Wilson School reforms spur mostly positive reactions
The Wilson School’s undergraduate program has long held a prestigious reputation derived at least in part from its status as the only selective major at the University, according to students, faculty and alumni interviewed by The Daily Princetonian following Thursday’s announcement that the concentration would no longer be selective.
Following the program’s announcement of the changes to be made to the department beginning with the Class of 2015 — including the end of its admission process — members of the University community said they hoped that the program would attract a higher proportion of students genuinely interested in public service in future years.
“This year, talking with some of the sophomores who were accepted into this program, I found myself thinking, ‘I don’t really know if you’re really interested in public policy so much as being able to say that ‘I got into a major that is exclusive,’ ” Wilson School concentrator Sydney Booker ’12 said.
“I perceive that Wilson School majors going into finance or consulting are as common as [those] going into actual service, working at think tanks and attending graduate schools,” Wilson School concentrator Will Schleier ’13 noted.
Only 9 percent of Wilson School seniors said they planned to work in government last year and only 18 percent said they planned to work at a nonprofit organization, according to the Class of 2010 Senior Survey, Wilson School Associate Dean Nolan McCarty said in an email.
He added that the numbers were similar to those of previous years and that the respective figures for students in the social sciences were 5 and 12 percent.
Still, Wilson School Dean Christina Paxson said that, because the undergraduate program was meant to be part of a liberal arts education, the larger concern for the review committee was opening the program to everyone interested in public and international affairs rather than trying to raise the proportion of students taking government jobs upon graduation.
“People are more mobile than ever before,” she explained. “You can look at first jobs, but that doesn’t tell you a whole lot about the rest of their careers.”
The review committee, cochaired by McCarty and former University president Harold Shapiro GS ’64, was tasked with examining the success of the department in preparing students for leadership in public service.
Wilson School professor Robert Keohane said that the application to the program, which consists of short essays, an academic transcript, a recommendation and a tentative course plan, did not allow the admission committee to effectively gauge which students were most interested in pursuing a career in public policy.
“We didn’t think these were reliable judgments of the students, their academic ability and how much they want to be in these programs,” he said.
Following the Robertson lawsuit — a six-year legal battle settled in 2008 that raised questions about the success of the Wilson School’s graduate programs in placing students in public service jobs — the department’s M.P.A., M.P.P. and Ph.D. programs went through a similar internal evaluation resulting in significant changes.
From 1998 to 2002, between 37 and 55 percent of the Wilson School’s graduate students entered public service. Today that number has climbed to over 85 percent, according to the department’s website.
Still, some Wilson School professors said that the elimination of the selection process was merely one part of a package of reforms that aim to better engage senior faculty that were losing interest in teaching and advising undergraduate students.
The introduction of four prerequisite courses — ECO 100: Introduction to Microeconomics, one statistics course, one history course and one course in politics, psychology or sociology — for example, would give all students a common basic foundation.
“There were faculty members who complained that some students didn’t know what a proportion was,” Keohane said. “There were students in their junior year who wanted to study inequality, but they didn’t know the most fundamental of statistics.”
The replacement of a junior task force with a research seminar has gained particular traction among the faculty.
Paxson said that a number of widely recognized professors who rarely, if ever, teach undergraduate students have already expressed interest in teaching those seminars in coming years.
Wilson School professor Stan Katz said that, though he respected the views of the majority of the department’s faculty, he opposed the changes.
“From my point of view, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he said, noting in particular that the elimination of the selective admission process was unnecessary. “I view it as a political decision — there was a democratic imperative. It was not becoming to have an elitist program at Princeton. I think that view was wrong. It was not elitist. It was meritocratic.”
He added that approving the reforms would encourage an increased level of disciplinary rigor at the cost of the multidisciplinary nature of the program.
“The basic problem was that the senior faculty weren’t teaching,” he said. “They were more interested in the graduate students and students in their own departments. They were insulted by the fact that the people taking their classes and their advisees were not well-trained enough, or at least so they thought, on the disciplinary end.”
“That really was the issue,” he added. “They aren’t really public policy scholars. They are disciplinary superstars.”
Adrienne Clermont ’09, who concentrated in the Wilson School, noted that it was difficult to gain the attention of the department’s faculty as an undergraduate student.
“It was very difficult to get adequate faculty attention when I was in the program,” she said. “I had friends who had a lot of trouble finding thesis advisors.”
Recent alumni said that the elimination of an admission process would help the Wilson School educate students genuinely interested in pursuing careers in public policy.
“I think the fact that it was selective was attracting a lot of students who were not as interested in the public service aspect of the school,” Clermont explained.
Clermont said she took many courses related to international development as a Wilson School concentrator and is currently working for a non-profit organization with a similar focus.
Wilson School concentrator Rob Barnett ’09 said that, while many of his classmates did enter public service after graduation, the prestige of the department was a factor for some students who joined the program. Barnett, who currently teaches high school mathematics in Washington, D.C., said he will attend Harvard Law School in the fall.
“I do think that the selectivity contributed to the prestige,” he explained. “I don’t think that, for most of the students in the department, that it was the determining factor for their choice, but it was there.”