focus and increased expenditure in new scientific advances would be welcomed if we were merely a company or laboratory. However, we are not only a vehicle to investigate scientific inquiry, but also a university whose central purpose is to instruct and equip all undergraduates so that we may effectively fulfill our motto, “in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations.” Unfortunately, the largest portion of the Aspire budget is less concerned with this central tenant and more reminiscent of a mere research institution.

Raising these probing concerns and anatomizing the central aims of Aspire ultimately leads to this most basic question: why is it a necessary element of the University’s future? In response to this question, Justin Harmon ’78, the Assistant Vice President of Development for Development Relations for the Aspire Campaign, wrote in an email to the Tory that, “universities have to grow and adapt as knowledge grows and the questions that drive us change.” His comment almost exactly parallels former President of the University Harold Shapiro’s remark that “if Princeton stood still, it would actually be moving backwards.”

Both of these ideals are unequivocally true; Princeton must adapt and grow as society dictates so that we may continue to be at the forefront of educational and academic advances throughout the world. However, growth must not only involve outward expansion and facilities construction, but also a deepening of our abilities to teach and think as world issues and fields of inquiry become undeniably more complex. Although Princeton professors are excellent, there must be a continuing commitment to improve our teaching quality, for the problems we face, whether they be mathematical conundrums or financial crises, are becoming rapidly more difficult. And Aspire does certainly address these issues, with portions of the $250 million “Princeton Experience” initiative that will be spent on professorships, endowed preceptorships, and freshman seminars. However, these developments should be at the forefront of any fundraising campaign, not a cursory afterthought.

Beyond these discussions of Aspire’s purpose and its implications in deciding the identity of the University, there are also financial implications that must be discussed if we are to have a full understanding of the campaign’s impact. Due to the economic recession, there are currently $170 million worth of budget cuts that have been shouldered by nearly all the academic departments on campus. These include the elimination of many department-scheduled trips and scholarly activities, reduced summer research opportunities for undergraduates, incentivized retirement packages for some faculty members, and many other cost-cutting initiatives. Unfortunately, although the endowment was recently reported to have grown 14.7 percent in the last fiscal year, Provost Christopher Eisgruber ’83 has definitively stated that while no new budget cuts will need to be made, those in place cannot be alleviated. Ironically, however, the University is prepared to spend nearly $2 billion in expanding science, arts, and other programs through the Aspire Campaign, raising even further doubts as to whether the administration is more focused on celebrating a monumental fundraising event than on returning our academic departments to their former levels of funding. Although Aspire funds are not directly transferrable into the University budget, even Princeton donors have limits to the amount they are willing to contribute, and so by emphasizing Aspire, the administration is inadvertently diverting money from other purposes. If the University is to be truly undergraduate-oriented, considerations for our academic departments, which are the core of this institution, must be considered above all campaigns or expansion. Even in its financial policies, there is a disconnect between what Princeton appears to be and what it aspires to become.

At its roots, the Aspire Campaign is not a diabolical plot to undermine the undergraduate population here at Princeton, but a manifestation of the incredibly strong and profound support for the University from faculty and alumni alike. This critique of Aspire is not a referendum on motives, which are pure and visionary, but a deeper analysis into the purpose and identity of the University. From this analysis, Aspire does reveal a deep identity crisis here at Princeton — whether to be the liberal arts college with which the admissions office woos undergraduates, or a research institution with which we attract the finest professors and researchers in the world. While Princeton cannot repudiate either function of a university and must therefore balance the two, Aspire upsets this balance with a disproportionate amount of funds being diverted to scientific and cultural advancements that at their core are not intended to benefit the undergraduate community. While science and research initiatives must be actively pursued, investments in people, in the students at Princeton, will yield far greater rewards.

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