Decisions made in Washington, D.C., can significantly influence our capacity to carry out our educational mission. That is why we are fortunate to have a seasoned representative in our nation’s capital in the person of Joyce Rechtschaffen ’75, who has headed Princeton’s Office of Government Affairs since 2006 after a distinguished career on Capitol Hill. I have invited Joyce to reflect on her work and the impact of federal policies on our University.—S.M.T.
As director of Princeton’s Office of Government Affairs in Washington, D. C., I have the privilege of serving as the University’s advocate and ambassador on Capitol Hill and with the federal agencies. Our three-person office works closely with members of Congress and their staffs, representatives of the Administration, Princeton alumni, and colleagues at higher education associations and other universities.
Princeton has had an office in Washington for more than 25 years, and strong advocacy on federal issues is important because many things happen in Washington that affect the University. For more than 60 years, the federal government has committed significant public funds to support basic scientific research and graduate education at universities, recognizing that this is essential to “insure our health, prosperity, and security as a nation in the modern world.” With research in science and engineering becoming ever more sophisticated and thus ever more expensive, universities depend on the government to help meet these significant costs.
Part of our advocacy involves bringing faculty to Washington to give lawmakers a first-hand view of the high quality research that federal funds support at Princeton—in fields ranging from fusion energy to neuroscience. Recently, legislators were extremely interested to learn about the groundbreaking work (funded by the National Science Foundation) of engineering professor Claire Gmachl on sensors that have a unique ability to detect minute amounts of chemicals in our environment. This research may transform the way doctors care for patients, local agencies monitor air quality, governments guard against attack, and scientists understand the evolution of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
We are pleased that over recent years both the Administration and the Congress have recognized the need for a renewed commitment to the physical sciences, building on a highly influential report from a committee chaired by Norman Augustine ’57 *59. Yet, despite bipartisan consensus on this issue, this year’s funding levels for science were disappointing, and Congress imposed restrictions at one federal agency on the reimbursement permitted for some costs that universities incur in conducting federally- supported research.
While only about three percent of Princeton’s $81 million undergraduate scholarship budget comes from federal sources, the University has always encouraged the government to help low-income students attend college. We are pleased that this Congress increased the maximum Pell Grant, even though last-minute budget cuts reduced the amount of the increase.
Government policies have an impact on universities in ways that go well beyond funding. Universities are subject to a large and growing number of federal regulations, and some of our work involves trying to shape these regulations in sensible ways. The government provides incentives for charitable giving, and its immigration laws and policies can have a major impact on our ability to attract students and scholars from around the world and to expand the University’s international reach.
Recently we have been deeply concerned about two efforts at the federal level that could fundamentally threaten certain aspects of Princeton’s mission. For the first time in American history, the Department of Education sought last year to impose external measures of student learning—in other words, standardized testing—on colleges and universities. Although Princeton assesses student learning and provides feedback to students all the time, we strongly believe that federally mandated standardized tests would damage the institutional diversity that has always been a hallmark of American higher education and would be fundamentally at odds with the kind of critical thinking, creativity, and analytical reasoning that forms the core of a first-rate liberal arts education.
Second, some members of Congress have expressed an interest in imposing federal regulations on university endowments, especially large endowments like Princeton’s. Proposals have ranged from taxing them, to requiring specific pay-out rates, to requiring certain kinds of expenditures (for example, on financial aid). To the extent that these efforts are driven by concern about the high cost of tuition, we have made certain that members and staff are aware of Princeton’s groundbreaking financial aid program for both low- and middle-income families. As we pointed out in recent testimony, more than 44 percent of Princeton’s operating budget this year is funded by the endowment, including more than 80 percent of its scholarship budget. We also pointed out that tuition increases do not affect any students on financial aid.
We also have explained that universities are very different in form and function from private foundations that are subject to payout requirements, and that Princeton takes very seriously its obligations to manage its endowment in a manner that achieves a sustainable balance between providing as much support as possible for the current generation while also building capacity to meet future needs.
These are challenging issues, but I am extremely lucky and proud to have the job of telling the Washington community about the wonderful work of the Princeton community and of explaining to the Princeton community the (sometimes!) wonderful world of Washington.