“And so, gentlemen, as a business proposition what ought we to do? Take the money at the risk of having no graduate students, or get the graduate students at the risk of having no money? For a university man there is no choice between these two. Take the graduate students and do without the money!” - President Woodrow Wilson ’79

In acceptance of an invitation extended to him on January 9th, President Wilson was given a reception and delivered an address at the Princeton Club of New York on the evening of April 7th. The large dining rooms of the club were converted into an assembly hall for the occasion, with a rostrum at one end. Every seat was taken, and the crowd overflowed into adjoining rooms, about three hundred hearing the address. Applause greeted the President as he entered, and before and after his speech a locomotive was given in his honor, which was led by Alexander Moffat ’84. William W. Phillips ’95, Vice-President of the Club, presided, and introduced Dr. Wilson, who spoke for nearly an hour. A full stenographic report of his address and of Vice-President Phillips’ remarks is given below.

After the speechmaking the assembly adjourned to the handsome large grill room on the third floor, where the President spent about an hour in conversation with members of the club. In introducing Dr. Wilson, Vice-President Phillips said:

Gentlemen of the Princeton Club of New York:

I am up here to do three things. One is necessary; two are distinctly unnecessary. The necessary one I will get out of my system first: I have to ask that if any of the gentlemen here are connected with the honorable but spectacular profession of the press, they will please consider this, as a family part absolutely. It is the wish of Dr. Wilson, and also of the officers of this club, that nothing go from this room to-night to the New York papers. I think a word will be sufficient.

Now the two unnecessary things. The first is to express to Dr. Wilson a hearty welcome from the Princeton Club of New York (prolonged applause). The second is even more unnecessary: it is to introduce to you Dr. Woodrow Wilson, the President of our beloved Princeton (Applause and “a locomotive for the President of the University.”)

President Wilson’s Address

Mr. Phillips and Gentlemen:

It is a great pleasure to me to have an opportunity to speak to the Princeton Club of New York. The occasions upon which I have had that privilege have been all too infrequent: and it is particularly delightful to come to you when you are interested in a purely educational question. I know, of course, what the question lying at the back of your minds is reducible to. You say, “It is all very well and very interesting to talk about educational ideals; but it is bad business to refuse half a million dollars.” And I understand my task to night to be expound to you, if I can, what the business of a university means.

It is not in any ordinary sense a business undertaking; and the present situation of Princeton is not only a very interesting one, but if I may be permitted to say so, a very critical one. I do not mean critical in respect of internal dissensions; for they, gentlemen, are always susceptible of adjustment; honest men can always come to an understanding with one another. I mean that the situation is critical in respect of Princeton’s standing among American universities – critical not in regard to what the men who love the university are saying, even though they may be sometimes saying unkind things of each other, but critical in respect of the reputation and position which the university shall occupy in the academic world of America.

You know that we have entered upon a new age in the development of American universities; and I ask your indulgence while I try to point out to you the main circumstances of difference between the past and the present in American university development, in order that I may show you what the critical question is which Princeton men must make up their minds to answer with regard to their own university.

The past age was dominated by one idea, embodied in the mind and thought of one of the greatest men who has appeared in the field of American education. I mean President Eliot of Harvard, I suppose that no man has more fully earned the reputation of being the most useful citizen of the country than he: for President Eliot, more than any other American citizen in the history of the country, I venture to say, has been enabled to draw the attention of this country to the most serious problems of its development and concentrate its thought upon those immaterial matters which concern it. Very much more deeply than any material problem can possibly concern it. His whole counsel has been fertile of suggestions as to the spiritual and intellectual development of America – a high and distinguished privilege. But his function was one of liberation. When he came upon the field every American college (for there were very few American universities) was committed to a definite curriculum of study, a very admirable curriculum of study in many respects, as the older men among our own fellows can abundantly testify, but a curriculum which about the middle of the last century – about 1850 – began to be an anachronism. For it was only about the middle of the last century that all that great body of modern studies came into existence which lie at the foundation of modern thinking and of modern civilization.

