From the PAW Archives: March 1969

Robert F. Goheen ’40 *48
Ulli Steltzer
Last weekend’s Alumni Day festivities called to mind another moment on the timeline of Princeton’s march toward coeducation. Fifty years ago, President Robert Goheen ’40 *48 used his Alumni Day remarks to speak with “the Princeton family” about the trustees’ recent vote in favor of undergraduate coeducation. “Like any family we may have our disagreements, and like any family we find some kinds of change hard to take,” said Goheen. “But change is built into any healthy organization of human beings, and change has been a part of Princeton since its beginnings.”

In explaining the need for coeducation, Goheen spoke of both the social enviroment and academic life of the campus, saying that “the horizons of understanding [are] opened wider when men and women study together as equals.” And he looked toward the future, predicting that, “As the twenty-first century moves in, the graduates of the Class of 1975 will have positions of responsibility in the nation — and perhaps the world. Women will increasingly share those responsibilities, which will be heavy indeed. … The wise direction of human affairs will call, more than ever, for women and men who can work together and who are used to working together.”

Read the full text of Goheen’s remarks below.

“The Real Princeton”

The 1969 Alumni Day address of President Robert Goheen ’40 *48

(From the March 11, 1969, issue of PAW)

If you are President of Princeton, you make a good many speeches in the course of a year. Some of them are of the ceremonial sort, where what you mainly do is put on a black tie, hack at something aptly called “iceberg lettuce,” and utter innocuous words. But there are other occasions to which you look forward — when you can talk directly with people with whom you want to talk. Alumni Day is one of these.

In its own, distinct way, it brings together the idea, the people, and the spirit that go to make up Princeton. It is not a formal ceremony, like Commencement or the Opening Exercises. It is not just a pleasantly informal gathering, like a class dinner. And certainly, it does not have the lure of autumn colors, or of Princeton in spring. The weather is seldom very good. Sometimes it is foul. Yet, without arm twisting, many alumni do come, and their wives, too, as you have today; and for a brief time you are in touch with what seems to me the real Princeton.

Let me try to justify the use of that term. Our morning lecture-discussions reflect the first and essential business if the University — the increase and enrichment of human understanding. No other institution in our society is so clearly dedicated to this purpose as is the university. To be sure, public libraries, independent research institutes, laboratories, and museums, and various government panels and bureaus all help to advance and to transmit knowledge. But none of these combines in quite the same way, as do the universities, the dual functions of learning and teaching. None are so vigorously — and simultaneously — engaged in advancing new knowledge, opening fresh insights into old knowledge, and helping to preserve the best that men have managed to think and do, down the long reaches of human effort. None are so concerned to lead students to discovering what it means to possess, in Professor Hubert Alyea’s words, “a prepared mind.” None are such dedicated guardians of that so precious thing in our society — the spirit of free inquiry.

It is tempting, when we hear words like “free inquiry,” “open discussion,” or “the right to dissent,” to nod our heads sagely, sink back contentedly, and hope that discussion and dissent will proceed apace, but without disturbing our well-ordered lives. We too easily forget the setbacks, the struggles, the anguish, even the bloodshed, that over the centuries have established the legitimacy of dissent, including free speech and a free press. This slow, hard process of achievement and its vulnerability at any time are things we should not forget.

In universities like this one, where today we enjoy so fully the freedom to search, to hear, to disagree, to test our ideas against others, we need be always aware that this freedom is ever on test. But it is no nervous, timorous recognition that is required. We put our chips with confidence on the University’s need to be a place for untrammeled, rational inquiry and debate — vigorously, even passionately pursued — a role that this University has carried since the days when John Witherspoon’s students were arguing the issues of the Revolutionary War. And if sometimes student views seem extreme — whether in the Daily Princetonian or elsewhere — let us have the temerity to let everyone speak his piece, knowing that finally truth will out.

Let me pause here, however, to recognize that the right to dissent can be warped and twisted by those who would use it as an instrument to wreck, rather than to build. Not a few campuses have recently been experiencing grim manifestations of this fact — where force has been substituted for argument and the rights of all have been contravened by the vehemence of the few. At Princeton, we have been spared this so far — probably as much by luck as by either skill or innate balance. But one salutary thing which this campus has been witnessing is an increasing involvement of both students and faculty in matters of policy, and one concrete product of this involvement is a jointly worked out statement of policy on this very issue of dissent and disruption, which was recently adopted by both the Faculty and the Undergraduate Assembly. (It must be understood that no statement — no matter how good or however broadly endorsed — is a guarantee against disruption of the campus. An explicit consensus and clear guidelines may, however, temper disruptive inclinations somewhat and strengthen collective ability to make sane and rational response, and this is what we have sought.)

