Late Dean and Former President Possessed Wide Community of Interest – Their Relations a Stirring Story

The Alumni Weekly has asked for a brief description and appraisal of the relations subsisting between the late Dean Fine ’80 and former President Wilson ’79.

Although they belonged to the same college generation, their undergraduate years partly overlapping, I do not know whether there were contacts between them in this period. From my own knowledge of how intimate acquaintance at this time was commonly confined to members of one’s own Class, I think it doubtful whether their close association began until, in the early Nineties, Mr. Wilson was elected to the chair of Jurisprudence and Political Economy in Princeton. Dean Fine had been continuously connected with Princeton since his graduation, his two graduate years of study at Leipzig being, I think, his only period of absence. Consequently he head become a well-integrated part of Princeton life before Mr. Wilson became his colleague in the Faculty.

There was a strong common bond between the two men in the -almost grim – seriousness with which they both invested the scholar’s life and the scholar’s obligations. I recall being told by Dean Fine’s mother many years ago that as a boy and a young man he was so engrossed and absorbed in intellectual interests that any solicitude on his account was wholly superfluous. Much of the same bent of mind Mr. Wilson had acquired from him father. While the fields of their respective special intellectual interests were far apart, Mr. Wilson sometimes humorously professing “the natural man’s aversion to mathematics,” they mutually entertained for one another the high regard induced by a common adherence to the exacting creed of self-trained scholarship.

When Mr. Wilson came to Princeton he soon discovered that he and Dean Fine had a number of common interests. Both were naturally enthusiastic “fans” for college sports; and their joint association and activities upon faculty committees charged with the oversight of athletics brought them into close and frequent association, and created a tie of warm personal friendship.

Shoulder to Shoulder

The two men were similarly thrown into close contact by their joint service in other fields of college administration. At one time in the Nineties the growth in the number of undergraduates was rapid. It was possible for an applicant for admission to college who waived the right to a degree to enroll as a “special” student so-called, and to enjoy the advantages of college life and residence without being subject to the requirements as to academic standing exacted of candidates for a degree. This alarming tendency finally called into existence special machinery for its correction. Both Mr. Wilson and Professor Fine served on the committee appointed to undertake the reform of this untoward development. For several years close and frequent attention to the body of students not candidates for degrees, both as to their admission and their retention in the student body, claimed the care and attention of both men. It is my recollection that in matters of discipline also both labored, shoulder to shoulder, in college administration; and it is certain that both warmly endorsed the Honor System, when that system was introduced.

So completely in harmony were their general views as to the desirable objectives in university management that when Mr. Wilson was elected President of Princeton, he installed Dean Fine as Dean of the Faculty. At that time, with the exception of the Graduate School, there was but one dean in the University; and his range of duties was so wide as to constitute him virtually the vice-president of the institution. In this capacity President Wilson and Dean Fine worked cooperatively in the revision of the curriculum, in the installation of the preceptorial system, and in the enlargement and strengthening of the University Faculty. When differences of opinion arose with reference to President Wilson’s proposed system of residential units as the basis of social organization for the University, he found a strong supporter in Dean Fine; and when Mr. Wilson entered upon his political career, Dean Fine during the interregnum became for some time the acting executive of the University.

An Ambassadorship Declined

The mutual affection and regard of the two men continued unbroken after Mr. Wilson had left the sphere of education and had become President of the nation. He offered to Dean Fine the ambassadorship to Germany. I know that Dean Fine made inquiries as to the character and nature of the work which the position at that time involved, and finally declined it for the reason that it appeared in large measure rather decorative and honorary than of vital importance and significance. This, of course, was before any remote anticipation of the World War was entertained by anyone in this country.

I can only surmise the reasons that actuated President Wilson in tendering the appointment, beyond his well-known and often expressed confidence in Dean Fine’s penetrating intelligence. One characteristic feature of Dean Fine was the blunt and forceful way he had of expressing the basic fact of a situation as he saw it. I think it not unlikely that President Wilson counted on this quality in his friend as a representative of the United States abroad, for the President had as little use as Dean Fine himself for “a diplomatic interchange of polite symbols of mutual distrust.” Their long and intimate association, their warm and cordial personal friendship and mutual regard, their essential agreement upon policies in the field common to both, make the story of their relations one of which Princeton may well be proud.

This was originally published in the January 11, 1929 issue of PAW.