There was no place in the old curriculum for the great body of scientific study which now lies at the basis of our life and thought. It was absolutely necessary, therefore, that somebody should proclaim the new age, in which the old ideas had ceased to suffice; in which it was necessary to determine afresh the proper studies of mankind; in which all the rights of the human mind in which the new spheres of study should be vindicated, in new programs of study. It was necessary, in short, as I have often expressed it, that the universities should be forced to throw their doors open with an unlimited hospitality to all the subjects of modern study. That was the function of President Eliot. He battered down all the closed doors of the university world. He fought until he had destroyed all the established prejudices of academic men. He insisted that there was no body of learning which by reason of traditional prejudices had precedence over any other body of learning; that we must be catholic in our reception, and not only so, but that we must afford the young men of our age new and extraordinary liberty of approach to this great and varied bill of fare of the modern mind. He insisted upon liberty in respect of the makeup of university studies and liberty in respect of the approach of undergraduates and graduates alike to those bodies of study.

How completely he accomplished his task I need not tell you. But after that task was accomplished it was absolutely necessary that there should be plans of re-coordination; for a miscellaneous, unclassified, unorganized body of studies is not suitable for the education of rising generations. There is a natural sequence of studies, there is a natural hierarchy of studies, there is a natural combination of studies; I mean natural as based upon the nature of the studies themselves. It was possible during the long agge of experiment through which we have now passed to discover what these normal relations were; and it was our bounden duty as intellectual men, when we had discovered them, to act upon the discovery by programs which were constructive.

President Eliot’s time was not the time for constructive programs: it was not proper that it should be. President Eliot’s task was chiefly a task of breaking down barriers, not of setting up systems. But by the time his task was finished the whole academic world was quick with the idea that somebody must now undertake to organize this unorganized, not to say disorganized, body of university studies. It was just about at that period, just when all the academic world was waiting for somebody to take the initiative, that Princeton decided to step forward and take it. Princeton stepped forward and did what did not at the time attract your attention. It reorganized the curriculum. It reorganized the whole body of undergraduate studies; and it did so by a process which did more than anything else I have ever had any connection with to draw the university body itself together as an organism.

That new program of study was the product of common counsel as completely as anything was that I have ever known of- of common counsel in the faculty of Princeton University; and when it was completed, the men in the teaching force at Princeton felt that they formed an organism that signified something which expressed their impulse and their principles as an organic body. And the example they then set, the program they conceived, has had a profound influence throughout America. Then for the first time the academic world in America found a university that was ready to lead in this new direction; and it welcomed the leadership, it hailed the leadership as something that was absolutely indispensable for them all.

The Princeton followed that up with a new method of study, a new method of instruction suitable to the new program of study, in what we have become familiar with as the preceptorial system. There, again, we seem to have made a deep impression upon the academic world of America – not because there was anything strictly original in the ideas we adopted, but, rather, because they were definite and workable ideas. Our Princeton faculty was accorded leadership in a new age of reconstruction, not by reason of extraordinary capacity, or extraordinary excellence in its personnel, but by reason of its agreement upon constructive ideas.

A constructive program, give it but time enough, will always win against criticism and destructive programs. One of the most interesting books of recent years is Mr. Oliver’s biography of Alexander Hamilton; and one of the most interesting passages in that biography is where he points out that no opposition could really defeat Alexander Hamilton, whether he was in office or not, because he alone had a constructive program. Others either had to submit to chaos or follow Hamilton. The faculty that can conceive a constructive program can neither be ignored nor defeated: and Princeton had a constructive program.

But constructive programs go only a certain distance: the constructive program of the man who tries to give concrete embodiment to the conceptions of the artist depends upon his material. If he cannot get abundant material, and if he cannot get suitable material, it is of no use to him that he has had the vision, that he knows what he would like to do with the material when he gets it: he has not got it.

