Rally ’Round the Cannon Podcast

In this episode, Gregg Lange ’70 explores the workings of a liberal arts college, including the addition of programs and departments over time and the rare example of a department that disappeared, and takes a brief look at the Wilson legacy committee.

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BT: I’m Brett Tomlinson, digital editor of the Princeton Alumni Weekly.

GL: And I’m Gregg Lange of the Great Class of 1970, who should know better.

BT: And this is the Rally ’Round the Cannon Podcast. A very happy 2016 to all of our listeners. The first print issue of the year will be arriving in mailboxes this week, and in it we have a “That Was Then” column about the beginning of Princeton’s women’s studies program – now known as the Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies. In the On the Campus section, we also have a brief mention of the newest certificate program on campus, the certificate in music theater. And in the last few months we’ve reported on the newest major, African American studies. All of these changes have been adopted by the faculty in a process that goes back centuries at Princeton. Gregg, digging in to the history here, what can you tell us about how Princeton’s curricular offerings have evolved over the years?

GL: Well of course, “fitfully” is always a good fallback answer for that, if you want to have a short discussion. But the long and the short of it is that there’s actually something of a philosophy behind it, which in a lot of senses has been in place almost since the beginning of the institution. Part of that because Witherspoon, who came over and kickstarted things in 1768, was something of a renaissance man himself, as was evidenced by his participation in the Continental Congress. He impressed that on his students, which is one of the reasons they became so involved in the running of the new country, not to mention the Constitution, which was in itself a philosophical document. There were more Princetonians at the Constitutional Convention than graduates of any other college. But the basic concept, which was rarely stated actually, I recently heard mentioned explicitly by Eddie Glaude *97, the chair of the new African American studies department, which was previously a program under his guidance, and that is that Princeton is at the core a liberal arts school.

What does that mean in this case? It’s reflected in the way that they perceive different areas of study, different types of research and teaching, and how they choose to recognize them in the curriculum. The idea is to create very well educated and independent-thinking students, and in that sense, they tend to set a fairly high bar for the validity of a given area of study before they’re willing to admit that it ought to stand on its own as an area of inquiry. In some cases over the years, it’s led to various odd circumstances. For example, while Stanhope Smith, Witherspoon’s son in law who succeeded him as president of Princeton, brought in one of the first teachers of science in any college in the world, actually, at that point, and certainly in North America, who happened to be John Maclean Sr., the father of the future Princeton president, when the board of trustees pulled sort of a conservative putsch in 1812 and threw out Stanhope Smith, they got rid of the science professor to boot because that was looked on as too cutting edge, and too much against the genteel aesthetic that they thought they were trying to teach. So this has gone one in fits and starts, and the battles have gone on for years.

When I tell people that Princeton didn’t have a music department until 1936, they think I’m kidding them. And I make jokes about it, as to how un-musical the Scots Presbyterians were. But that’s actually a very minor part of it. I think music was looked on, by the faculty, as very much an adjunct activity, as opposed to a mental discipline, if you can believe it, until very late in the game. And they set a very high bar for a department there. There were various activities around the school for many decades before that, but the department itself is a very late bloomer.

Meanwhile, you’ve got the flip in something like the School of Public and International Affairs, which happens to be under discussion right now as well, which was the first of its kind in the world. And was actually an expression by a number of very active alumni trustees and faculty, most of whom were decided fans of Woodrow Wilson 1879, who felt that public and international affairs should be fully regarded as an intellectual activity, fully of a philosophical and intellectual nature, on the same level as the kinds of traditional liberal arts departments, and of course at that point engineering departments and hard science departments that were starting to gather. And the faculty, first in an academic sense, followed by the trustees supporting it in a financial sense, based a lot of their goodwill on the School of Public and International Affairs being a legitimate area of study, as some other institutions had done with business, for example, at the beginning of the 20th century. And it’s been fascinating to see how those sorts of things have come and gone over the years.

Not to mention the current trends, wherein interdisciplinary programs that cross departments can now create extremely powerful kinds of connections by taking disparate areas of expertise and melding them to apply to a specific range of problems. Probably the most dramatic example of that is genomics, where there are very few faculty, if any, at this stage who are actually employed by the University solely in genomics. Almost all of them work in math or electrical engineering or physics or you name it. It goes on and on and on. Psychology, sociology, all these kinds of things that are involved in the effective study of something that’s as intrinsic to the human condition as genomics. All of this goes back to the root of a liberal arts school that is trying to maintain the highest standards of both research and teaching. And its product is to be an educated, inquisitive type of creative intelligence among its alumni. If you’re looking for a trade school, it’s the exact opposite. So when Eddie Glaude says, “This is a liberal arts school,” that’s what he means. It’s a very positive thing to say. But it also implies a very strong form of how the faculty, which is totally in control of the structure of the academic side, perceive the institution and how it should be organized.

