Shirley M. Tilghman

President of Princeton University

“The Public Good of Private Colleges and Universities”

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Jide J. Zeitlin, chair of Amherst’s Board of Trustees: Good afternoon. My name is Jide J. Zeitlin. I chair the Board here at Amherst, and it is my distinct pleasure to introduce Shirley Tilghman to you all this afternoon.

Shirley began as a molecular biologist, then became a professor and then became the president of Princeton University. She’s a renowned leader in the sciences and in academia. She earned her bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and just informed us, actually, that she is the second Canadian to become president of Princeton in a row, which is interesting.

She earned her Doctorate in 1968 in biochemistry from Temple University. Actually, in 1975—sorry to add the years. From there, she moved to the National Institutes of Health, then to the Institute for Cancer Research, the University of Pennsylvania, the Howard Hughes Medical Center and then to the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. In 1986, she arrived at Princeton as the Howard Prior Professor of the Life Sciences, and then, from 1993 to 2000, she chaired the university’s Council on Science and Technology. In 1998, she became the founding director of the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics, and in 2001, she stepped into the role of president, the first ever woman president to do so at Princeton.

Just as her research has helped to unlock the mysteries of animal and human genomes, President Tilghman’s leadership at the university has unlocked the doors to higher education and science careers for many young people. Princeton, as with Amherst, is increasing both the size and economic diversity of the student body, as well as offering more childcare services, as well as new postdoctoral teaching fellowships for its faculty. President Tilghman’s trailblazing efforts have earned her memberships in numerous scientific societies, including the L'Oréal-UNESCO Award for Women in Science, a Lifetime Achievement Award for the Society of Development Biology and, in 2007, a Genetics Society of America Medal. So with that, thank you; we are honored to have you speak with us.

Tilghman: Thank you very much for that lovely introduction, and thank you all for being here this afternoon. I can imagine that you have many things that you could be doing on this truly celebratory weekend, where you are celebrating the graduation of your sons and daughters. And the fact that you are willing to come to a geology laboratory lecture hall to hear somebody talk about the public good of private colleges and universities shows a devotion to education that is really striking. So now I understand how your sons and daughters ended up here at Amherst College.

As I was asked to provide what I hope will be a relatively brief lecture that can be followed by lots of discussion, it did strike me that this might be a very good time to talk about some of  the challenges that are facing higher education in this country. It does feel like a challenging time. It is a time when universities and colleges, like Princeton and like Amherst, feel, to a certain extent, that we are under siege. We are under siege, in some cases, for what I believe are really legitimate reasons. And, in some cases, for what I believe are deep misperceptions about the nature of universities and their role in society.

So, the legitimate reasons. I think the most legitimate reason, and I think it is actually at the heart of some of the discourse that has happened, particularly in Washington, is a deep and legitimate concern about the price of higher education. Now some of you in this room have just written your last check to Amherst College, so I know you know precisely what it is I am talking about. As this country continues to flourish and thrive because of our ability to educate as many of our young men and women, and the importance of doing that, I think we have to be enormously mindful of the fact that we must be sure that with the combination of financial aid and grants and loans, that we are making it possible for every gifted student who can do university work to have the opportunity to come to our colleges and universities. So I think this is, indeed, something that we need to be extremely attentive to.

In some cases, I think there have been very unfortunate practices at colleges and universities surrounding relationships with private-sector providers of services. For example, providers of student loans, where there is either the perception of a conflict of interest, or in some cases, I think there have been legitimate conflicts of interests, where universities were actually benefiting from the relationships that they [were] encouraging between student loan providers and their students. That, I think, is something that we have to be extremely alert to and we have to eliminate it. If there is one thing that we must preserve as institutions, it is our integrity. I think integrity really is at the heart of the confidence that the American people have always had in the important roles that universities and colleges play in this country.