Princeton had a great body of undergraduates attached to it by all sorts of ties which are not affected by programs of study. Take any one of the older institutions of this country and the young men pour into it because of all sorts of influences permeating homes, permeating preparatory schools, embodied in the air and gossip of the land: here is a place to which, time out of mind, youngsters have resorted and from which, when they come away, they bring a strong and abiding affection which illustrates to all the rest of the world how good it was for young men to be there. You cannot break that tradition. You can hardly mar that tradition, by any occasional disturbance or doubt or question mark put opposite the process; and therefore Princeton can do what she pleases with her undergraduates. She is not going to lose her clientage by doing what she thinks is wise with the young men who resort to her for undergraduate instruction.

But we had not done. What I have tried to outline had some very important consequences with regard to what Princeton was preparing to do beyond the field of undergraduate instruction. Princeton did not recruit an already distinguished faculty with men of national distinction in their fields of study, and with a great body of younger scholars, the preceptors, recognized as the rising scholars of the universities from which we had drawn them to make up our preceptorial force, without bringing Princeton to the budding point, to the blooming point, in respect of that further development for which we have waited and prayed. These men were too many of them originative scholars to remain satisfied with the routine of undergraduate instruction. In order to satisfy them, in order to keep them, it was necessary that we should do what we were only too eager to do; namely, go forward and take that step which would complete our title to be called a university and develop a great graduate school. If you will look into the catalogue of the University, you will find, I believe that the majority of courses offered for graduate students aer offered by these very men, these rising scholars whom we have drawn to Princeton to give preceptorial instruction; and they can not be intellectually satisfied unless they can have a great body of graduate students upon which to expend their original powers.

Princeton, therefore, was just in the position where, to satisfy her own needs, it was necessary to do more than she had done: it was impossible she should stop there. But we did not have the graduate students. From 1892 until a year ago this month, the number of graduate students in Princeton University devoting their whole time to graduate study had hardly noticeably increased at all: it had run along the 40 line, a little below or a little above. During that same period a university which had been offering no more than Princeton offered had built up her graduate numbers from 76 to 385: I mean Yale University. What was the difference? Princeton was offering graduate courses just as Yale was; Princeton had men whom the scholars of the country knew to be a capable of giving graduate instruction as the Yale faculty were; graduate student went to Yale; they did not come to Princeton. What was the explanation?

There are several explanations. In the first place, the organization of graduate work at Princeton was not of a character to give us success in that field. The graduate school of Princeton University was, by the by-laws of the Board of Trustees, kept during most of those years in the hands of a single officer, who chose his own committee form the faculty of the University; and the faculty of the University (I speak by the book) felt that it had nothing to do with the matter. The energy and enthusiasm of the faculty was not behind the enterprise. That continued to be the case until one year ago, when the organization was changed, and was put in the hands of the faculty or the first time since these new impulses had come upon Princeton. In that single year the number of students devoting themselves wholly to graduate work has almost doubled; the faculty has begun to undertake things that it never undertook before. Almost every department now has a committee devoted to promoting the interests of graduate study in that department, not only by a reconsideration of the courses given, but also by the perfectly legitimate method, as I conceive it, of recruiting through correspondence on the part of members of our own faculty with person friends of theirs in the faculties of colleges which have no graduate departments, for the purpose of calling their attention to the fact that if they have promising students who wish to do advanced work, we have advanced courses which it is worth their while to consider; and by that very simple, natural, and legitimate process we have begun to get many excellent graduate students from the colleges with which we do not come into competition in respect of graduate study.

That process has just begun. But you can not have graduate students for the beckoning. Graduate students do not come from preparatory schools from which they drift with groups of chums to this or that university. Graduate students are mature men; they are looking around for what they want; and they will not take anything else. As a business proposition, therefore, I want to lay this consideration before you; after we get a body of graduate students we can do what we please with them; but we must get them first. And we must get them on their won terms, for the best of all reasons – that they will not come on any other. We must slowly build up a great graduate school, as we built up a great undergraduate body, before we can do peculiar Princetonian things with them. We cannot have a special Princetonian plan with regard to graduate students; because we cannot explain it to them until we get them; and they look askance at us until it is explained to them.

I am not speaking by conjecture, but by knowledge, when I say that men looking about for a place to pursue their advanced studies are at present looking askance at Princeton; because they have understood (what is understood throughout the academic world) that we want to do something peculiar with them. They are men, mature men, and they do not choose to have anything peculiar done with them.

