Princeton University chose a longtime insider as president, following Yale, as universities prepare for new challenges ranging from greater cost scrutiny to international expansion to the advent of online education.
Princeton’s 20th president, Provost Christopher Eisgruber, sat in the No. 2 role for almost a decade, gaining experience during the financial crisis. Ivy League member Yale University followed the same playbook in selecting Peter Salovey, its provost since 2008, who held various administrative roles during his three-decade tenure at the New Haven school.
The schools, along with fellow Ivy League member Dartmouth College, will have new presidents by July 1. All of them looked close to home for leadership, selecting alumni from academia with administrative experience as president. In their choice, the search committees steered clear of high-profile candidates from politics and government such as Dartmouth alumnus Timothy Geithner, former Treasury secretary, or Hillary Clinton, former secretary of state, who has a Yale law degree.
“They’re sending a message that they do not want any major change, at least not now,” said Raymond D. Cotton, an attorney who works with universities on compensation, leadership and governance. “They didn’t bring in a change agent, but someone to continue steering the ship in the direction it was already going in.”
Eisgruber, 51, a constitutional scholar, has been Princeton’s provost since 2004 and a member of the faculty since 2001. He replaces Shirley Tilghman, Princeton’s first female leader, who took charge in 2001. She had been a faculty member for 15 years before becoming its president.
Eisgruber has played a large role in many of the key initiatives of recent years, some of which he now will be responsible for bringing to fruition, Kathryn Hall, the chair of the board of trustees who led the search, said in a statement.
“He is well prepared to provide strong leadership as Princeton makes important decisions in areas ranging from online learning to globalization to increasing the diversity of our campus community, as well as in addressing challenges and pursuing opportunities that we cannot foresee,” said Hall, chief executive officer of Hall Capital Partners LLC in San Francisco.
Among the challenges Eisgruber said he will face is increasing the level of student-faculty engagement and to make sure the research Princeton does is important.
“I worry sometimes that this focus on cost, which is understandable, may lead people to look for cheaper education,” Eisgruber said in a telephone interview. “High-quality education is expensive, and it is expensive for a fundamental reason. Education is dependent on student-faculty engagement, very good students in contact with very good faculty.”
Princeton was the first to replace loans with grants in financial-aid packages for undergraduates.
“When they do graduate with loans, it is lower than what I had,” Eisgruber said. “My recollection is I had $7,500 in debt in 1983. Seventy-five percent of our graduates leave without any debt.”
Princeton was also among the first elite universities to embrace massive online open courses, also known as MOOCs. The university signed on with provider Coursera last April.
It is “very hard” to say where online education is going and where the most effective varieties will be, he said.
“What we’re seeing is not likely to be the dominant form five or 10 years from now,” Eisgruber said.
If there is the need for change, given the collegial nature of universities, sometimes the best person to bring about meaningful change is someone who knows and understands the culture and is trusted by their colleagues, said Lawrence Bacow, who ran Tufts University for a decade and is now a member of Harvard University’s governing board.
Where institutions have had stable leadership, it is natural to turn to a trusted colleague who knows the institution well in times of uncertainty, Bacow said.
“It takes any outsider time to get up to speed,” Bacow said in an e-mail. “Given all that is going on in higher education, these transition costs may be higher today than in less turbulent times.”
In addition to being a long-time faculty member, Eisgruber is also an alumnus. He graduated in the class of 1983 and is the author of several legal books. He examined the Supreme Court nominating process in “The Next Justice: Repairing the Supreme Court Appointments Process,” published in 2007.
In the first semester of the academic year, he taught a freshman seminar on the Supreme Court and constitutional democracy.
“He always speaks with a lot of interest and passion, which I value,” said Lily Alberts, 22, an economics major from Nashville. “I also value that he’s an alumnus.”
Eisgruber was a fellow student at Princeton with Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, a member of the class of 1981.
Justices Samuel Alito Jr. and Sonia Sotomayor also have undergraduate degrees from Princeton.
Princeton’s 17-member search committee began meeting in October, soon after Tilghman announced she would step down. The committee included nine trustees, four faculty members, three students and a staff member.
Eisgruber became provost at Princeton when Amy Gutmann vacated the job to become president of the University of Pennsylvania. He is the Laurance S. Rockefeller Professor of Public Affairs in Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School and the University Center for Human Values. From 2001 to June 2004, he served as director of Princeton’s Program in Law and Public Affairs.
After graduating from the university with a degree in physics, he became a Rhodes Scholar. Eisgruber earned a law degree at the University of Chicago, where he was editor-in-chief of the law review. He was a law clerk to Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens.
Eisgruber taught at New York University’s law school for 11 years before coming to Princeton.
Princeton is the fifth-wealthiest school in higher education, with an endowment of $17 billion as of June 2012, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers and Commonfund Institute.
Unlike its Ivy peers, Princeton doesn’t operate a medical school and has few graduate schools, making its finances less complicated than a university such as Yale with more than a dozen professional schools. Eisgruber, a law scholar, said there are no plans for a law school.
A molecular biologist, Tilghman said in September that she would step down at the end of the current school year. Tilghman, 66, said at the time she planned to return to teaching at the school after a sabbatical.
Alumni of Princeton include first lady Michelle Obama and Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google Inc. The school was founded in 1746 as the College of New Jersey.