President Eisgruber: A Year in Review

Eisgruber

At the February meeting of the Council of the Princeton University Community, President Eisgruber outlined the challenges facing Princeton in the next decade and how he plans to address them. The “significant trends” he believes to be influential in the arena of higher education, and to which he feels Princeton must respond, include “growing inequality in American society,” “online technology changing the educational sector,” “partisanship and budget pressure in Washington,” “possibility of long-term economic stagnation,” and “political skepticism about the value of liberal arts education and basic research.” The trajectory Eisgruber seems to want for Princeton flows directly from his focus on these trends. His challenge in addressing these issues will be to preserve the many aspects of Princeton that make it so special to its students as he carries our tradition of excellence into the future.

Eisgruber’s response to the trend of inequality and its manifestation at Princeton, both socioeconomically and racially, could have the most apparent impact on everyday life on campus. Our president seems to see it as inevitable that the student body will continue to expand, and he views this growth is the natural means by which to achieve his goal of increasing diversity. Speaking during Reunions last year, Eisgruber said, “It always behooves us to be asking the question, ‘Is it possible to say yes to a few more students?’ rather than simply asking the question, ‘Should we say yes to a different group of students?’”

While there is precedent for this belief—the class size has grown by 125 students under each of the previous presidents—Eisgruber should recognize the effects such an expansion could have on the Princeton experience. The unintended over-enrollment of the Class of 2016 ushered in a hasty period of construction in many campus buildings in order to guarantee beds for every member of the incoming class, a project that led to the destruction of many common spaces like TV lounges across campus, as well as the Wilson Art Studio. Increasing class sizes could raise other challenges as well—anyone who has struggled to find a seat in some of the larger lecture classes knows that the University is already at its limit in terms of classroom space. Finally, the growth of class size could tax both students and professors when it comes to advising for independent work, especially in popular departments like economics and history, where many professors must already advise several students.

On a related note, as a means of increasing the class size, Eisgruber has also proposed that Princeton begin a transfer program for military veterans and community college students, a move that would likely have many ramifications for the Princeton experience as we know it. Before expanding the class size, Eisgruber must address all of these considerations: that the residential college buildings must provide more to the student body than simply rooms to sleep in, that the University’s large lecture spaces are already stretched to their limit, and that Princeton’s hallmark ability as a small top-tier college to facilitate student-faculty contact could be jeopardized by the addition of more students. While providing more students with access to a Princeton education could certainly address some of Eisgruber’s concerns regarding inequality, he must be careful that the quality of that Princeton education is not lessened in the process.

In addition to expanding the student body, Eisgruber has shown much interest in introducing online learning into Princeton courses, often citing Princeton’s involvement in the online learning platform Coursera as an example of where we could move in the future. In a lecture given to alumni last year, Eisgruber stated that he thought experiments with Coursera in Princeton courses “could actually increase the levels of [academic] engagement on campus.” He claims that “the faculty members participating in the Coursera experiment have been energized by this opportunity to reimage how they teach their courses.” Given such praise of Coursera’s use on campus so far, it appears that Eisgruber is eager to find new ways to improve the education Princeton provides by means of technology. However, the president must proceed with caution on this front as well in order not to upset the many benefits of traditional in-person lectures, such as the simple ability to ask questions of professors as they cover new material during lecture.

One more significant change Eisgruber is exploring concerns the nature and direction of the research done on campus. He outlines three possible paths of “academic investment” that he suggests would be the best opportunities for Princeton to “provide teaching and research relevant to long-term issues of fundamental importance.” He first questions whether Princeton can do more in the realm of sustainability and environmental research, areas that have already seen an increase of support from the University with the construction of the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment. Eisgruber also sees the University as having a greater role to play in the field of computer science itself and in its applications to other disciplines. Finally, Eisgruber gives a nod to the humanities and social sciences, asking whether Princeton is doing enough to “meet the demand for knowledge about society, culture, politics, and economics in diverse regions of the world” and to “design solutions for the crisis in American public education.” These examples gesture towards where we are likely to see the University’s energy and resources directed under the Eisgruber administration.

While President Eisgruber is certainly interested in introducing significant changes to the University in specific matters, in general he is seeking to preserve the status quo. For example, it appears unlikely that Eisgruber will seek to end of Princeton’s controversial grading policy. He prefers to refer to it instead as a “grading fairness policy” and believes it is necessary to “ensure…that grades convey real and meaningful information about performance.” While presenting on the topic of assessment at a meeting of the American Association of Universities, he asked other schools to join Princeton in implementing such a grading policy since, as he jokingly put it, “[Princeton] students never tire of pointing out that very few other institutions seem to care about assessment in this particular way.”

Also, and perhaps most importantly in terms of preserving the quality of a Princeton education, Eisgruber adamantly defends the value of the liberal arts education that this school provides from the economic and political pressures cited in the opening paragraph. He condemns “governments around the world [that] have unconscionably sacrificed humanities funding in the quest for short-term returns,” and during his Presidential installation, he called the liberal arts education “a vital foundation for both individual flourishing and the well-being of our society.” Indeed, Eisgruber even cited “fortify[ing] the humanities at a time when they are both urgently needed and under siege from policy-makers” as one of the challenges Princeton must confront in the coming years. Thus, it seems that Eisgruber’s plan for Princeton’s future seeks to change student life and how we learn in light of 21st century challenges while still preserving what we learn and the high standards by which we are assessed in light of the past successes of Princeton. It will be the challenge of Eisgruber’s presidency to maintain the delicate balance between preserving Princeton’s tradition of excellence on the vanguard of elite universities in educating the world’s leaders and seeking solutions to its problems.

Jeff Cady is a junior from Georgetown, Texas, majoring in the Physics Department. He can be reached at cady@princeton.edu.

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