February 15, 2023

Eisgruber Highlights PU Accomplishments, Technology Challenges

By Donald Gilpin

In his annual State of the University letter to faculty, students, and staff on January 31, Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber celebrated an abundance of University accomplishments and emphasized the profound impacts of rapidly developing technology.

In addition to a slew of prestigious faculty, student, and alumni awards; an impressive picture of the University’s finances, with record sums raised and significant increases in graduate stipends and undergraduate financial aid, as well as dramatic progress on “the most ambitious building program in the University’s history”; Eisgruber highlighted the Princeton University community’s full return to campus in person for academic, extracurricular, and athletic activities three years after the initial appearance of COVID-19.

“Our campus again pulses with vital energy, personal interaction, and creative inspiration,” he wrote. “Classes are meeting without the restrictions needed last year. Workshops, lectures, and colloquia are well attended. Crowds are welcome at performances, sporting events, and other gatherings.”

Most of his 16-page letter, however, he devoted to discussion of the changing current world of technology and “what these changes mean for Princeton as a University steadfastly committed to the ideals of liberal arts education and curiosity-driven research.”

“Computer science, data science, online media, and machine learning are rapidly changing how we read, write, learn, think, communicate, and socialize,” he wrote. “They are affecting what students want to study, how research is conducted, and what topics scholars can explore. They are altering the world’s capacities and problems, and, with those, the issues that universities must address to prepare students for the future and deliver the research that our society needs.”

Eisgruber pointed out some lessons learned from the pandemic, how important the residential teaching model is to Princeton, and how difficult it is to teach effectively online.

“To be sure, the experience of online teaching during the pandemic broadened familiarity with what could be done online,” he wrote. “The knowledge may

enable Princeton to leverage technology to improve the residential education it offers or to expand the impact of its teaching to new audiences. If so, however, we will have to do so in a way that respects the power of residential engagement and the limits of online teaching, which is one reason why Princeton required beginning in fall 2021 that all classes once again meet in person.”

Noting how powerful and disruptive artificial intelligence can be, Eisgruber went on to state that great liberal arts universities of the 21st century must “wholeheartedly embrace the study of technology. Critical thinking skills are at the heart of a liberal arts education, and in today’s world those skills must encompass the ability to understand, develop, and use technology both effectively and ethically.”

He pointed out that Princeton has traditionally embraced a vision of a liberal arts education that encompasses engineering, and he discussed the strengthening of the University’s School of Engineering and Applied Science as one response to the challenges posed by 21st century technology. “It has become clear that in the 21st century, a great liberal arts university requires a great engineering school,” he wrote.

The number of engineering majors at Princeton has risen from about 19 percent in 2012-13 to 28 percent of the University’s undergraduate students today, and the computer science department teaches more students and has more majors than any other department.  There were about 36 computer science majors in the class of 2011, and there are more than 200 prospective commuter science majors in this year’s junior class.

“Princeton is investing boldly in its School of Engineering and Applied Science,” Eisgruber said, noting the massive building project for the new Environmental Studies and School of Engineering and Applied Science (ES+SEAS) campus between Prospect Avenue and Western Way. He also pointed out, “Because our School of Engineering and Applied Science is integrated into the liberal arts ethos of the University, we can educate engineers who create and apply technology deeply informed by the insights and values drawn from the arts, humanities, and social and natural sciences.”

Eisgruber went on to discuss the dangers and opportunities inherent in the current “communications environment” that “poses a fundamental challenge to our civic life and to truth-seeking institutions, including colleges and universities,” and he continued to enumerate a wide variety of initiatives and projects that the University is committed to in working to achieve its mission.

He highlighted the opening of two new residential colleges, Yeh College and New College West, last fall, which allowed the University to welcome the largest entering class of students in its history. Increasing the socioeconomic diversity of the University and making a Princeton education accessible to more students from more different backgrounds were among the highest priorities mentioned.

Racial diversity was also a theme of his letter, and Eisgruber noted that the University would not be deterred in its quest for diversity by the possibility of an impending unfavorable decision in the Supreme Court’s current affirmative action case. 

“If the court imposes new restrictions upon us, we must of course comply with them,” he wrote, “but we will also be creative and persistent in our efforts to preserve and build upon the diversity of our scholarly and educational community. That diversity is a source of great strength to this University, and it will be essential to our future and the future of this country.”

Opportunities for discussion of the State of the University letter, which is available on the University website at princeton.edu, will take place at two open meetings: on Monday, February 20 from 4:30 to 6 p.m. for students, faculty, and members of the broader University community in the First Campus Center multipurpose room; and on Wednesday, February 22 at 10 a.m. in Richardson Auditorium for University staff members. Eisgruber will discuss the letter and invite questions at both sessions.