I wish you, gentlemen, to face the real facts in this all-important matter. The fact is, that nine graduate students out of ten (I dare say the proportion is very much larger than that, but we will put it at that), - that nine out of ten of the graduate students of this country are professional students just as strictly as the men who go to law schools, medical schools, and engineering schools are professional students. They are looking forward to becoming professional scholars, which in our days is only another way of saying teachers. They are, almost without exception, men of very small means. The kind we want, and the only kind we want, are very proud men, who do not wish to be subsidized, who do not wish to be looked after, who do not wish to be cared for and mothered, who want all the liberty there is in the intellectual world and in the opportunities of study, who do not take their programs from teachers but seek out the teachers who already have the notions they relish: an absolutely free and eclectic body is the body we are asking to come to Princeton. It is absolutely necessary, therefore, that in order to get them we should say to them, “Princeton is a place where you will find absolutely normal conditions, such as you find everywhere else in the academic world of America.”

When we had reached a most critical point, a point of beginning in this enterprise, with teaching energy, teaching enthusiasm, but few graduate students, when we had gone far enough in our organic educational process to have built up and perfected the undergraduate courses and methods of instruction, we came to the choice which has so excited your interest. We were offered half a million dollars, in a letter which based the offer upon a particular detailed plan, for the treatment of graduate students in a special manner, unknown elsewhere, - a plan which had not been considered in the form in which it was referred to in that letter either by the faculty or by the Board of Trustees of the University: and we were fearful, - we were justified in fearing, that if, without further question, we accepted that offer, we would be bound, in good faith and in common morals, to carry out that detailed plan as part of the contract of acceptance.

In spite, therefore, of the danger of misunderstanding which was involved, we felt obliged to ask the loyal and generous son of the University by whom the offer was made how we were to understand that offer – whether we were to understand that he did consciously and intentionally embody that detailed plan in the purpose for which he gave the money. For reasons which I have not yet been able to define, when we asked the question the offer was withdrawn. The reason that it was necessary to ask the question, let me repeat, was this: Princeton, in respect of graduate students, is at the experimental stage of her development. We must leave ourselves absolutely free to go east, west, north, or south in our journey in this experimental matter. We must not permit ourselves to be committed to any form of experiment at the outset. Eight or ten or fifteen or twenty years from now, when we have a great body of graduate students at Princeton, have established a tradition, have come to be understood by the other colleges of the country in respect of this great matter of graduate instruction, then we can do what we please in trying to form the life and alter the influences that are exerted upon graduate students at Princeton; but now we cannot. We can build a separate establishment, if we please, an elaborate establishment, if we please, for their accommodation; but if we do, we are in danger of having it stand half empty. We can fill it only by the volition of those who at present have put an interrogation point opposite to the development of Princeton in this very field. Not because we are jealous of being tied by contract to any scheme, is it necessary that we should have absolute liberty in the development of this side of university work.

And so, gentlemen, as a business proposition what ought we to do? Take the money at the risk of having no graduate students, or get the graduate students at the risk of having no money? For a university man there is no choice between these two. Take the graduate students and do without the money!

A university does not consist of money. A university does not consist of buildings, or of apparatus: a university consists of students and teachers. It would be vastly better for them, if you could enlist the full enthusiasm of their minds and purposes, to camp in the open than to take the material apparatus first at the risk of not getting the spiritual material afterward, - the enthusiasm and the purpose.

I have said just now that the graduate students of this country are looking forward to being teachers. I wish you knew the difficulty of getting teachers who are suitable to teach undergraduates. The heart of the whole difficulty h as been that the graduate student has been dissociated in all his activities, while he is preparing himself to teach, from the men and the circumstances he will have to meet and deal with when he teaches. I consider it absolutely indispensable for the proper training of graduate students that there should be a constant, conscious, intimate action, interaction, and reaction between graduates and undergraduates in the organization of a university. I did not understand this matter five or ten years ago as I do now. It is a fortunate circumstance for me that I can, at any rate by a special effort, acquire a new idea once in a while (laughter). If you had asked me five years ago about this thing I would have told you a different story; because I did not know, by intercourse with my colleagues in other universities, half as much about the conditions of graduate instruction as I know at the present time. I am glad to say that I have been able to learn something. I have learned what I should have been inexcusable for not understanding in view of the plain language in which it was expounded to me by those from whom I learned it.

