I have often reflected on Princeton’s responsibility as a leading elite and well-endowed institution to embrace the 21st century, in terms of the students it serves, the programs and modalities of education it offers, and the culture it fosters. As a former head of e-learning at a peer institution, I already have commented on Princeton’s slowness to adapt in that arena, but I believe that its tethering to tradition has broader implications with respect to the mission of service and bears further scrutiny given the now precarious state of affirmative action programs.
Although Princeton has made strides in diversifying its student population and incrementally increasing class sizes, it hasn’t progressed in terms of broadening access to nontraditional students, high school and adult learners, significant outreach programs to local and underserved communities, or with respect to valuing alternative educational experiences whether, online, experiential, or through study abroad. This resistance to embracing new audiences and approaches is in part a reflection of the long-held belief that a Princeton education surpasses all others and that one can’t have a commensurate experience elsewhere (at least during the academic calendar year), and an elitist and tradition-bound culture that similarly continues to promote professions, such as management consulting and investment banking (although now has included tech) as preferred professional pathways. Not much has changed in that regard since I was a student 40 years ago.
This culture of elitism persists, and regardless of the numbers of students of color and/or those from socioeconomically diverse backgrounds Princeton admits, which should remain of critical importance, if it doesn’t address this culture, its students will perpetuate the same in the institutions they may someday lead.
I am a proud Princetonian and truly appreciate the incredible education it afforded me. That is why I feel so strongly that Princeton should evolve to meet the moment. To hold true to its service and diversity aspirations, Princeton as an institution must lead by example and nurture a more egalitarian culture. It should consider integrating a service component and/or field work into its distribution requirements, advancing more diverse career opportunities, especially those that are service/community oriented, creating bridge programs for local high school students from underserved communities to support alternative channels to admission, and/or partnering with other institutions around the world to create joint online and/or hybrid programs that enhance its offerings and extend its audience.
It is time for Princeton to look inward and reconsider what it means to be “in the service of humanity” as a well-resourced leading educational institution in the 21st century.