The Atlantic’s Emma Green begins her interview with Princeton president Christopher Eisgruber by asking, “Why should Princeton exist?” He answers by talking about “talent.” He says, “the idea of a place like Princeton is that you can identify young people who have extraordinary talent and will benefit from an intensive academic experience. Over the space of years and decades, they will blossom in ways we can’t even predict, and they will be able to address problems that matter.”
In order to accept this rationale, you would have to accept some version of four controversial premises: 1) Princeton attracts talent, as opposed to various forms of capital (financial, social, cultural). 2) Talented people learn more at Princeton than they would at less selective institutions; they do not merely receive credentials with high market value. 3) Graduates of Princeton are trustworthy and accountable to other human beings. And 4) Social change depends on small numbers of talented people.
Persuasive evidence for these claims cannot be anecdotal. Eisgruber cites Justice Sotomayor, who is genuinely talented, probably learned a lot at Princeton (she talked about it when she visited Tufts), serves the public good, and wields influence as a Supreme Court justice. But one example does not make the case. What is the net impact of Princeton on society? (For instance, what is the impact of one Sonia Sotomayor minus one Ted Cruz?)
I would offer a different justification, cautiously because I think it only goes so far. You could call it “one cheer for Princeton.”
Justice is extraordinarily important. It is a contestable concept and it should be complex, encompassing various values that may not fit together comfortably. For instance, it should probably encompass both individual freedom of choice and also equity. Regardless of how you define justice, highly selective and fabulously endowed US universities are not likely to be consistent with it. That is why they should face constant pressure from democratic institutions as well as competition from public higher education and from other entities here and abroad.
But I don’t think that justice is the only good. Here I would also mention truth and beauty. Highly selective and well-funded universities generate a lot of those goods–and not only for their own members. As Eisgruber notes, five of this year’s Nobelists have Princeton connections, and their research is in the public domain. David Card’s work on the minimum wage is research that should promote both truth and justice. He conducted it with Alan Krueger while they were both at Princeton, which is a good example of the benefits of concentrating expertise. Princeton also produces beauty in the form of natural science and scholarship. At Tufts, we add a school of fine arts.
Although highly selective private institutions generate truth and beauty, they don’t–and shouldn’t–monopolize those functions. For one thing, public universities produce a vast amount of the same goods. (But US public universities are often effectively private institutions.) More importantly, truth must come from beyond the academy.
Indeed, universities have weaknesses as producers of knowledge and beauty (apart from their questionable impact on justice). They are not particularly good at valuing the ideas and insights that come from the margins of society. My job is to try to address that problem at Tufts and in some national networks. Whether I succeed is a different question, but I work on it every day. I think my underlying motivation is the belief that by combining the kinds of knowledge that come from places like Tufts and Princeton with very different kinds of knowledge, we might be able to enlighten and empower people beyond our walls.
See also how to keep political science in touch with politics; the weirdness of the higher ed marketplace; a way forward for high culture