The men in other universities who have had experience in these matters do not stop to find the softer forms of speech when they tell us what they think about plans of the kind we have recently been discussing. If we did not understand we should be lacking in comprehension. I am glad to say that as we worked our way through the reorganization which affected the undergraduates to the organization which was to affect the graduates we were constantly learning what was necessary, not only for the task in hand but for the task that was awaiting us; and as I look back upon my own studies as a graduate student, I realize that the poverty, the intellectual poverty, the special limitations, the intellectual limitations of the men with whom I was associated in the great graduate school I attended, was that their thought was so centered upon special lines of study that they had become impatient of everything that drew them away from them. I have heard these men again and again deplore the necessity they would some day be under of going through the drudgery of teaching stupid undergraduates, - a state of mind and a point of view which utterly unfitted them for the very profession they were approaching. That was due, in my mind, to the dissociation of graduate study in the life of the university from the undergraduate body.

Not only that, but I believe that our universities lack the impulse of advanced study, so far as their undergraduates are concerned, largely because their undergraduates are not sufficiently brought into contact with the graduates. You know, gentlemen, that the process of education is a process of contagion. If you want to educate a man, put him in close association with the kind of intellectual fire you wish him to be touched by. The place where the most stimulating things happen in our university life, so far as the undergraduates are concerned, is the laboratory, - things so interesting that I wish I had time to stop and detail them to you are now happening in the Palmer Physical Laboratory, and in Guyot Hall; because there, for the first time, interesting and eager graduate students are being brought into daily contact, in the corridors and laboratories of those great institutions, with less advanced students, tyros and beginners. Undergraduates and graduates are forming acquaintance with one another, and the undergraduate is making a great discovery. He is making the discovery that interesting men, vital men, are engaged upon investigations the significance of which and the attractiveness of which he had never dreamed of. They are men with red blood in their veins, not mere polers, not dry-as-dust fellows, but men with a vision and an insight, and are engaged in pursuing that most attractive of all things, - the discovery of undiscovered truth; seeking out the mysteries of nature by means that lie just at hand, if you will but see it, - at the hand of the undergraduate himself. The whole attitude of the undergraduate is changed by that influence. He no longer regards his study as the mere subject matter of instruction in a class-room. He discovers that what he is taught in the class-room is the mere rudiments, is the mere familiar and occupied territory of a land beyond which there is a delightful, alluring hinterland that has never been discovered. For the first time he is stimulated to know what graduate study means, what it may soon mean to him.

By the same token, this association of the graduate and the undergraduate is showing the graduate student what inflammable matter, what delightful human subject-matter he may have to deal with when he himself comes to instruct undergraduates. The whole Princeton idea is an organic idea, an idea of contact of mind with mind, - no chasms, no divisions in life and organization, - a grand brotherhood of intellectual endeavor, stimulating the youngster, instructing and balancing the older man, giving the one an aspiration and the other a comprehension of what the whole undertaking is, - of lifting, lifting, lifting the mind of successive generations from age to age!

That is the enterprise of knowledge, an enterprise that is the common undertaking of all men who pray for the greater enlightenment of the ages to come. If you do anything to mar this process, this organic integration of the University, what have you done? You have destroyed the Princeton idea which for the time being has arrested the attention of the academic world. Is that good business? When we have leadership in our grasp, is it good business to retire from it? When the country is looking to us as men who prefer ideas even to money, are we going to withdraw and say, “After all, we find we were mistaken: we prefer money to ideas”?