Now where I think I’m going to be slightly more critical of the discourse of the discussions coming out of Washington is in the conversations around endowments. As some of you know, Sen. Grassley and Sen. Backus have challenged those of us with the largest endowments in the country to justify those endowments—to explain those endowments, how we invest them and how we can put those endowments to work for the benefit of the students who attend our colleges and universities. And some of that discourse, particularly here in the state of Massachusetts, is a function of a deep misunderstanding of endowments. For example, I believe that there is an interesting proposal at the moment in the Massachusetts legislature which is proposing to tax endowments that are greater than a billion dollars in the state of Massachusetts, on a yearly basis, something to the tune of 1.5 percent a year. Now that, frankly, is I think what they correctly describe as the Willie Sutton effect. That is, as you remember, that famous story of Willie Sutton: a famous bank robber was asked why he robbed banks, and his answer was, “Well, that’s where the money is.”

I think that’s what the Massachusetts legislature definitely has on their minds, but it clearly also represents a misunderstanding about endowments. The fact [is] that the vast majority of our endowments are a legal deed restricted to very specific purposes. We don’t have discretion as to how income from those endowments is being spent. And the notion that the state legislature could reach in and essentially tax those endowments is simply laughable in my view. But nevertheless, there are these issues that are percolating out there, and it is very important that colleges and universities like Princeton and Amherst respond, and respond in a clear and effective way.

As I have thought about this problem, I believe that, at its heart, is what I would call a failure of presidents of those universities and colleges to articulate the role of colleges and universities in this country in a very clear way. I think if you were to ask most people, “What do colleges and universities provide?”, they would say it’s pretty clear: They provide a private good to the handful of very lucky students who attend our private colleges and universities in the form of an education. And that is true. It is absolutely the case. That is what we provide to those lucky students. But it misses a much broader set of public goods that colleges and universities also provide in this country, and I just want to articulate what some of those are and how I believe, if we were to just talk about these effectively in the country, we would not be in such a defensive posture as we are currently.

For me, the number one public good that colleges and universities like Amherst and Princeton provide is social mobility. We live in a time, in a world, and we live in a country, where the gap between the rich and the poor is widening by the day. I want to give you some numbers. There are many ways of framing this and using statistics to make a point. But let me just give you a couple that I was able to find in the literature. In 2005, the income of the top 1 percent of income earners in this country was 21 percent of the total income earned in the country. That has not been true since the Great Depression. The last time it was that high was in 1928, the year before the Great Depression. The top 300,000 people in this country earn the equivalent of the bottom 150 million people in this country. In 2005, income actually grew in the United States — 9 percent, income grew. And yet, none of it, none of the growth, went to the bottom 90 percent of wage earners. Those wage earners actually saw a decline in their real income in that year. In other words, it was the top 10 percent who saw the higher gain in income.

These are deeply problematic numbers for this country, but the one, I think, that troubled me the most was one that I heard the other day from Larry Summers. He had been looking at the correlation between income intergenerationally. Historically, in this country, the correlation—and remember, zero means no correlation, and one means perfect correlation—over the last 100 years, that correlation in this country has actually been declining from a very high correlation to a lesser correlation until about 15 years ago. And 15 years ago, the correlation, which now sits at about .4, flattened out and now the correlation is actually going up. What that means is that your parents’ income is a much better predictor of your income in the future than it was 10 or 15 years ago. All of these are ways of saying that we are a country that is at risk of a deep polarization between those in the top and the vast majority who are at the bottom.

So, what does that have to do with Amherst and Princeton? As I have thought about all of the levers that we can pull in this country to narrow that down, there is no lever that is more powerful than a college education. No lever that is more powerful, that has the greater likelihood of actually taking someone in the bottom quintile of the income bracket and moving them up into the higher quintiles. It’s been demonstrated over and over again that this, in fact, is the power of education. When I think about the public good that is provided by colleges and universities like Amherst and Princeton, with their extremely generous financial aid and with their commitment to finding students—you can’t be passive in this business. You have to actually go out and aggressively find students who can actually take advantage of what we in science call “the delta.” The delta is the difference between what your life expectancy would have been in terms of had you not gone to a university like Princeton, or a college like Amherst, and what your likelihood for success is going to be after you have done it—so, social mobility. If there is one public good that colleges and universities provide, I think this is the one. I am deeply admiring of Tony Marx. He is speaking up about this issue and putting his money—i.e., Amherst’s money—where his mouth is, because that is what it’s going to take for this to happen in this country. That’s one public good.

