The future of Princeton looks bleak.

A steady buildup of helium ash at the sun’s core will slowly increase its luminosity, along with the amount of radiation it gives off. That, scientists believe, could dry up the earth’s surface water, including the oceans, rivers, and Lake Carnegie. Combined with a loss of atmospheric carbon dioxide in about 900 million years, such a development could lead to the extinction of all animal and plant life on the planet. Even if it does not, in about 5 billion years, the earth may be incinerated as the dying sun swells into a red giant, or be sucked into its gravitational maw and crushed as the sun collapses into a white dwarf. Either way, the effects on that year’s P-rade and Annual Giving campaign can only be imagined.

But perhaps I project too far into the future.

That’s really the problem with looking forward, isn’t it? Cast your eyes too near and nothing changes. The Princeton of next year probably will look a lot like the Princeton of today. But you can’t set your horizon too far away, either, if it is to be meaningful.

“The long run is a misleading guide to current affairs,” economist John Maynard Keynes once pointed out. “In the long run, we are all dead.” So when Andrew Golden, president of the Princeton University Investment Co., or Princo, speaks of keeping the endowment strong for the next 250 years, he is announcing more of an aspiration than a particular investment plan. Still, sometimes it is necessary to peer more deeply into the crystal ball. When the University considers its investment strategy or whether to bring in certain restricted gifts, says Provost Christopher Eisgruber ’83, it must take a long-term view — sometimes as long as 50 years — because “an endowment is forever.” An endowed lecture series, for example, “had better be on something that’s a broad enough topic that it makes sense to ask people to steward it many decades into the future.”

Usually, a decade is the longest time frame in which planners can project with any confidence. University architect Jon Hlafter ’61 *63, who recently retired, has noted that in the early 1960s, architect Douglas Orr produced a master plan that envisioned Princeton’s full “build-out.” Few of his predictions became reality. So the current campus plan, which was under development in 2006 and released last January, runs through 2016.

A relatively short timeline and a judicious approach to change probably are good things. Attempts to transform the campus quickly and radically often end badly — the most famous Princeton example being the ill-fated proposals by Woodrow Wilson 1879 to abolish the eating clubs, create a system of residential colleges, and build the Graduate College on the main campus. (It took a century before aspects of Wilson’s “Quad Plan” were resurrected in the four-year residential colleges.) In 1970, President Robert F. Goheen ’40 *48 appointed a Commission on the Future of the College, which debated such revolutionary measures as reducing the number of years needed to obtain an undergraduate degree. It ended up making more modest proposals such as allowing qualified undergraduates to enroll in graduate courses and to obtain advanced standing through placement tests.

Knowing this, however, does not spoil the fun of peeking ahead.  

The campus

Much of the future campus already has been built. Whitman College opened in 2007, while the futuristic Lewis Library, designed by Frank Gehry’s Gehry Partners, welcomed students in the fall. New dorms and renovations to Butler College, which is scheduled to reopen next fall as a four-year residential college, are well under way. Also in the works are a new chemistry building to be completed in 2010, and new neuroscience and psychology buildings (construction on both had been scheduled to begin in June, but is being delayed for a year because of the economic downturn). All three will be built in a “natural sciences neighborhood” at the south end of Washington Road. “One significant challenge of the natural sciences neighborhood is integrating the increasing size and bulk of modern research buildings into the human scale of the campus,” the 179-page campus plan reports, noting that the buildings must be large enough to accommodate the required high-tech equipment and to provide sufficient classroom space. The solution to potential incongruity with the existing campus: a planning strategy that “positions these buildings at the southern edge of campus, where the natural landscape of robust woodlands and ravines will provide an appropriate visual and experiential buffer to their size, as well as a pastoral view from offices and labs.” The plan calls for a “modern architectural vocabulary, emphasizing lightness and transparency.”  

