On Jan. 31, President Eisgruber released his seventh annual State of the University letter, focusing on the lessons learned from COVID-19, the changing priorities of the University, and the dangers of technology.
He discussed some high points of University life over the past 18 months — the end of COVID-19 restrictions in classes and performances, the high number of Nobel recipients this fall, and the “highest one-year fundraising total in Princeton’s history.”
Next, he moved on to focus on the present challenges and future priorities of the University.
Here are five take-aways from the letter:
Eisgruber warned about the risks posed by technology to mental health and focus.
While praising some of the benefits of the technology which has taken off over the last decade — including easy access to information and the ability to keep in touch with loved ones — Eisgruber also reflected on the perils of technology as he sees them.
He noted that disinformation was not the only problem, writing that “even when the information they provide is fully accurate, online media facilitate distraction, remoteness, and provocation.”
He wrote that the media landscape is “flooded with the intellectual equivalent of irresistible junk food,” and noted some scholars suggest online media may be “a major contributor to the epidemic of mental illness” in America.
“These claims are controversial,” he wrote, “but it seems undeniable that the students who arrive at Princeton today have grown up very differently from even their quite recent predecessors. The relevant question is not whether those differences have changed the way that students learn and live, but rather how they have done so.”
Conversations about mental health on campus continue following the death of Misrach Ewunetie ’24 in October and the most recent campus loss of first-year graduate student Maura Coursey. In the past year, the University has suffered two other undergraduate student deaths — Jazz Chang ’23 and Justin Lim ’25 — as well as the death of a staff member in September.
In an interview with The Daily Princetonian in November, President Eisgruber stated that Princeton’s rigorous demands regarding academics and productivity are not at odds with student mental well-being. “I think high aspiration environments are consistent with mental health and I don’t see any evidence that academic laxness or academic mediocrity would somehow be better from the standpoint of mental health,“ Eisgruber explained.
Following these comments, the Undergraduate Student Government (USG) discussed Eisgruber’s perception of mental health on campus. USG President Stephen Daniels ’24 commented that Eisgruber “seems to be confused about why students are not flourishing.”
In his letter, Eisgruber wrote that new technology was one of the major challenges which Princeton was facing today, and expressed hope that the University would find ways to address these issues “through its research and in its own campus community and pedagogical culture.”
He emphasized the importance of in-person learning.
He notes that when COVID-19 began and classes moved to Zoom, many people thought this would change the way universities functioned, as they “predicted that this forced experiment with remote learning would demonstrate the inefficiency of residential teaching models.”
“Instead,” he said, it “highlighted how difficult it is to teach online effectively.” He noted “widespread concern about ‘learning loss’” and its effect on “even the exceptionally talented students who apply to and attend Princeton.”
Since Fall 2021, all classroom learning has been required to be conducted in person.
While the University is exploring the possibility of online education in order to reach “new audiences,” Eisgruber wrote that it “will have to do so in a way that respects the power of residential engagement and the limits of online teaching.”
He focused particularly on the future of the School of Engineering and Applied Science.
The proportion of Princeton students studying Engineering has jumped to 28% from around 19% a decade ago, and Computer Science is the most popular concentration at the University.
Eisgruber wrote that the University is “investing boldly in its School of Engineering and Applied Science [SEAS].” A massive construction project will update buildings built a half-century ago, while moving the SEAS “from the periphery into the core of the University.”
He wrote that this would facilitate “stronger links between its departments and those in the humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences.” He explained this could benefit both engineering students who can draw from the “insights and values drawn from the arts, humanities, and social and natural sciences,” and “educate leaders in other fields who are competent and comfortable with technological issues.”
He listed the University’s new priorities and addressed the construction on campus.
Eisgruber listed four goals and initiatives to serve as a framework for the University as liberal arts institution in the 21st century.
Firstly, to “reach more students from more backgrounds,” which the University plans to achieve through the expansion of the residential colleges, financial aid, transfer programs, and a “commitment to racial equity.”
Secondly, to “add to the University’s capacity” in STEM, through the new construction projects and creating a Vice Dean for Innovation.
Thirdly, “to open the University up to a wider range of collaborations with both academic and non-academic partners” — for example, by launching a joint Google-Princeton AI lab.
Finally, to “enhance Princeton’s commitment to service.” He wrote that Princeton is addressing urgent issues in the world by strengthening “initiatives in environmental science and policy, American studies, regional studies, and plasma physics, among other fields,” as well as instituting the Learning and Education through Service (LENS) program, which “promises at least one funded service opportunity for every Princeton undergraduate.”
“I recognize that the number and scale of these projects make them disruptive for all of us. Living amidst construction is not easy, and I appreciate the changes people have made to adapt to it,” he wrote.
He alluded to the University’s potential response to the upcoming Supreme Court Decision on Affirmative Action.
The Supreme Court is considering a decision which may strike down race-based affirmative action. The decision will come sometime late this spring or early this summer.
“[D]iversity is a source of great strength to this University [and] essential to our future,” Eisgruber wrote in response. “Affirmative action ... has been an important tool in the effort to achieve the diversity that our educational and research missions require,” he added.
He wrote that while the University will have to comply with whatever the decision is, the University “will also be creative and persistent in our efforts to preserve and build upon the diversity of our scholarly and educational community.”
Laura Robertson is a staff News writer for the ‘Prince.’
Please send all correction to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.
Editor’s Note: This piece has been updated to fix a number of minor misquotations of Eisgruber’s letter. The ‘Prince’ regrets this error.