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In 1902, Professor Woodrow Wilson took the helm of Princeton University, then a small denominational college with few academic pretensions. But Wilson had a blueprint for remaking the too-cozy college into an intellectual powerhouse. The Making of Princeton University tells, for the first time, the story of how the University adapted and updated Wilson's vision to transform itself into the prestigious institution it is today.
James Axtell brings the methods and insights from his extensive work in ethnohistory to the collegiate realm, focusing especially on one of Princeton's most distinguished features: its unrivaled reputation for undergraduate education. Addressing admissions, the curriculum, extracurricular activities, and the changing landscape of student culture, the book devotes four full chapters to undergraduate life inside and outside the classroom.
The book is a lively warts-and-all rendering of Princeton's rise, addressing such themes as discriminatory admission policies, the academic underperformance of many varsity athletes, and the controversial "bicker" system through which students have been selected for the University's private eating clubs.
Written in a delightful and elegant style, The Making of Princeton University offers a detailed picture of how the University has dealt with these issues to secure a distinguished position in both higher education and American society. For anyone interested in or associated with Princeton, past or present, this is a book to savor.
"Do we really need another 600-plus pages about the University? The answer is yes--if the book in question is as good as this one is. . . . [I]t's appeal transcends the alumni market. Besides being arguably the most readable account of Princeton ever written, this overview of college life is so illuminating on such a wide range of subjects, including administration, faculty, admission standards, scholarship, and life inside and outside the classroom, that it stands not only as the definitive work on its specific subject but as an invaluable study of the university experience in general."--Stuart Mitchner, Town Topics
"Axtell's retelling is vivid, particularly as he tracks larger societal changes alongside the university's transformation. His explanation of Princeton's changing politics, style and patois serves as a fascinating guidebook to understanding the university through all its various permutations."--Iris Blasi, ForeWord Magazine
"Mixing scholarly excellence with subtle humor, Axtell is both an excellent historian and storyteller.... The Making of Princeton University is more than a mere institutional history: It is the story of the transformation of an American icon."--J. Gregory Behle, Journal of American History
"An excellent and exceedingly well-written book. . . . It is hard to imagine a better book on a single university. The Making of Princeton University is engagingly written, judicious in its use of materials, exceptionally well researched (here Axtell had the advantage of an outstanding archival collection), and wise in its understanding of how Princeton has become what it is."--Marvin Lazerson, Academe
"Here we have finally an outstanding historian writing about a significant institution. The writing is lively; the case study is connected to the larger domains of American higher education. It provides an antidote to the familiar reasons that institutional history has been maligned or ignored. Axtell's story gets off to a great start due to his historical candor. . . . Thanks to James Axtell's exciting, thorough history, a reader moves steadily to consider that it is daring for a university to be different and distinctive."--John R. Thelin, Journal of Higher Education
In the productions of genius, nothing can be styled excellent till it has been compared with other works of the same kind. -SAMUEL JOHNSON
WHEN Woodrow Wilson resigned the Princeton presidency in 1910, he was discouraged and emotionally bruised. His failure to determine the location and character of the nascent graduate school and his inability to win support for building residential colleges, or "quads," for all of the college's classes, which he hoped would "democratize" if not eliminate the socially restrictive upperclass eating clubs, had wounded him deeply. A recent cerebrovascular incident that had hardened the lines of his headstrong personality did nothing to prevent or repair the damage. Four years later in the White House, he still had nightmares about the troubles that drove him from the Institution he had attended as an undergraduate, loved as a professor, and nurtured as president.
His disappointment was all the keener for having envisioned a brilliant future for Princeton and having enjoyed a string of early successes in realizing that vision. At its sesquicentennial celebration in 1896, the College of New Jersey had officially renameditself a university. But Wilson, the designated faculty speaker, had been scarcely any readier to recognize the larger responsibilities or opportunities of university status than had his faculty colleagues or the stand-pat president, Francis Landey Patton. Yet within a year Wilson had sketched plans for a thorough reform. Six years later, as soon as he became president, he set about resolutely-as he did most things-to make Princeton the best university in the country. In a few short years he reorganized the administration, added trusted deans, and launched major fundraising and public relations campaigns among the alumni. He accelerated the rebuilding of the campus in "Collegiate Gothic" to signal the university's medieval, and particularly English, heritage. He organized the faculty into departments and divisions, recruited a number of senior "stars," hired fifty new "preceptors" to lead small-group discussions and encourage independent reading among the students, and expected all faculty to be scholars as well as teachers. He raised admission and academic standards, revamped the curriculum to balance breadth and depth and to allow only "assisted election" of upperclass courses, and sought in general to subordinate the extracurricular "sideshows" that were smothering "the spirit of learning."