The much-talked-about “arts and transit neighborhood” anchored by the Peter B. Lewis Center for the Arts will rise along University Place and Alexander Road, beginning with a 130,000-square-foot complex with office, performance, and rehearsal spaces and a reflecting pool. But the recession has meant postponing construction of a satellite of the Art Museum, which also was planned for the neighborhood, until after 2016. (See page 19 for more information on the recession’s impact.) On the other side of campus, Frick, Green, and Hoyt halls — their occupants relocated to the natural science area — will be reconfigured for the humanities and social sciences.  

The plan also calls for revitalizing the historic gardens of the central campus and planting new trees. To knit the growing campus into a cohesive whole, walks and paths are to be created or landscaped. One part of that plan is the Streicker Bridge, which will provide a pedestrian walkway across busy Washington Road, spanning 300 feet and rising 23 feet above the street. You should be able to walk across it in the fall of 2010.

New buildings will be built in new ways, with greater energy efficiency. Butler College, like Sherrerd Hall, the just-opened building for operations research and financial engineering, will have a “true green roof” topped by soil and vegetation to lessen heating and cooling loads and reduce rainwater runoff. Princeton has set a goal of reducing campus carbon-dioxide emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, and so all new construction must use 50 percent less energy than is required by current codes, according to Executive Vice President Mark Burstein. The plan also envisions cutting the number of single-occupant cars commuting to campus by 10 percent, and Princeton’s transportation office has requested about $250,000 in the 2009–10 budget to do that, largely through employee incentives to bike, carpool, or take mass transit to work. (In another strategy, beginning next September, sophomores — like freshmen — will not be permitted to park on campus.)  

A guiding principle of the campus plan is to preserve and maintain a pedestrian-oriented campus in which no point is more than a 10-minute walk from the Frist Campus Center. Despite that goal, care is being taken not to overbuild the current campus, leaving room for expansion within the University’s current geographic boundaries. For future needs, the University might draw upon more than 400 acres on the other side of Lake Carnegie that were acquired between 1922 and 1948 — almost as much land as the historic campus has. In 2001, Princeton purchased another 90 acres from Sarnoff, on the far side of Route 1. Though there are no plans for developing that land in the foreseeable future, President Tilghman says prudence requires Princeton to think ahead so that it does not one day find itself penned in by outside development, as Harvard, Penn, Yale, Columbia, and other universities have been.

The final chapter of Princeton’s published plan considers how the campus might develop beyond 2016. Planners envision future academic and “campus-life” development in the eastern part of campus along Ivy Lane between Washington and FitzRandolph roads, after outdated facilities there now are moved. In the west, the land north of Forbes College someday might sport new graduate housing or another residential college (the Ivy Lane area also is a leading candidate for a college site, among a few other options). The Alexander Street corridor could get more retail shops to support the graduate students living nearby, while parking for the growing University might be provided in an underground garage on Western Way and an off-campus lot in West Windsor, connected to Princeton by a shuttle. And what about that mainstay of Princeton transportation since the turn of the 20th century, the Dinky? The plan notes that New Jersey is considering a bus rapid-transit system with a line running parallel to the Dinky to supplement its service. That would allow more stations to be built, with more connections between the different parts of Princeton. “By using transit as leverage,” the report suggests, “the walkable campus can be extended beyond its current borders.”

Harry Campbell

The student body

If we have a fair idea of what the bricks-and-mortar Princeton will look like a decade hence, what about the student body? It’s already growing larger: A five-year expansion will increase the number of undergraduates by 11 percent to approximately 5,200 when it is complete at the start of the 2012–13 academic year.  

That number will not grow — for now. “We now know what it takes to expand the student body, which is the creation of an entirely new residential college,” notes Tilghman, “and I think it is very safe to say that, certainly in my time, we’re not going to try to do that again.”  

