Notes from the West Coast: Eisgruber ’83 in California

During intersession last week, President Eisgruber ’83 traveled west to speak at alumni forums in Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Alumni journalists covered two of the three events for PAW and filed these brief reports.

San Francisco, Jan. 29

The ballroom of San Francisco’s Palace Hotel was overflowing with orange and black on Wednesday. Some 1,300 alumni, spouses, and parents turned out to hear President Eisgruber ’83 in conversation with bestselling author Michael Lewis ’82.

“In the spirit of Princeton precepts, I’d like to wing it here,” Lewis began, amid laughter from the audience. What followed was a relaxed but thoughtful conversation between the former classmates, on topics ranging from Princeton’s responsibilities toward its students and the world at large to how the Indiana-born Eisgruber ended up as a Princeton student. (He didn’t get into Stanford, his first choice, “which turned out to be the best thing that happened to me,” he insisted, to which Lewis retorted, “Get used to saying that.”)

As a dedicated academic and legal scholar who was taken by surprise by the invitation to become provost in 2004, Eisgruber now sees this as part of the University’s strength, being a place that “has filled its administration with people who care deeply about teaching. At Princeton, we look for teachers and scholars to put into these roles.”

Speaking about the tremendous effect that universities can have in increasing levels of economic and social mobility during this time of great inequality, and considering the broad implications of Princeton in the nation’s service, Eisgruber noted, “One of the things I think about as I interact with our extraordinary students is that we’re investing a tremendous amount in that human capital. We have to get all our students thinking thoughtfully about how they’re going use this Princeton education, and live a meaningful life connected to a larger purpose.”

“I think we did something very good when we expanded the student body over the last decade,” he continued. “I think we would do better if we took more students, and we can do that, in my opinion, while maintaining all the characteristics that have made Princeton so special.”

When Lewis asked him if current students look at him the same way that he and Eisgruber looked at President Bill Bowen *58, Eisgruber seemed caught slightly off guard.

“Wow,” Eisgruber said, after a  pause. “Yes. And that’s so surprising to me. But a great joy of the job is that the students seem to find it very easy to talk to me, easier than they would when I was a faculty member. I’m the face of the institution. There are times when they want to say something to Princeton, and if they want to say something to Princeton, they want to say something to me.” — By Stephanie Rosenbaum ’90

Los Angeles, Jan. 30

Online courses, growing the student body, and the Lewis Center for the Arts were among the topics President Eisgruber ’83 addressed in a conversation with writer A. Scott Berg ’71 in front of several hundred Princeton alumni at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel Thursday night.

Eisgruber said that “my thoughts are coalescing around a few themes” for his presidency, including “service,” interpreted broadly. He also stressed his goal to up the socioeconomic diversity of the student body and potentially expand the number of undergraduates, a plan he’s floated previously.

Berg noted that when a top-tier liberal arts education is as scarce as it is today, “There’s almost a moral imperative to grow classes by a little, and yet you’ve got the constant problem of maintaining the intimacy that Princeton really prides itself on.” Eisgruber responded by praising the way that the University has added 125 students per class in recent years.

The issue of offering education to more people extended to a discussion of MOOCs — massive, open online courses — which Princeton has started to offer. Eisgruber said MOOCs can be beneficial if used correctly, and that they aren’t as revolutionary as they seem. “There are these older things called BOOKs” — pronounced to rhyme with MOOCs — “or books,” he said, which also spread a professor’s teachings.

Eisgruber also offered biographical details, such as the fact that he graduated from Princeton with $17,000 debt in today’s dollars, far higher than the average in today’s no-loan era. Berg, whose latest biography is of Woodrow Wilson 1879, mentioned that Wilson’s wife was famous for serving tea while her husband was Princeton’s president, and asked if Eisgruber’s wife — whom he met at the University of Chicago Law School — would continue the tradition. Eisgruber responded, “She excuses me from the duties of a law firm partner’s spouse and I excuse her from the duties of a president’s spouse.”

Eisgruber also praised the planned Lewis Center for the Arts, and alluded to to students’ fears that the center would eliminate the Wawa, which his predecessor Shirley Tilghman dismissed, he recalled, by stating, “The Wawa is eternal.”

“We have plans for one of the most beautiful Wawas in the history of merchandising,” Eisgruber said. “I remain committed to the Wawa.” The audience laughed and cheered. “That got my biggest applause on the West Coast,” he said. — By Zachary Pincus-Roth ’02

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