Reflections on Goheen’s ‘cool leadership’
I covered the president’s beat for The Daily Princetonian and was privileged to get to know Robert Goheen as he led Princeton. I interviewed him once for an editorial titled “The Role of the University in Society.” A classics professor, he believed that it was necessary to steer between the two extremes: total aloofness, which abdicated the University’s obligation to provide moral and intellectual leadership, and total involvement, which abdicated the obligation to provide objective criticism and a place apart from the changing pressures of society. You just had to steer through the rocks.
The steps he took to provide University-sponsored social alternatives to the club system exemplified his approach. In my sophomore year, I happened to share an entry in Holder Hall with some of the leaders of the Class of 1970. Joe Dehner ’70 came to me one night and said that the University recognized that it needed to develop an alternative to the club system, but that the administration could not move on its own. It had to respond to a demand by the students. If enough of us signed a petition for a University alternative, the administration had let it be known that it would respond. We did, and it did, President Goheen working quietly to make things better.
His big test came in May 1970, when the invasion of Cambodia and the shootings at Kent State shocked — and effectively shut down — the University. How would Princeton respond? Under Goheen’s cool leadership, Princeton devoted itself to making a constructive difference where it could, organizing to help candidates in congressional races, calling on respected alumni to exercise their influence and using the symbols at our disposal. The University awarded an honorary degree to Bob Dylan. FitzRandolph Gate, which for decades had been opened only once a year to allow the graduating class to exit and then re-chained, was unchained and left open to symbolize the interaction and interdependence of the University and society.
Elegance of thought, moral courage, openness to all viewpoints, dedication to the life of the mind — yes. But more than that — always working for progress. President Goheen once remarked, “It takes guts to look a man in the eye and ask him for $6 million.” Adjust this for gender bias and inflation, and you have the essence of President Goheen: the courage to make things better.
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