University president urges Princeton grads to believe in, and help improve, our institutions


Princeton University President

By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer
Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber on Tuesday urged graduates to help rebuild faith in institutions at a time when public confidence in them is “ebbing.”
“People are losing faith not only in government but also in business, journalism and nonprofit organizations,” he said from a platform in front of historic Nassau Hall during the 270th commencement in school history. “I hope you have the courage to believe in our institutions, to maintain, repair and improve them and to sustain them for the future.”
Before a crowd that had gathered on a cold morning on the front lawn, Eisgruber touched on the “fractious politics and bitter disagreements of our day … .” He avoided any mention of President Donald J. Trump in a speech intended as a tribute to former University President William G. Bowen, who died in October at age 83. Yet in his remarks, he touched on an issue that Trump raised as a candidate and has focused on in his time in the White House.
Eisgruber recalled a story of how Princeton alumnus and heart surgeon Dr. Harold Fernandez, who had come to the U.S. illegally as a young boy and entered Princeton in the 1980s with a fake green card and social security number.
“During Harold’s freshman year, his status was discovered, and he feared that he would be expelled from the university and deported from the country,” Eisgruber said. “Bill Bowen arranged for Princeton’s immigration attorney to defend Harold and personally supported his cause.”
“Empathy, observed Dr. Fernandez, is something much needed, and all too lacking, in today’s public discourse about immigration and many other topics,” Eisgruber said. “I agree with Dr. Fernandez, and I am confident that Bill Bowen would have agreed as well.”
Bowen, a former provost and later the 17th president in university history, supported turning Princeton co-educational in the 1960s and later supported race-based admissions policies.
“Over the course of a ceaselessly productive life, Bill was a powerful and effective advocate for co-education, the excellence of the faculty, racial and socio-economic inclusivity and the freedom of speech,” said Eisgruber, who was a student at Princeton in the late 1970s and early 1980s when Bowen ran Nassau Hall. “He improved this university tremendously, and his scholarly work aided the cause of equal opportunity across this country.”
Eisgruber’s comments came on a day when the university on Tuesday awarded degrees to 1,268 undergraduates, three to students from former classes and 988 graduate students. The tolling of the bell atop Nassau Hall shortly before 10:30 a.m. signaled the processional of students and others was about to begin.
One of the tallest members of the processional was National Basketball Association legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who came to receive an honorary doctorate. At 7 feet 2 inches, he took his seat, wearing an academic gown, in the front row of the platform. When his name was announced, he received a loud ovation, just as if he were back in the Forum playing for the Los Angeles Lakers, where he spent most of 20-year-career.
Graduating seniors entered Princeton four years as part of a select group of students who got into one of the most selective universities in the country. At the time in 2013, the admission rate of 7.29 percent, was a then-record low.
Jin Yun Chow, the class valedictorian from Hong Kong, referred to her and fellow classmates as the “indomitable class of 2017.” But in her remarks, she urged her fellow classmates to consider the “unsung heroes.”
“They are the people in our lives whose names we don’t always know and whose lives we don’t always stop and recognize,” she said.
Later, she urged her classmates to “slow down” in life and “give genuine human interaction a chance to bloom amid our over-packed schedules.”
“I ask,” she continued, “that we give thanks to the unsung heroes who did what they did without expecting our gratitude. It is often in these unexpected moments that confessions are at their truest, that genuineness is at its rawest and empathy at its purest.”