But, as she points out, new faculty will continue to be hired, which means the student body gradually will grow as well. “It’s partly because we are in the knowledge-generation business,” she says. “When we started [a program in] genomics, we didn’t cancel classics. Information is cumulative.” In other words, while new academic disciplines and avenues of research appear, old ones rarely die. And, since Princeton is known for its strengths as a great liberal arts college in which all faculty members teach undergraduates, the student body should keep pace. “At some point — whether in 25 or 50 years — I would think we would have to add another residential college, because that’s going to be necessary to sustain the special demography that makes Princeton the place it is,” Eisgruber says.  

Demographers point out that the population of 17-year-olds soon will plateau — but that does not mean it will become easier to gain admission. Dean of Admission Janet Rapelye says the number of high school students in the Northeast is expected to drop off, while the number in the South and Southwest should continue to increase. That means the University probably will redirect some of its recruitment efforts around the country, she says. Rapelye expects no decrease in the number of applications, which have jumped about 13 percent in the last five years. The undergraduate student body a decade from now could be slightly older than the current one after the beginning of Tilghman’s “gap-year” plan, which will encourage incoming students to defer their matriculation to spend a year abroad doing community service. A freshman class that already has spent time doing service work abroad might lead to a significant change in the character and interests of undergraduates, just as the returning servicemen brought new perspectives to campus in the late 1940s. Another near-term goal is to make the student body even more diverse — racially, economically, and geographically. That also presents new challenges.  

“Humanities teaching is about introducing people to a way of being in the world of culture, the way of reading, of slow and patient attention to texts and images and documents,” says Anthony Grafton, the Henry Putnam University Professor of History, who worries that secondary schools — and public schools in particular — don’t teach these skills as well as they did in the past. “We all feel good about the fact that we have fewer independent-school graduates and more public-school graduates,” Grafton says. But he asks: “How do we make this student body ... pick up the skills that would once have been given to Princeton students at an earlier time?”  

Eisgruber sees a future in which Princeton admits more undergraduates from other countries, as part of a broader effort to integrate the University into the world community — a trend that already has begun. “We are Princeton in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations, and obviously we have a special relationship to the United States and a special set of responsibilities here,” the provost explains. “On the other hand, we can’t deliver the education we want to deliver ... without taking these really terrific students whom we are getting from overseas and around the world and who add a special set of perspectives to the classroom.” In a quarter- century, he imagines, Princeton’s student body will be “distinctly and recognizably American,” though more international than ever. “Finding the right balance there will be one of the continuing challenges for the University.”

At the Graduate School, where foreign students make up almost 40 percent of the student body, Dean William Russel, the Arthur W. Marks ’19 Professor of Chemical Engineering, sees a different trend. Several writers have pointed out that America’s global preeminence is likely to diminish over the coming decades, not necessarily because of a decline in America’s capacities but because of growth and development in other parts of the world, particularly China and India — in what Newsweek writer Fareed Zakaria has called “the rise of the rest.” Russel thinks that greater competition for foreign students — not just from China and India, but from nations in the West, as well — may drive international graduate enrollment at Princeton and at other American universities a bit lower. That simply magnifies the importance of attracting a larger and more diverse population of U.S. students into graduate programs, Russel says.

Harry Campbell

The course of study

No one can predict exactly what the next big thing will be, or which young fields will capture the greatest research funding and interests of talented young scholars. As Princeton’s campus plan points out, the previous master plan, drawn up in 1995, did not anticipate the changes in science that would point the way toward the new Lewis Library, or the University’s heightened focus on the arts, or the accelerating knowledge in neuroscience that prompted Princeton to invest in a neuroscience institute.

So how might the course of study change? In recent years, administrators in the Ivy League and at universities around the country have ruminated about changes to the curriculum. In 2007, for example, Harvard created a new general-education curriculum that called for, among other things, placing a greater faculty emphasis on teaching, rather than pure research. Last fall, Brown released its own report, considering ways in which it might strengthen liberal arts education. One of the report’s chief recommendations was to “provide more opportunities for students to engage in active, hands-on, multidisciplinary learning.”