The university Wilson helped fashion during his eight-year tenure strovetobenot only excellent-that cliche'd goal of all colleges and universities-but distinctive. No other American university was quite like it, as educator-journalist Edwin Slosson found when he visited and described fourteen Great American Universities in 1909-1910. "Here is a university," wrote the Chicago Ph.D., "that knows what it wants and is trying to get it," rather than drifting or slavishly imitating its larger rivals. Yet its originality consisted not in wild, untried novelties but "chiefly in going ahead and doing what others have always said ought to be done." The advent of preceptors, the rationalization of the curriculum, the plan for the "social coordination" of the students in Gothic quads, and the raising of academic standards were all meant to shift "the center of gravity of student life" and to transform Princeton from "one of the easiest places to get into" to "one of the hardest ... to remain in."
Although Wilson enjoyed considerable success in his first four years, he could not make Princeton into a first-class university as fast or in all the ways he might have liked. Slosson recognized this near the end of Wilson's tenure when he admitted that Princeton was "not among the fourteen foremost universities of the United States if we take as the criterion age, size, wealth, cosmopolitanism, publications, graduate students, professional courses, or public services." Not only was it the second smallest of the fourteen, with the second smallest income (only Wilson's graduate alma mater Johns Hopkins was smaller), it had only forty-eight graduate students (mostly in engineering); no women or blacks; few Jews or foreign students; a largely regional clientele; a cramped, undersized art museum; a five-year-old university press that had yet to publish any books; a small library; and a lot of strenuous athletes. For all of Wilson's efforts, Princeton was "still a college in spirit." But, Slosson predicted, "if it is not a university now, it is going to become one in the fullest sense of the word."
A long century after Wilson assumed the presidency and set off on his path of reform seems a good time to ask, not if Princeton has become a real university-we know that it has-but how he might, from his perch in Presbyterian heaven, regard it through the pincenez of his own time, goals, and even disappointments. Would Wilson, its intellectual architect, recognize the mature university as a faithful realization of his original design or as a random, even alien, product of American academic evolution?
We don't have to guess at the answer because Wilson's thoughts and values have been thoroughly documented in three extraordinary collections. The first and most indispensable is Arthur Link's sixty-nine-volume Papers of Woodrow Wilson, published appropriately by the Princeton University Press between 1966 and 1994. The second and third troves are transcribed interviews with and written reminiscences from most of those who knew Wilson, collected by two of his biographers. Ray Stannard Baker used his interviews and memoirs from the 1920s to write the eight-volume Woodrow Wilson: Life and Letters, the second volume of which is devoted to the Princeton years, 1890-1910. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Henry Wilkinson Bragdon interviewed many of the same people and others for his Woodrow Wilson: The Academic Years. Together these sources greatly reduce the need to speculate about Wilson's likely response to his alma mater a century later.
Several of the Princeton colleagues who knew Wilson best suggest that he would have had little difficulty recognizing his handiwork in the new university and would have been comfortable with most- though by no means all-of its features. Henry Fine, dean of the faculty and Wilson's major supporter, told Baker in 1925 that "Wilson made Princeton.... When he started, Princeton was an unprogressive college-of ancient and honorable tradition, but unprogressive. When he went out it was one of the strongest universities in the country.... It has progressed ever since along lines laid down by Mr. Wilson." Seventeen years later, Professor of English Thomas Marc Parrott '88 still maintained that "all the developments since, except the Graduate College, have been based upon foundations Wilson laid." With due allowance for the impress of social and academic evolution and a quartet of strong new presidents, can the same be said today, and if so, would Wilson acknowledge or take pride in the continuities?
Perhaps the first thing Wilson would notice about the new university is its size and its newer architecture. Spreading over more than six hundred acres in an exurban setting no longer surrounded by working farms and fields, the campus (a word coined at eighteenth-century Princeton) has almost grown to incorporate the Graduate College, initially-to Wilson's chagri-isolated above the Springdale golf course and far removed from Nassau Hall, the original college building and now the administrative headquarters. But Wilson was not put off by size alone as long as the university remained on a human scale, fostering "close and personal contact" between faculty and students, and sought the highest quality in all it did. In 1903 he had warned an alumni group in Philadelphia that "the danger to Princeton is the danger of a big, numerically big, university." But by 1910 he boasted to their Maryland counterparts that "almost unobserved, a little Princeton has given place to a big Princeton," in size as well as influence. In just eight years, he had built eight new buildings and, under the guidance of supervising architect Ralph Adams Cram, had not hesitated to raze or move others to bring harmony to the campus and to open sightlines through it.
With some prominent exceptions, the buildings on the new campus probably would please him as well. Since Cram's master plan ensured that Wilson's favorite Collegiate Gothic continued to be used in campus buildings until the late 1940s, the former president could turn his discerning eye on the additions in newer styles. Wilson was no tyro- he knew what he liked. According to Cram and other experts, he had "instinctively a fine sense of proportion and a keen appreciation for good architecture." While he had no technical knowledge, "his appreciation of its quality and importance was unusual in its degree." And he always insisted that "every building," even science labs, "should be beautiful."