Our statement applies to all members of the university community, not just the students, and says that anyone is free to speak, to petition, to pass out leaflets, to demonstrate, but not to the extent of blocking the essential business of the university or seriously infringing the rights of others. What our University community seeks to assert here, then, is the basic distinction between dissent and coercion — a distinction vital in the life of a truly free society, a distinction which is always in danger of being eroded by extremists of both the right and the left. Likewise, we are asserting that the university cannot be content merely to tolerate inquiry and discussion; it has an obligation to ensure and protect them.

The same points are made well by Charles Frankel in a recent book called Education and the Barricades. The use of any tactic which substitutes physical pressure or emotional duress for reason is an assault on the basic ethic of a, university, he points out, and he writes:

“Universities have to be so organized that force and violence are never present in them. In consequence, they have fewer defenses, and are peculiarly vulnerable, when these are employed. The reason for this defenselessness is profound. At the heart of a university is a fundamental assumption. It is that ideas should triumph within them, not people’s interests or demands, and that ideas triumph by meeting independent standards of logic and evidence, and not by political maneuvers, opinion-management, or the pressure of the mass will.”

These essential principles of free inquiry and rational discourse, which lie at the heart of any university worthy to bear the name, must be preserved. But given the very nature of a university and the importance of these principles to it, this defense cannot be accomplished by force — except in the short run, when stern measures may sometimes be the necessary expedient. The indispensable requirements for the longer run are good will, understanding, and a commitment to the basic purpose of the institution, on the part of many people both within and without it.

This takes me to the next part of the real Princeton of which I wish to speak — Princetonians themselves — for without human beings to embody them, our ideals and our purpose would have little bearing. First, the students — not only our prizewinners, our very able and competent waiters at this luncheon, the members of the athletic teams, the debaters in Whig Hall, but also all the many others not so much on display today. Let me say here that, in my view, they are altogether an impressive and remarkable body of young men.

Like their contemporaries on other campuses, many of them are restless and uncertain about the state of the world. One can hardly blame them. There is plenty to be uncertain about. Many are impatient, too, about the imperfections they see all around them, including those of the university itself. We cannot downgrade them for that. There is room and need for improvement in many quarters. In a few students, to be sure, restlessness has boiled into a steady state of righteous indignation (self-righteous, I might say), and discontent has hardened into antagonism. And I must confess that under its former board, the Daily Princetonian at times seemed to me not a little crusty and perversely ill-tempered. But the fuming zealots are but a small fraction of a student body which has hardly been matched in ability, in enterprise, and in concern for their fellow students and for the university.

Much good student effort has been felt this year, and much of it behind the scenes, in committees seeking to contribute fruitfully to the development of the intellectual and social life of Princeton, and in many efforts to assist others, in this and in nearby communities. So, I welcome the chance to express plainly and emphatically my respect for, and confidence in, today’s generation of students. They are taking their studies seriously; they care about the welfare of their fellowmen; and, incidentally, they also seem to know how to enjoy themselves — which is all right with me!

Having spoken of our students, I must complete the picture by noting that with us today are representatives of other not unimportant segments of our university community — the Faculty and the Administration and a good many of our Trustees. Finally, since it is Alumni Day, we have a large contingent of that most remarkable, enthusiastic, and loyal body of people — the alumni of Princeton.

These several groups are sometimes called “the Princeton family.” Like any family we may have our disagreements, and like any family we find some kinds of change hard to take. But change is built into any healthy organization of human beings, and change has been a part of Princeton since its beginnings. As one looks back through the pages of Professor Wertenbaker’s History, the record is one of continual change, some of it almost imperceptible, some of it more radical — as the decision to become a university, long sought by James McCosh and finally ratified in 1896. It was on the commemoration of that turning point that Woodrow Wilson spoke so eloquently of “Princeton in the Nation’s Service.”