The second one I want to just touch on very briefly is one that really was only true after the Second World War That is, research universities became the research engine of this country. They became the sources of innovation, the sources of creativity. The creative—the enormous economic prosperity that the top 10 percent have enjoyed over the last 50 years. It needn’t have been that way, by the way. If you think about where we were right after the Second World War, most of the fundamental research that was happening in this country was either happening in private institutes like the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, for example, on Long Island, or in the government laboratories, some of which existed before the war. But several of them, like Oak Ridge National Laboratory, were really created during the Second World War to work on weapons—in particular, to work on nuclear weapons.

It could well have been that a very plausible decision could have been made at that time by President Truman that the federal government was going to continue to invest in research, but was going to do it at these private and government laboratories. But instead, he made a different decision. He made the decision to link education and research—scientific engineering, technological research. He put the country’s research in the hands of amateurs, students. If you look and see who does research in our laboratories—graduate students, undergraduates, postdoctoral fellows, trainees—that’s who’s doing the great research that is happening in this country. It’s turned out to be one of the most brilliant public policy decisions this country ever made. Because there is something magical that happens when you have a group of young, vicious, smart and naïve young people proposing experiments, then doing them and finding out whether they work or not.

We are the envy of the world, frankly, when it comes to our capacity to do innovation and creativity, particularly at the fundamental level. I would argue it’s because it is done by students and it is being done in universities. So if you look at the biotech industry, it was created at two universities on the West Coast—UCSF and Stanford. You look at the Internet. The Internet grew out of Silicon Valley, it grew out of Stanford. If you look at what happened with telecom—on and on and on. The new industries that have created so much wealth in this country have grown out of our great universities, and that is a critically important public good that we provide as universities.

The third one that I want to mention happens in all college and universities, and that is: We are a safe place where we can have very difficult discussions. If you watch what is happening this spring in our national election, the kind of national debate that we are trying to have about race, not very well, in my view. But thanks to Barack Obama’s simply extraordinary speech that he gave in Philadelphia, we are trying, as a country, to have a debate about the impact of race on our national life.

Those debates happen all the time at colleges and universities, and they happen for two reasons: They happen because of the nature of the student bodies that we gather together at our colleges and universities. We purposely go out to attract a student body that will bring many perspectives, whether it is about religion, whether it is about ethnicity, whether it is about gender, race, whether it is about socioeconomic status.  All of those things are represented in our very diverse and very interesting student bodies, and it allows us the possibility to have those discussions where lots of different perspectives are coming to the table. The second thing, of course, is that’s what education is all about. It is exploring ideas—exploring, in some cases, very, very difficult ideas. Universities and colleges provide, I think, safe havens where those discussions can occur with the purpose of sending out into the world educated men and women who are going to be able to help Barack Obama as he tries to lead this country in a discussion about the importance of race in America. So, safe havens. Very, very important.

The last one that I want to just mention, and then I’m going to open the floor for your questions, is the role that colleges and universities play in their own communities. As I had a few minutes when I arrived this afternoon to walk around this absolutely beautiful place and to see many things that remind me of Princeton in terms of the beauty of the town, the integration of the town with the university, the sense of peace and tranquility, I would be willing to venture that the impact that Amherst has on this community is very similar to the tremendous impact that Princeton has on its own community in central New Jersey. It’s not simply that we are one of the largest employers in central New Jersey, which we absolutely are—which of course means we also create the most traffic, which is of intense discussion a lot of the time—but we also create, in central New Jersey, extraordinary opportunities for its citizens. Whether it is the availability for the people in our community to come and audit classes—we have a very, very significant auditing program where citizens take courses, and often very difficult courses. They even take my Introduction to Molecular Biology class, for heaven’s sake, and really love the ability to go back to college, essentially. Once again, to the public lectures that are happening all the time on campus. In any given year, you are likely to hear the King of Jordan speak, as well as Condoleezza Rice, as well as Michelle Obama, for example. Opportunities to really personally hear individuals who matter. And then, of course, there is the theater, dance and the music that happens all the time on our campuses and are open to the community. And of course, all of the athletic events that bring people from the community and their children to our events all the time. So I think [one of] the things that we do as a public good, and we take it very seriously in central New Jersey, is [that] we create a rich, rich place to live and to experience the breadth that a university can bring to a community, almost uniquely. I can’t think of another kind of organization that has the capacity to create that wealth of experience for the people who live in its neighborhood. Very important public good.