BT: Just to reiterate what you said, adding a department or a program is a very rigorous process. It can be a very long process. And as PAW’s faculty meeting reporter for seven or eight years I can say that most of the additions are approved without a lot of discussion because the process is so rigorous. By the time it gets to a vote, there tends to be very strong support from other members of the faculty.

We’re talking a bit about how things get added. Have there been departments or certificates that have been dropped? Do things generally stay in place once they’re added?

GL: You’re after me again, aren’t you? The answer is, although many things change shape and change names, Gender and Sexuality Studies being a very interesting example within recent years, it’s very unusual for something to vanish, which is why only my department did. I keep hoping that it wasn’t because I got my degree in it, but I can’t really prove it one way or the other.

At any rate, the Department of Statistics existed at Princeton from 1965 to 1985, partly because even the concept of statistics was so fundamentally begun and thrust forward at Princeton. You just need to go back and do some names, whether it’s Alan Turing in the 30s, or John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern in the 40s, who effectively invented game theory, to John Nash and Harold Kuhn who carried it forward in the 1950s. And John Tukey, who was class of ’39 and studied with all these folks, was the first chair of the statistics department. The discipline of statistics was uniquely developed and centered at Princeton for a long time and has with startling rapidity worked its way out into almost any major area of arts and science study you can think of.

Since John Nash received his Nobel Prize in the early 90s, applied economists, almost all of whom deal in extremely powerful statistical methods, have been members in good standing of the Nobel listings. And this goes on in everything from biology to ecology these days, all sorts of issues in electrical engineering and electronics, where it melds with quantam mechanics if you can believe it. Statistics is now baked into everything. The latest creation on the Princeton campus is the Program in Statistics and Machine Learning, which is across a wide range of departments, everything from economy to ORFE, operations research and financial engineering, which has become an inheritor of part of the statistics department legacy, on and on and on. Computer science obviously it’s baked into. The fact that Princeton, this goes back to the issue of departments and faculty, is one of the very few institutions on the planet where you can get either an AB or BSE in computer science. There’s a reason for that, both historically and in terms of the way that the field is studied, and it’s an extremely powerful concept that the faculty decided on a number of years back and has been proven wildly successful. You look at all of this stuff. Statistics is now everywhere, so when you have a committee of statisticians on campus it has people from all kinds of departments. But they did away with the department because they figured there was no way they could explain me away.

BT: Well even if the department does not live on, statistics lives on at the University and in the proud few alumni of the department. I want to move on to the top news of the print issue, which is the sit-in at Nassau Hall. That’s our cover story, and it’s something we discussed in the last podcast. In print we have a timeline of campus protests that I know sparked a connection for you involving a current trustee of the University and one of your contemporaries on campus in the late 1960s.

GL: I knew Brent Henry ’69 in passing when we were undergrads, and he was very highly respected on campus at that point. And he was one of the seniors who led the sit-in at New South in March of 1969, which was aimed at the trustees because the issue involved was the University’s investment in the apartheid regime in South Africa. And Brent, interestingly, after going through the various disciplinary hearings and getting his degree later in the year because he was a senior, was also one of the first two young alumni trustees elected also in the spring of 1969. He was the young alumni trustee for the Class of 1969, the first African American trustee in the history of Princeton University. And that showed how widely he was admired among all of those who knew him on campus.

After serving that four-year term he’s subsequently been invited back to the trustees for two tenure terms at various points, the second of which he is currently serving. He is now the vice chair of the Princeton trustees and is also the chair of the Wilson Legacy Committee [7], which you can look up online. I’ll be discussing it quite a bit in my next column. This is easily one of the most impressive committees of almost any sort ever put together at Princeton, much less by the trustees on any issue. It contains folks like Ruth Simmons, the former president of Brown who was also a dean at Princeton, Scott Berg ’71, biographer of Woodrow Wilson, and Denny Chin ’75, an esteemed federal judge and also recipient of the Woodrow Wilson Award, interestingly. This is a very fabulous group of people who will be paying attention to all of the comments and criticisms on all sides coming in. It’s a fabulous committee, but Brent’s position on it particularly illustrates how historically these sit-ins at Princeton have generally been based around quite substantial issues, have had significant results of one sort or another on the University, and have always been taken extremely seriously.

BT: Well said. I think we’ve reached the end of our time for this episode, but I encourage listeners to send Princeton history topics that they’d like to hear more about to our email address, paw@princeton.edu [8]. If you send an idea that we use on the podcast, we will send you a thank you from the PAW prize closet.

GL: You found the key?

BT: It is wide open. Gregg, would you like to sign off?

GL: Absolutely. Rally ’Round the Cannon is a podcast from your very own Princeton Alumni Weekly online.