Observe, gentlemen! I have been told by persons who had heard me speak upon these lines several times, that though they had heard me often upon the same theme they did not understand why I was so insistent, because they found that other men who differed with me in practical judgment professed the same ideals. That is perfectly true. The only significance of an ideal – the only significance of any ideal – is the way you carry it out. We all profess the same morals; but we do not all carry out our morals in the same way. We all square ourselves by the same abstract standards, if you judge us by the mere statement of them; but the proof of the pudding is the eating thereof; and what has arrested the attention of this country is that Princeton does not care to be diverted from a process of integrations and growth which so far is unique in the history of education in this country. You may differ with the purpose; you may deliberately wish, for all I know, to divert the University from this course. It is within the power of those who govern Princeton opinion to divert her. All I am interested in having you know is that it is a choice between supporting her or diverting her.

We are trustees, - I do not mean we of the Board of Trustees and we of the faculty only: I am including all of us in this room – we are trustees of an invisible thing: we are trustees of the hopes and purposes and ambitions of Princeton, as well as of her traditions. The traditions of no American university fits the future development of universities in this country, Princeton not excluded. The tradition of all universities in this country is tied up with a system of study, which is out of date and will certainly pass away. We must make ourselves, therefore, conscious trustees of aspirations rather than of traditions, even though we change Princeton radically and begin an utterly new tradition. We have no choice but either to do this or bring on a day not beyond our own time, when Princeton will be anomalous. For other universities have seen the light as she has seen it and have started in her direction. I can name you university after university which has started in our direction. The choice is not whether we will form part of the procession but which part of the procession we will form – the van or the rear. When you have once taken up the torch of leadership you cannot lay it down without extinguishing it.

The business of every university is a spiritual, an intellectual thing. I have never seen Princeton; you have never seen Princeton, with the physical eye. We have all dreamed our dreams of Princeton ; and we must choose between dreams. If the men now in control of the policy of Princeton dream dreams that you refuse to share, no doubt they will have to be set aside, - but only for other dreams. It would be worth your while, therefore, to choose your dream; and when you have chosen your dream, and have demonstrated its beauty to the thought of this country, the gold of the nation will begin to flow in your direction; for at bottom the American people is an idealistic people. Individual Americans may sometimes forget their obligations in their pursuit of material advantage; but they always thereby degrade themselves with their fellow countrymen. This is a land conceived in dreams, perfected by dreams, distinguished in the history of mankind by dreams; and if you wish to commend yourselves to America, you will commend yourselves in those things which are ideal and immaterial, and will show a devotion – though it be the devotion of utter poverty – to the things which you conceive to be right, done in the way which you conceive to be ideal. I wish that we could now at once turn to a great existing body of graduate students at Princeton and attempt to put certain influences in their lives which are not in the lives of graduate students anywhere else in America. Some day we shall be able to do so. But we cannot yet. We must first draw them to Princeton. We must first make them in love with our individual teachers; we must make them realize the power that pulses in Princeton, the power of service, the power of those who love to teach, the power of those who have eschewed selfishness, even the excessive engrossment of private investigation for its own sake and for the sake of private ambition, for those things which are better, for the investigation whose object is the promotion of truth, and the truth whose object is the enlightenment of the rising generation.

Divorce the universities of this country from their teaching enthusiasm, divorce them from their undergraduates energies, and you will have a thing which is not only un-American but utterly unserviceable to the country. There is nothing private in America. Everything is public; everything belongs to the united energy of the nation; everything is an asset of the nation. We must not be afraid of publicity, we must not be afraid of anything said out loud, unless we refrain from it for the sake of not wounding individual feelings, or for the sake of not seeming to despise what others have done. We must observe all knightly and gracious courtesy, but we must not be afraid of publicity; for the tribunal which is to judge Princeton does not sit in this room; it does not sit in any room where Princeton men are gathered; it does not sit in any room where any single class or body of men is gathered. The tribunal by which this University is to be judged is the nation itself. The voice of the nation will prevail to make her great, or to cover her with oblivion.

And so I appeal to you to make yourselves part of the general impulse of this country; to do the thing which is not meant for the aggrandizement of our own private enterprises or for anything else except to make American more just, more righteous, more enlightened, more noble among the nations (applause).

The Chairman: Gentlemen, I think I express the feelings of all when I say to Dr. Wilson, thank you! The meeting stands adjourned, to convene above (applause).

This was originally published in the April 13, 1910 issue of PAW.