The last thing I want to say in closing is that as we critique, correctly critique, some of the things that colleges and universities are engaged in today, I think we must always continue to remember that at their best, and Amherst is in that category, we are the best in the world at higher education. There’s a deep irony that the country that clearly has the best higher education system in the world has one of the most mediocre K-12 systems, but that’s another lecture, and I’m not going to give it. But it is ironic that we have this simply extraordinary system of higher education. It is broad, it is diverse. Diverse in the sense that no one would confuse MIT with Bard, for example: two utterly different, but very excellent and interesting, higher education institutions.

If we didn’t believe we were in the best of the world, or if you don’t believe it, I can prove it by showing you the flows of students from around the world. We are a destination. I was one of those students who came to America to do my graduate work because I knew that if I was going to become a scientist, this was the place to train. Of course, many of us chose to stay after our education and contribute to the United States. That has been a net good for this country. That has been a very significant net good for this country. As we think about our higher education system, which I do believe is the best in the world, we should approach it from, I think, two important perspectives: One is, we can always be better. There are things that we are doing that we should absolutely be doing better. On the other hand, we should not harm unnecessarily a system that has served this country, and I would argue served the world, enormously well over the last hundred years.

I’m going to conclude with that statement, and I want to once again thank you all for coming this afternoon, to tell you what an honor it is for me to be here at Amherst and to look forward to hearing about all of your sons and daughters at Commencement tomorrow. Thank you.

Audience member: In terms of higher education systems serving this country, is there a way, in the financial packages that these kids receive, for there to be a tie-in, so that they can go back, for example, and help make a contribution to society? For example, in the K-12 system just for a couple of years? So that there is a little bit of payback, for the lack of a better word?

Tilghman: We had thought a lot about this in 2001, when Princeton eliminated loans. I should say, I think on the whole it was warmly embraced by the Princeton community, but not universally. One of the criticisms was: Shouldn’t there be a payback of some kind? If we’re going to eliminate any requirement for a student to assume some responsibility, some fraction of their education, shouldn’t we require a payback? We decided against that, and I’ll tell you why.

What we wanted to do for all of our students is create opportunities for them to think as broadly as possible about what they would do immediately after graduation. As you can imagine, we had a student body where some fraction of them had no debt after graduation, and some fraction had [$]10,000, [$]12,000—you know, whatever the number was. They were making very different career choices as their next-step choice, and we wanted them all to be completely free to choose to go into public service if, in fact, that is what they wanted to do. So we have now graduated five classes debt free. CeCe Rouse, who’s in our department of economics, has now done a study of the first three classes, to ask, “Are their choices different than the three classes who graduated right before we changed our policy?” The remarkable thing is, they are absolutely different. She is measuring substantial differences in how they are choosing to spend their next couple of years. So I think what you are suggesting is actually happening without coercion, which is the best possible outcome.

Audience member: That word should get out there.

Tilghman: Yeah, it is. CeCe is going to be publishing this.

Audience member: You talked about the disparity of wealth in this country and how research by young students contributes to the wealth of this country. But on the other hand, if you look at the polls today, the majority of the richest people used to be from this country and from North America. Now the majority, the top five richest people, are from somewhere else. People like you and me, the influx of people like you and me to this country, have contributed in many positive ways. My question to you is: What is the responsibility of universities, like yours, in increasing the interest in science and technology education, especially in K-12, when the interest seems to be fading away?

Tilghman: That’s a deep and important question. I actually think colleges and universities are not guilt-free in the steady decline in the interest in careers in science and engineering that begins in middle schools and high schools. In fact, nationally, if you look, there’s a very significant drop-off. As we watch what students do once they arrive at Princeton, the two divisions in our curriculum where we lose students is in the natural sciences and engineering. The gain is almost entirely in the social sciences, particularly in economics, politics, history. He who is without guilt should throw the first stone. I think our first priority is to really look at what we are doing in the areas of science education and ask why are we losing students who come, having a clear interest in, maybe not a passion for, but a clear interest in science.