So Wilson probably would appreciate the witty, colorful, and curve-blending functionalism of postmodern Princeton, particularly Robert Venturi's Thomas molecular lab (1986) and Wu Hall (1983) and the Computer Science building (1989), which make relaxed bows to the university's architectural traditions. Far fewer would be his favorites among the self-consciously "original" modernist additions between 1950 and 1980. No more than most Princetonians and critics would he relish the relentless linearity, monotonous regularity, and boxy minimalism of the Engineering Quad (1962), the School of Architecture (1963), and Spelman Halls (1973). More to his liking might be Minoru Yamasaki's gleaming and graceful Robertson Hall (1965)-not least because it is home to the school that bears his name-and the imposing, honey-brown, ten-story tower of Fine Hall, named for his indispensable dean. Frank Gehry's flamboyant new science library (2007) would no doubt amaze and appall him at the same time, while Demetri Porphyrios's subtle Gothic rendering of Whitman College (2007) would win instant approval.
More disturbing to Wilson would be not the size of the student body but its composition. Compared to its major rivals, Princeton today is still the smallest institution; although the size of the student body has increased, a corresponding growth of the faculty, coupled with the continuity of the precepts and the addition of the senior thesis, ensures that "close and personal contact" remain "the greatest good" in a Princeton education. But the conspicuous presence of women, blacks, and international students would, from the perspective of 1910, earn his alarmed disapproval.
As a socially conservative Southerner who had presided over an institution long regarded as the most southern of the northern schools (or vice versa), Wilson would find the presence of several hundred black students particularly disconcerting because he had sedulously discouraged their application in his day. In 1904 he put off one inquiry by noting that "while there is nothing in the law of the University to prevent a negro's entering, the whole temper and tradition of the place are such that no negro has ever applied for admission." His phrasing was deliberate because the previous year a popular novel had drawn attention to the issue by speaking of the title character's ancestor as one "who was responsible for that clause in Princeton's charter which, unless altered, would forever prevent negroes from graduating from that famous university, and which has made it such a favourite for Southern gentlemen." One of Wilson's classmates who had read the book had to be assured that "the Charter contains no reference to negroes."
Hiding behind the social "temper and tradition of the place" allowed Wilson and Princeton to discriminate against all sorts of potential candidates. In introducing the son of a close Jewish friend, another classmate was confident that "old Doctor Tommy Wilson" would never allow any boy to be "discriminated against because of his race, color, belief or otherwise." Apparently he didn't know the president very well. Although Wilson would eventually appoint the first Jew and the first Catholic to the faculty, he did nothing to halt the unsubtle blackballing of Jewish students from the eating clubs and continued actively to discourage black applicants. In 1909 G. McArthur Sullivan, a student at Virginia Theological Seminary and College, a black Baptist institution in Lynchburg, wrote Wilson, "I want so much to come to your School at Princeton. I am a poor Southern colored man from South Carolina, but I believe I can make my way if I am permitted to come." Wilson's draft reply for his secretary read: "Regret to say that it is altogether inadvisable for a colored man to enter Princeton ... strongly recommend his securing education in a Southern institution perhaps completing it with a course at the Princeton Theol. Sem., which is under entirely separate control from the University." Perhaps more sensitive to the man's feelings than his boss, the secretary avoided any reference to the applicant's color and helpfully advised, "If you wish to attend a Northern institution I would suggest that you correspond with the authorities of Harvard, Dartmouth, or Brown; the last named being, as you undoubtedly know, a Baptist Institution." But he also neglected to mention the local possibility, knowing-as Wilson also knew-that a few blacks had taken graduate courses at Princeton since President McCosh's time while enrolled at the Princeton seminary.
Wilson would be hardly more accepting of Princeton's nonwhite students from abroad. Compared to the literal handful of foreign students from outside Britain and Canada in his own day, the twelve hundred students from around the globe, particularly India and China, would stagger him, for they were barely on his social radar. His handling of an offer to send a number of Chinese students to Princeton on government funds resulting from the Boxer Rebellion indemnity show him once again playing the social "temper" card. To one of his trustees he gave two reasons for declining the offer. One was that "most of the Chinese students come in search of engineering and professional courses, which," he said, "we cannot give them" (although the John C. Green School of Science offered degrees in both civil and electrical engineering). The second excuse Wilson obviously thought the more compelling. "I fear," he said, "... that our present social organization at Princeton would be sure to result in making any Chinese students ... feel like outsiders, ... set apart for some reason of race or caste which would render them most uncomfortable. There is no door that I can see," he admitted, "by which they could really enter our university life at all, and to have them come and form a group apart would certainly be most undesirable." During his own presidency Wilson was ambitious in wishing Princeton to "draw its students from all over the nation." He was simply not ready to enlist the university "in the Service of All Nations" as well.
Excerpted from The Making of Princeton University by James Axtell Copyright © 2006 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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