Today, Princeton is a national institution, and in this ever smaller globe, a world institution. Where our resources permit it, where the need is clear and consonant with our basic purposes, the university is in the service of mankind. Our departments of instruction, including the Schools of Architecture, of Engineering and Applied Science, and the Woodrow Wilson School, are all engaged in this service, and are giving advanced preparation to people who will find careers throughout the country and, very likely, in all corners of the earth.

All this is part of the context in which stands our newest undertaking — the education of women at the undergraduate level. Speaking of change and of differences of opinion within the family! Here there are some very decided opinions — pro and con! Nor has it been an easy question to decide. It would have seemed easy to have dragged our feet, but I assure you that soon our tranquility would have been disturbed by insistent faculty, concerned students, and a good many alumni, demanding to know why we didn’t face up to the opportunity and the challenge so clearly before us.

Well, we have faced up to it, and I think in the right way: through careful study, through a good many months of deliberation, and through a clear decision by the Trustees. While it has proved a most complex matter, the essential question is not hard to identify. It is whether the education we offer — not just the social conveniences — will be better, if both women and men take part. It has become increasingly clear to us that it will — that it will make for a richer and more relevant educational experience at Princeton in the years ahead.

Let me try to say what I mean by this. First, we are convinced that, in many fields of learning, sensitivities can be sharpened, perceptions deepened, and the horizons of understanding opened wider when men and women study together as equals. This can be so in laboratory or lecture, preceptorial or seminar, whether the subject is sociology, biology, or the history of art.

Secondly, we believe that the presence of women will improve the quality of life on the campus. In recent decades, Princeton has greatly extended her intellectual power — her strength as a university. But in the eyes of students, faculty, and administration, campus living stands in need of repair — of a better chance for a relaxed, normal, social atmosphere with women as well as men present. The need goes deeper than the superficial things, the coffee session or library date. The need is for the presence of both sexes in the day-to-day life of the university as something natural and accepted, as against the forced and frenetic weekends that have become too much a part of the Princeton experience in recent years. No one supposes that the presence of women will miraculously and instantaneously civilize and sanitize every grubby corner of campus life, but there is good reason to think that it will make it better.

Monday’s Daily Princetonian said, commenting on the recent “Coeducation Week,” “It showed the sceptics that a girl can indeed make cogent remarks in precept. … For one week Princeton was a more humane place to go to school — the people were friendlier, the frustrations fewer. The whole campus seemed more natural.” Put very briefly, that is what I mean by a better educational experience — better intellectually and better in human terms.

The question of the education of women at Princeton reaches, however, beyond the boundaries of our campus, and points to what students will need to deal with in the world they inherit from us. As one alumnus wrote to me last month, “The maintenance of our own culture will depend largely on our capacity to have well educated men and women in large numbers. In order they can work together comfortably and not simply be trying to score victories over each other in parlor debates, it would be well if they all started out together.”

As the twenty-first century moves in, the graduates of the Class of 1975 will have positions of responsibility in the nation — and perhaps the world. Women will increasingly share those responsibilities, which will be heavy indeed. It will be, we can expect, an age of even more sophisticated technologies and even more complicated organizations, where much will depend on the ability to bring human sensitivity, insight, and breadth of judgment to the complex, technically precise — but perhaps chilly and impersonal — working of a society geared to high-speed computers. The wise direction of human affairs will call, more than ever, for women and men who can work together and who are used to working together. A Princeton which had assumed no part in educating both women and men for that era — not so far off — would in retrospect have been shortsighted in the extreme.

Like you, I am nostalgic about the campus I knew and loved in my undergraduate days. At the same time, I look forward with fullest confidence, and no misgivings, to a Princeton which will be playing a full role in the higher education of the future, and will at the same time maintain her own strong character and identity.

And if I may be so rash as to make a prediction, I shall be bold to say that our University will experience and embrace this change gracefully, as it usually has. The real Princeton of which I have been speaking, where inquiry and argument flourish and people unite to give their best efforts, will go forward — with men and women — in all its intellectual power, its humanity, and its spirit.

I have chosen those last words carefully, for, as all of you who know and love her will attest, the real Princeton is found not alone in her power and outreach as a university, or in the splendid association of human beings comprising the family of Princetonians, but finally also in the remarkable and intangible spirit of the place. That is something in which we all share. It continues through change and succeeding generations. It is in the air right here today, and will be part of the Princeton of tomorrow.