I have lots of answers—I don’t have answers; I have lots of hypotheses and experiments, one of which we are doing that has been a stunning success, I will say. It was not mine, it’s David Botstein’s, who has created an integrated science curriculum that is taken by freshmen and sophomores, intended to keep them in science and to keep them interested. We’ve just sent the first group off to graduate school. It’s very exciting, the success of that program. When you go back to K-12, this is a huge, huge problem, as you well know. To give you the statistic I always use that just emphasizes how big a problem this is: 67 percent of physics high school teachers in this country do not have a degree in physics. If there’s one thing that I have learned as a teacher over many years, [it] is [that] if you don’t understand something, you cannot teach it to somebody else. My sense is that we have to begin by incentivizing young science graduates to think about going back into high school teaching. That means we’re going to have to pay them better. That means we’re going to have to have work conditions that are comparable to what they find in other sectors where they can go out and use their degrees. I think it’s the only way I can imagine going forward with it.

Audience member: I don’t think my question was answered. My question is: What is the response by the institutions like Princeton and Amherst in improving in the attraction of, and encouraging young students between K-12 to go into science. Is there a possibility of [unintelligible] between Princeton and Amherst?

Tilghman: I guess I was trying to answer the question by saying I think our highest responsibility is to make sure that we are doing the best job that we possibly can once we get those students there. I think to ask Amherst and Princeton, et al, to take responsibility for what is a national failure of will is asking us to do more than I think we’re actually capable of doing. This is going to require national will.

Audience member: What I was going to ask was sort of what I thought was separate from what he said, but it may be somewhat the same. You mentioned that public policy, governmental policy, Truman, made research what it is today at universities. You also mentioned that other countries are jealous of us. They’re sending their students to us. There’s the impression of an anti-science movement within the government of the United States. We see that is in a lot of ways, including where money goes, and research money for young investigators as well. My question was: The stem cell thing—is that real and translatable to the fact that there is an anti-science movement, or is it not?

Tilghman: I would describe the movement that we have been living through in the last seven-and-a-half years as not so much anti-science, but the politicalization of science. That’s really, fundamentally, what has happened. So that when critical public policy decisions are being made, they’re being made on the basis of politics and not on the basis of good science. I think this is a temporary problem, unless the American people do something truly, staggeringly stupid in November. I think there is already lots of evidence that a lot of the things that have been deeply troubling to me, as I have watched this politicalization of science, and stem cells is the most visible of these.

But look what’s happening with evolution. This is stunning, right? Stunning, the theory of evolution, in 2008, is still being questioned and weighed as co-equal with intelligent design, which is not a theory. It’s a religious perspective, right?

I think NASA has been significantly politicized, and one of the things that I worry about a great deal in terms of NASA is that we’re living right now through the golden age of cosmology. Astrophysics right now is discovering more things about the nature of the universe per year than in the history of the whole of science. This is a stunningly important and exciting moment in that field. Yet, the dollars that should be going to the science of cosmology are being directed toward more manned flights to Mars and to the moon. No one believes that has any scientific merit whatsoever, yet it’s the science budget that’s being used to fund what is essentially a political decision.

Where I think we are faced with the most profound politicalization of science is in energy policy. It’s tragic at a time when I don’t think there’s a person left who doesn’t believe that we are going to have to find an alternative for the burning of fossil fuels. The sooner we do it, the better for the planet. We have a Department of Energy that is supporting alternative energies that create more carbon in the atmosphere than they solve. This is nutty. One of the great things about the National Science Foundation, NASA and the NSF, the National Institutes of Health and GOE is that over many, many years, they were completely protected from politics. They really were run by professionals who were buffered from the political process and that changed eight years ago. So we have to get back.

Audience member: Do you worry at all that the allure of places like Amherst and Princeton are changing what students, younger students, particularly high schoolers, the identities they form for themselves as students, because there’s a need to become a sort of master of everything in order to get into places like Amherst and Princeton, rather than learn how to pursue a couple of interests in a manner that’s truly deep and meaningful?