Interdisciplinary learning is likely to increase at Princeton, too. Students already weave together disciplines: Consider the Center for African American Studies, the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics, and the Princeton Environmental Institute, which ties together 65 faculty members across 17 academic fields. The University recently approved advanced-degree programs that span departments, such as a joint-degree program between the Woodrow Wilson School and the departments of psychology, politics, and sociology, and Ph.D. programs in quantitative and computational biology, Russel notes. A committee will meet in the spring semester to consider whether Princeton should offer an interdisciplinary doctoral degree in the humanities, according to Eisgruber.

Another area bound to grow is international studies. In October 2007, the University presented a report titled “Princeton in the World,” which laid out a set of initiatives to enable faculty and students to work more closely with their foreign peers. The report drew on the work of a faculty committee chaired by history department chairman Jeremy Adelman, the Walter Samuel Carpenter III Professor in Spanish Civilization and Culture, and Anne-Marie Slaughter ’80, dean of the Woodrow Wilson School; it envisions more international research collaborations, deeper ties with visiting professors, greater support for graduate research overseas, and more study abroad. Administrators have said they hope that within the next decade, it will become the rule, rather than the exception, for undergraduates to spend time studying abroad.  

“Universities, as institutions, are relative latecomers to internationalization,” Adelman observes. Soon, he believes, Princeton will become a hub for visiting scholars, making international collaborations even easier. As the director of Princeton’s Council on International Teaching and Research, Adelman is charged with coming up with strategies to accomplish those goals.  

While a number of American universities, including New York University, Stanford, and Johns Hopkins, have established programs or even satellite campuses in foreign countries, Princeton has chosen to pursue a different path. Building a Princeton campus in, say, China, Adelman says, “struck us as being like mercantilism. You’re exporting your brand and what you have to offer, but you are not bringing the world into you. You are not importing the world into the core of who you are. Our model is much more open. We want our people to go abroad, but we want the world to come here and mingle with us — to help us see ourselves in the world in a different way.”

Harry Campbell


Much of the speculation about the campus of tomorrow depends on the Dow Jones index over the next 12 to 24 months. More students are requesting financial aid. In response to the recent economic slump, the University has announced that it is cutting its capital plan by $300 million — and more cuts may be announced. Tilghman, the current chairwoman of the American Association of Universities, notes that federal support for America’s research universities, particularly in science and technology, has been essential over the years. In this time of budget cuts, she fears that spending will be sacrificed. Such a move would be shortsighted, she insists, emphasizing that university-led basic research has been responsible for many of the innovations that have fueled America’s postwar prosperity.  

A more fundamental and long-term question is whether, in this age of instant communication, the traditional model of the university as a place where students go to live and learn together for four years has a future. Grafton is concerned that it might not.  

“The thing that terrifies me is that [the on-campus college experience] will survive as an upper-class privilege, but it will not survive as a kind of norm,” he says. “I feel that there is vast pressure in America to save money on education, and what that would mean is leveling down what we have thought of as what public education should provide until it’s like what’s provided in Europe.” That means most students might end up attending large, impersonal schools while they live at home with their parents. “I think the idea that for ordinary folk it’s fine not to have the campus experience and the liberal arts experience — but that for some small group of others, it is important — is a really bad idea,” he says.  

Princeton and other top universities will continue to thrive, Grafton believes, and Tilghman agrees. “We’re talking about a university system that has survived for 262 years, and you’re asking me if it’s about to become obsolete?” she laughs scornfully. Seven years into her tenure, she says that she has “come to the conclusion that the model that we have here, which does involve residency, which does involve face-to-face conversations that happen not just in seminars and precepts but in dining halls and dorm rooms and libraries, is irreplaceable. I find it hard to project more than 10 years out, but here is one case where I am fairly certain: In 250 years, there will be students still living in Whitman College.”

Watch out, though, for that coming buildup of helium ash. 

Mark Bernstein ’83 is PAW’s senior writer.