In this Thursday, April 25, 2013 photo, Christopher L. Eisgruber, Princeton University’s provost for the past nine years, speaks during an interview, in Princeton, N.J. Princeton President Shirley M. Tilghman has announced that Eisgruber will be her replacement, becoming the University’s 20th president, effective July 1. Eisgruber succeeds Tilghman, who last fall announced her intention to step down at the end of this academic year after completing 12 years in office. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
PRINCETON, N.J. (AP) — Princeton University is getting a new president, but unlike many other institutions where there’s change at the top, the Ivy League university is hardly at a crossroads.
While other universities have struggled to balance their budgets since the Great Recession, Princeton has leaned on a $17 billion endowment to keep bringing in top students and sending them out into the world with no debt thanks to a no-loan financial aid program.
Other universities talk about improving their scholarships and increasing their reputations. Princeton tops the U.S. News and World Report university rankings nearly every year, and when it doesn’t it’s a close second behind Harvard University.
So what’s left for Christopher Eisgruber, who takes the helm in July, to do?
For one thing, he said, as the president of one of the world’s top universities, he needs to help sell the idea of a liberal arts education in a time when critics say it’s not a good investment.
“I’m convinced it’s very [auth] worthwhile to go to college. It’s very worthwhile in terms of what it means for your vocational and career aspirations, and it’s very worthwhile in terms of the capacity to lead a meaningful life and flourish,” Eisgruber said in an interview. “But we’re going to have to do a better job going forward of explaining why that’s so and how we can show it’s so.”
He said the university, which has about 7,500 undergraduate and graduate students, needs to navigate how to use online classes and should consider expansion while its legendary return on investment for its endowment can still be counted on.
Hunter R. Rawlings III, the former president of Cornell University and now president of the Association of American Universities, said Eisgruber may also want to consider whether Princeton should follow other universities that have increased their international presences and launched technology incubators.
But the main thing Eisgruber needs to do, Rawlings said, is make decisions swiftly.
“Let’s face it, change is coming to higher ed now really, really fast,” Rawlings said. “In the old days we could take our time. Universities have to be much more nimble.”
Eisgruber, 51, first came to Princeton in 1979 after being rejected by his top choice, Stanford University. He graduated as a physics major, earned a law degree from the University of Chicago and served as a clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens. A scholar who has focused on religious freedom and the Supreme Court, he joined the faculty at his alma mater in 2001 and has spent the last nine years as provost, the top academic and budget officer. He was named the university’s 20th president on April 21.
Current President Shirley Tilghman, who in 2001 became the first woman to be president of Princeton, announced last year that she was stepping down after the university wrapped up a five-year capital campaign that raised $1.88 billion. During Tilghman’s time, Princeton put in policies to deal with grade inflation; barred first-year students from joining fraternities and sororities, which aren’t officially recognized; and reached a settlement in a high-profile lawsuit from a family that contended the university was misusing its massive gift.
The spending of that money is highly visible on campus, with one area being remade as an arts center. Another project in the works will refurbish an old building to be used for economics classes and international affairs.
Eisgruber said he expects more expansion at the university, which generally accepts fewer than 1 in 10 undergraduate applicants.
He spoke in his office in Nassau Hall, a 1756 ivy-covered landmark that once was the only building on campus. He pointed that out to note that Princeton has always grown.
He said it’s the university’s “moral obligation” to find ways to reach more students.
The challenge, he said, is doing it in a way that keeps the university’s sense of community and in a way that the university can afford. While the university has a bigger endowment per student than any other, Eisgruber said it’s unfair to expect it to grow the way it did in the three decades leading up to the Great Recession, when it averaged 15 percent annual returns.
Eisgruber said Princeton is a warmer place than it was when he began as a student 34 years ago, in part because of a push to become more inclusive.
Through its financial aid policy, only students from well-off families pay the full sticker price of more than $50,000 annually for room and board. Others pay essentially what they’re deemed to be able to afford, and the majority receive some assistance.
One way to reach more students, Eisgruber said, could be through online classes. Princeton, like many other universities, is offering lectures online. But it’s not awarding credits or certificates for those who partake.
Lectures, Eisgruber said, are just one part of what makes a Princeton education. He said there are a few features of life at Princeton from his undergraduate days he wishes current students could experience: Full faculty members sometimes served as discussion leaders for colleagues’ classes, it was more common for non-recruited athletes to walk on and join sports teams and students weren’t so competitive from the moment they arrived on campus.
But the last part, he said, is unlikely to change.