Tilghman: I do worry about it. I worry about it a lot. I think the intensification that has occurred around college admissions is deeply worrying to me, and it is one of the reasons why we eliminated early decision last year. We believe that early decision is pushing that intensification back earlier and earlier and earlier and earlier in a high school career, and it was encouraging gaming of the system. We just admitted our first class with no early program whatsoever, and it is every bit as good, every bit as diverse, every bit as talented as any class as we’ve ever admitted to Princeton University, which proves that you can really do it without the need for early programs.

The intensification, and your question, I think, is a really great one, is based on a false premise. The false premise is that there are only a handful of colleges and universities in this country that provide a really first-class education. That’s wrong. That’s just patently wrong. One of my friends is the headmistress of Lawrenceville, and she was telling me the other day she had a parent in her office, just screaming at her, because her child had gotten into Northwestern. That’s crazy. That’s a great, great university that delivers an absolutely first-class, world-class education. So I think some of this pressure is based on this utterly false premise that there aren’t many, many fine places to go to college in the United States, and that there is going to be one that’s just right for each student. But I’m worried about it.

Audience member:  Don’t Amherst and Princeton and its ilk sort of support that notion, though? When you talk about what Princeton’s doing and what Tony Marx is doing, which I think is great, going out and seeking students, socio-economically less privileged students you wouldn’t otherwise find at Princeton or at Amherst, it isn’t that those kids aren’t going to go to college somewhere. But really what they’re saying is we want to give them a Princeton education, we want to give them an Amherst education, because it is special. We’re not taking a kid who’s going to graduate from high school and go work on the assembly line. We’re taking a kid that, I won’t pick on Northwestern, but would go to Northwestern or maybe someplace even less prestigious, much less prestigious. And second, we are special. We are giving them something that really does matter. That’s what we’re doing. Maybe there’s a trickle-up effect because …

Tilghman: That’s a fair criticism. But what I would say in response to that is that we are seeking out those students because it will create a more effective educational experience for all of our students. Every student will benefit from having the student who comes from the Texas panhandle, a tiny little farming community in the Texas panhandle. Or comes from a refugee camp in Kenya …

Audience member: I think there’s no question in the value of Amherst or Princeton. But going back to your answer to the parents saying, I want my kid to get into Amherst or Princeton, we’re really kind of saying they’re right.

Tilghman: I guess what I am saying is that if I could design the whole thing, I think what each one of us wants to do is create a student body that is going to educate each other. That does require going out and finding those students who would otherwise not go to Northwestern, but go to the local community college. I’m on the board of an organization that is actually going out and trying to find kids from rural communities. When we first encountered them—and they’re coming to Amherst, by the way, those kids that we find—their intent, because it’s what their family has always done, is to go to the local community college. Having those students sitting in our dining halls, and on our athletic teams, and in our a capella groups: it’s a win for everybody. I’m seeding you, I think, at least some fraction of …

Audience member: I don’t know. It’s unfortunate it’s out there. It’s pretty hard to combat it with the insidious [fact about ranking].

Tilghman: I understand.

Audience member:  I’m intrigued and dismayed at the wonderful brilliance and creativity that you described in most of our universities and colleges. And dismayed by the incredible lack of integrity, honesty and wisdom that pervades our government. What happened to these allegedly educated people, for them to go to this Eastern capital city and make incredibly absurd mistakes? What happened?

Tilghman: I’m as dismayed and as mystified as you are. We spend a lot of time thinking about this at Princeton because we have the Woodrow Wilson School, which is for public and international affairs. It is one of the jewels in the Princeton crown, and its intent is to prepare students for lives in public service. What our students will tell us is the conditions of working in government right now are very discouraging to them. Particularly at entry-level jobs. Very, very discouraging for them. These are students who come out of the Wilson School with a master’s in public affairs. They’ve trained for these jobs. This is what they want to do. And some fraction, of course, do go to Washington and do have very, very distinguished careers in public service. 

