In his address to the class of 2017 on Sunday afternoon, incoming president Eisgruber drew deeply from his roots as a Princeton student and professor to frame a message familiar to those acquainted with the university. In keeping with tradition, the speech began with a welcome equating Princeton to an adventure and the requisite, yet ever-amusing, shot at our rivals (“We should always respect Harvard and Yale … because they are two of the greatest colleges in all of New England”). Eisgruber then dropped the biggest bombshell of the speech: he has no memory of what then-president William Bowen told Eisgruber’s class during their opening exercises. Indeed, he said, “I’ve heard a great deal of addresses by university presidents at formal academic gatherings, and I remember almost none of them.” In order to rectify this, the former professor noted, he had assigned a reading to supplement the lecture – a book fittingly calledThe Honor Code, by Princeton Professor Kwame Anthony Appiah. The ideals espoused byThe Honor Code, it seems, dovetail nicely with those embodied by both the Honor Code and Princeton’s official unofficial motto – “In the nation’s service and in the service of all nations.” Eisgruber and Professor Appiah agree that a successful life, in addition to living one that keeps you happy, requires “living a life of service to others.”Freshmen benefit from the honor code in their post-graduate careers in that alumni and professors – members of what Appiah calls our “Honor World” – will give students the benefit of the doubt because students’ “character has been reinforced by their commitment to the honor code.” The other side of this, of course, is that we are expected to “take honor seriously” here and in the future, and let it guide us in service.It is my hope that the 20thpresident of Princeton takes his own advice during his Freshman year as President: it is no mean feat to ensure that honor means something beyond a Triangle song and a job offer from an alumnus, and that service means something to student life beyond unmemorable addresses by university presidents at formal academic gatherings. Good talk, Mr. President. I look forward to seeing what comes of it.
Few may remember what classes they took in freshmen year, who their fellow zees were, or even what they ate last night, but no one can forget the feeling of exhilaration and awe as they passed through Fitz-Randolph Gates for the first time. President Eisgruber’s address Sunday afternoon was not only his first speech to the Class of 2017, but also his first ceremonial address as the President of Princeton University. Thousands watched as he established the tone for his term, emphasizing the importance of honor and service entering the Princeton community.
Having just spent the past two weeks serving as a Community Action leader, this all sounded very familiar to me. President Eisgruber dedicated much of his speech referencing “The Honor Code,” asking what it meant to “live a successful human life,” reminding the freshman class that “Service is far from a price we pay for happiness, but the precondition for it.” He talked about what it meant to be a part of the Princeton community, and how honor wasn’t just about our personal moral code, but how we were expected to behave in a society sharing responsibilities.
What he didn’t talk about was what exactly this community was. To be fair, it’s a complex answer that varies from person to person. However, when President Eisgruber stated that the merit of a liberal arts education was preparing for something without knowing what you were preparing for, his sentiments seemed just as ambiguous as his words. Walking into Princeton for any student is daunting, legacy, first generation, international or otherwise. To have our President highlight the fact that there is strength in diversity would’ve allayed the fears of many. In order to “honor the Princeton community,” you first need to be comfortable knowing what you’re immersing yourself into, and vague generalities won’t help you figure out what that is.
That said, President Eisgruber established himself as a charismatic leader and first class humorist today. As he stated at the end of his address, we all need to remember what we’re here for, and the next few years finding out exactly what that is will be the greatest time of our lives.