In installation, Eisgruber argues liberal arts education is worth the cost| Sep 22, 2013
As Kathryn Hall ’80 stepped forward to deliver the opening remarks for the installation of Christopher Eisgruber ’83, the man of the hour grabbed her arm and pointed at a chair.
Should he remain standing as she spoke or sit in the outsized wooden throne on the Nassau Hall stage, Eisgruber seemed to ask, as 1,200 audience members laughed.
Hall, the chair of the Board of Trustees, motioned for him to sit. The 20thUniversity president slid into his chair.
By the end of the hour-long ceremony, Eisgruber’s role at the University was clear.
In a ceremony rich with pomp and Princeton tradition, Eisgruber was inaugurated as the University’s new president on a quintessentially fall Sunday afternoon. Sharing the stage with the University’s Board of Trustees, faculty, administrators and living former presidents, Eisgruber was installed in the formal culmination of a presidential turnover that began exactly a year ago Sunday when Shirley Tilghman announced her plan to retire.
Before a sprawling audience on the front lawn of Nassau Hall, Eisgruber defended the liberal arts education as an institution that helps steer students away from their imperfections. Drawing on James Madison’s writing in the Federalist Papers that “if men were angels, no government would be necessary,” the constitutional law professor argued for 18 minutes that the liberal arts and its educators mold people’s talents.
Constitutional law and the liberal arts education, which Eisgruber described as his life’s “enduring inspiration[s],” help correct human nature’s flaws, he said. Because people are not angels, Eisgruber explained, they need the liberal arts just like they need laws.
“If people were angels, they would have no need for teachers,” he said. “The generations of students who have come to Nassau Hall, including the great James Madison, have wanted teachers to fire their imaginations, dispel their misconceptions, explode their prejudices, stir their spirits and guide their passions.”
The liberal arts education, Eisgruber said, is under attack because humans are not perfectly rational creatures who think in the long-term. Eisgruber portrayed higher education as an expensive commitment with a future payoff that makes the investment worth it.
“Great colleges and universities are not cheap. They require big investments, and they are also among the best investments that this nation, or any nation, can make,” he said.
Eisgruber also signaled that he would take this advocacy beyond the University he leads and participate in the public debate about the liberal arts. He called on the University to play a leadership role in these discussions and said that the school has an “obligation and opportunity” to lead beyond the private school’s walls.
Tradition, which provides short-term energy, Eisgruber said, can preserve the liberal arts in the long-term. The University does that well, he noted.
Tradition was laced through the event,which dates back to the 1748 installation of Aaron Burr, Sr., when he spoke for 45 minutes in Latin from memory. Though the University’s charter does not require the ceremony, the installation offers the University president an opportunity to make an inaugural address and retake the oath of office, which was administered by Hall. Tilghman stood a step behind him and smiled as her successor promised to uphold the values and duties of the Constitution, the state of New Jersey and Princeton University.
Members of the University community wore the academic gowns usually seen at Opening Exercises and Commencement. The procession took faculty, administrators and trustees to about 50 seats placed on a boarded-up stage set up in front of Nassau Hall over the past week.
Several individuals close to Eisgruber came from outside Princeton to witness his elevation to the presidency. Dozens of members of Eisgruber’s Class of 1983 — including his three senior-year roommates — came in class jackets, cheering whenever their class was mentioned.
Eisgruber’s wife, Lori Martin, and teenage son Danny watched from the front row.
Christina Paxson, the former dean of the Wilson School who is now president of Brown, and Amy Gutmann, the president of Penn and Eisgruber’s predecessor as University provost, attended the installation. Congressman Rush Holt, who represents the University area, and Anne-Marie Slaughter ’80, a former Wilson School dean who was suspected to be the runner-up to Eisgruber in the presidential search, also attended.
In between Eisgruber’s hesitation to sit in his seat and his inaugural address, Eisgruber was praised — often with humor — by student, faculty, staff and alumni representatives.
Psychology department chair Deborah Prentice, who is heavily involved in University governance, compared the relationship between the faculty and administration to one between “cats” and “cat-herders” and encouraged both sides to work together.
University Counsel Sankar Suryanarayan explained how Eisgruber has always held the University staff accountable and demanded high results. Alumni Association president Nancy Newman ’78 explained her excitement that a University alumnus — “brother Chris” — now led the institution.
In longer remarks, Association of American Universities president Hunter Rawlings GS ’70 criticized education reforms that place too much emphasis on metrics.
After Rawlings' words, Eisgruber took the oath, gave his speech and bid three cheers for Old Nassau.