Photo by Steve Freeman
At an all-alumni Venture Forward campaign event in Washington, D.C., on April 18, President Christopher L. Eisgruber ’83 was joined on stage at the Salamander hotel by Katherine Brittain Bradley ’86, founder and chair of CityBridge Foundation and a former member of Princeton’s Board of Trustees.
Their robust discussion explored a wide range of topics, including Princeton’s success in athletics and academics, socioeconomic diversity and expansion of the student body, liberal arts and technology, free speech and inclusivity, and the University’s strategic focus on environmental studies and sustainability.
The evening began with Alumni Council Chair Mary Newburn ’97, who welcomed the standing-room-only audience of around 600 alumni, saying, “It is absolutely wonderful to be home here in D.C. with all of you.” Newburn noted that the Venture Forward campaign has alumni engagement as one of its three pillars, and introduced the Venture Forward “Making Audacious Bets” campaign video and the evening’s speakers.
Brittain Bradley recognized the new admits to the Class of 2027 and the Graduate School in the audience, and that introduction, as well as her first question, were met with loud applause from every corner of the auditorium. “We just watched the ‘Audacious Bets’ video, but there is one audacious thing we need start with and that is Princeton basketball,” she said. “When did you know this was going to be an incredible Cinderella story?”
Eisgruber noted that the basketball teams’ achievements are emblematic of Princeton’s focus on excellence in both athletics and academics. “I am a die-hard Princeton basketball fan and I am very proud of what both our men’s and women’s teams did to win games in the NCAA tournament,” he said.
“But what I am most proud of is that we continue to have a model of intercollegiate athletics that represents at the same time extraordinary athletic achievement and extraordinary academic achievement.”
With an expanding student body and living alumni nearing 100,000, Brittain Bradley asked, “This is a huge job; do you ever feel outnumbered?”
Referring to the packed auditorium and the distinctive lifetime bonds forged by Princeton alumni, Eisgruber said, “I feel like I am part of a great team with a lot of teammates. I think what is extraordinary about our team is how we have pulled together. We have a lot of constituencies and sometimes they are pulling in different directions, but the greatest joy of the job is getting to meet so many Princetonians in so many different roles in the world.”
Reflecting on Eisgruber’s 10 years as president of the University, Brittain Bradley asked him to share what he is most proud of during his tenure thus far.
“I’m proud of the way we’ve increased the socioeconomic diversity of Princeton,” he said. “We now have a university where one in six students are the first in their family to go to college.”
Eisgruber further noted Princeton’s leadership in the admission of Pell-eligible students and its transfer program focused on community college students and military veterans.
To support the growing diversity of its student body, the University has also focused on inclusivity, he said. “People need to see themselves in the institution and feel fully welcomed and able to thrive.” He said paying attention to campus iconography and the names of buildings, as well as increasing diversity among the faculty, have all contributed to greater inclusivity, as has the creation of campus spaces — like the two new residential colleges, Yeh College and New College West — that reinforce a sense of community.
Brittain Bradley noted that a great liberal arts institution must also lead in technology to be relevant, and asked Eisgruber to talk about how the University is thinking about artificial intelligence.
“I think that a great liberal arts university in the 21st century has to have a great engineering school. AI illustrates that so beautifully,” Eisgruber said, “The most interesting opportunities and challenges come from the way AI allows us to ask new questions and the way AI can transform society.”
As an example, he referenced computer science professor Olga Troyanskaya’s use of machine learning and advanced data analysis to sift through enormous data sets of genetic information. “She’s able to detect patterns that may enable us at some point to understand things about Alzheimer’s or other pathologies that we may not otherwise have known,” he said. Going further in combining AI and data science with laboratory research can lead to greater understanding of the molecular basis of human disease.
The conversation then turned from academic inquiry to free speech, with Brittain Bradley asking Eisgruber to give a tutorial on “what it looks like to be very robust on both inclusivity and free speech.”
As a constitutional scholar, Eisgruber said, he believes that despite a polarized debate in which free speech and inclusivity are being pulled apart and set up as different sides, that the Constitution and its First Amendment are simultaneously about both ideals. “It’s been demanding throughout our history as a democracy, but we have to be dedicated to both as a country—and as a university. We’re aiming for a situation where people feel free to express their views, to say things that may be unpopular, [and] in which they also feel fully included regardless of their background.”
As a final question, Brittain Bradley said, “Your alumni are certainly the envy of every other University. There is no group anywhere as loyal to our alma mater as Princetonians. What’s your ask of us tonight here in Washington?”
Eisgruber answered that there are two key ways alumni can help Princeton: participate in Annual Giving and act as ambassadors for Princeton.
Annual Giving participation by Princeton alumni is also “the envy of every other University in the country,” he said, and noted that “even just a $5 check to AG means so much. Just like you are showing up here tonight, it’s showing up and saying, even if it isn’t your highest priority in a given year, that ‘I’m here and I’m part of Tiger Nation when you need me.’”
Eisgruber noted that he was in Washington, D.C. for three weeks, advocating on Capitol Hill and the executive branch for Princeton’s strategic priorities and for higher education in general. “I am out here telling our story, and I want you out there, too, telling Democrats and Republicans why higher education is a difference maker, and how Princeton made a difference in your life.”
In the Q&A session following the conversation, Eisgruber addressed questions about higher education, diversity and inclusion, free speech, and climate change.
Regarding Princeton’s approach to climate change, he cited three important ways that the University is making a difference for the environment: through teaching and research, a commitment to sustainability on the Princeton campus, and the board of trustees’ recent decision to dissociate from some sectors of the fossil fuel industry.
“By far,” he said, “what has the most impact is the teaching and research that Princeton does through our extraordinary set of environmental studies programs. We are asking questions and producing the potential solutions that we need to create a sustainable planet for the future.”
The Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, which is working to produce fusion energy, is making significant progress on one of the most promising potential solutions for the future, he said. “As a country, we should make an enormous bet on fusion energy because it would solve so many of the problems we face right now.”
After the Q&A session, Newburn invited Quinton Beck ’14 and Ryan McCarty ’14 to the stage to lead the audience in singing “Old Nassau.”
The conversation was preceded and followed with receptions for all alumni. At a special reception prior to the event, the Princeton Alumni Schools Committee celebrated all the volunteers who had interviewed prospective Princeton students this past admissions cycle.
The Washington, D.C., Venture Forward event was the last of this year’s quartet of 2022-23 presidential conversations scheduled before Reunions. Additional events in different cities currently are being planned for the fall.