One of our most distinguished graduates, who cares deeply about this, is Paul Volcker. Paul is currently working at the school on a major kind of task force on how to reinvent government service so that it will be attractive to these wonderful M.B.A. students of the Wilson School and will inspire people to go into government. I think that for elected office, as we’ve watched what all of those candidates have put themselves through over the last year, two years, three years … I don’t know, they’ve all been running so long, I don’t even know how to date how long this election’s been going on. I think it takes a very unusual person to be able to put themselves and their family through what is required. Which is again, a whole other lecture! I think Canadians do this a lot better.

Audience member: I say this as a friend, but friends need to ask the tough questions before other people do. I’m not sure that Princeton and Amherst have gone far enough. Listening to Tony, and to what you have said, I think it’s quite admirable, the steps that have been taken so far. But as a tuition-writing parent, the tuition goes up the rate of inflation every year. What do we have to show for it? We have world-class gyms, we have dining halls and dorms, and an ever-increasing endowment. So my question is, truly, thinking critically about it, the University of Pennsylvania Medical School has taken a position that they would like to have free education for their entire student body, all four years of medical school. They’re part of the way there. Is that kind of radical thinking something that Amherst and Princeton, who have these enormous endowments, should be thinking about? Have we gone far enough in our present state to be loan-free?

Tilghman: We ask ourselves that question all the time. Literally, every year when we prepare the budget, we begin by asking, Are we doing enough? Are there adjustments, changes, additions that we should be doing in order to make Princeton more affordable?

The net cost for attending Princeton has actually gone down 25 percent in the last 10 years, which we’re very proud of. The net cost in inflation-adjusted dollars has gone down 25 percent in the last 10 years. So we’ve been working on this pretty hard. A lot of it is a decision that you can’t make in a vacuum. For example, we are making a major investment in the engineering school in the field of energy and the environment because we’ve decided that this is such an important area. We ourselves are going to put in a significant amount of money into enhancing that part of the university and its capacity to respond to what’s going on. We could have decided not to do that and said [that] what we’re going to do instead is underwrite tuition even more aggressively. These are trade-offs that universities must make, and I would say that the kind of improvements that I’ve seen in  my time at Princeton have been far more in the category of improvements to financial aid than in fancy dining halls and climbing walls and all kinds of things that you read about in the paper. Every September, I hide in my office for two weeks while the parents, who take one look at their dorm room, want to find the president to complain about it. We’re not making luxury accommodations for students at all. But we are in a business of making these very difficult trade-offs and how we mobilize the unrestricted part of the endowment. As I said before, we have no choice in the restricted part of the endowment, but [in] the unrestricted part, every year, we have to make that decision.

Audience member: I guess I would feel more comfortable if there were more diversity in the comprehensive fee, because that would imply to me that there was true competition out there. That there was some institution that’s made a decision to really cut the cost to students with all the implications that adds. That’s a complex decision, as you say. But there is not that diversity. The comprehensive fees are what, $4,000 apart? That’s not competition. That’s not a diversity of approach.

Audience member: Can you please elaborate about the gap year policy?

Tilghman: I’d love to talk about the gap year program because it actually comes back to your question. We are proposing that, beginning in September of 2009, we will offer to incoming freshmen, who’ve been admitted and who’ve been accepted, the opportunity to take a gap year, which we’re calling a bridge year because it sounds better. It must involve two things: It must be international, and it must involve public service. It is not a year where you do more studying.

We actually want a year where students are really engaged in working on behalf of others. We are—and again, this will come back to your question—we are going to underwrite it ourselves so that it will be largely … we will certainly offer the same financial aid that we would if the students were matriculating. And we’re considering—here’s where we’re having to do the trade-offs and the balancing act—actually underwriting every single student, because don’t want to have to ask families who are paying for four years of Princeton to now have to underwrite a fifth year. We’re actually thinking about underwriting the whole program ourselves. 

We’re doing it for two reasons. One is: We do think the decompression after high school, some maturing after high school, would be a very, very good thing. We would love to have a [cohort] of freshmen who have spent a year thinking about others and who have lived in a different culture and have maybe learned a different language. We think that will be a really positive impact on the entire university campus, so we’re very excited about this program. Thank you for asking.

Zeitlin: Thank you very, very much. Thank you for talking with us. It is very clear just how fortunate Princeton is to have you, so thank you for being with us this weekend.