By TEDDY SCHLEIFER
News Editor Emeritus
The selection of Chris Eisgruber ’83 to replace retiring University president Shirley Tilghman is a decision with enormous implications for the future of the University. It also tells us a fair deal about what the search committee and the University as a whole values in the next decade. Here’s my top five thoughts:
1. Nassau Hall is prepared to double-down on online education. Part of the challenge that search committees face in selecting a president is that they don’t know all the policy issues that their candidate needs to be able to confront ten years down the road. They can’t read the future. But by choosing Eisgruber, who has led the University’s efforts to partner with Coursera, the powers that be are suggesting that they want someone knowledgeable and passionate about the role that online education can play in building the Princeton brand.
And at Sunday’s press conference, it was clear that this type of stuff does get Eisgruber going. He name-checked Coursera and emphasized that digital learning was a big part of the future of higher education. If the University is serious about this path and has made the strategic decision to invest in it, then the Eisgruber selection makes a whole lot of sense. Nassau Hall just better be sure that online education actually is going to be a central – not a peripheral – part of learning. It’s a bet they seem willing to make.
He’s so passionate about the online world that he’s even become the first University president with a Twitter!
2. Eisgruber stays a Princetonian. When Eisgruber was chosen to succeed Amy Gutmann in 2004, Eisgruber was 41 and Tilghman was in just the third year of her presidency. He surely knew that he would have to wait a bit for a shot to move up from No. 2 to No. 1.
But as he told the ‘Prince’ last year, he didn’t think about how long he’d be in his current position. After nine years waiting in the wings, Eisgruber was the second-longest serving provost; most left between one and three years, including Gutmann, who left after three to head Penn.
If the search committee did not choose Eisgruber after nine patient years, there’s a good chance he would’ve looked to become president elsewhere. As a top administrator at Princeton, he surely would have drawn looks from other schools with presidential vacancies. And it’s hard to believe that Eisgruber would have waited another decade for a new search committee to review his credentials a second time.
3. The University wanted an academic. Stakeholders at the public forums this past fall continually rallied for a University president who was a true academic, rather than a professional mercenary from the “real world” like David Petraeus GS ’87 or Lisa Jackson GS ’86. Well, Eisgruber certainly comes from the academia. He studied at Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, edited Law Review at UChicago and then clerked for Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens and taught at NYU and Princeton for 20 years. He’s now one of the leading scholars on the Court and has written a fair bit on selection processes, of all things.
He’s a through-and-through academic, even though he doesn’t have a Ph.D., a fact that might escape some people.
4. The search committee wins The Secrecy War. The committee stressed again and again that the presidential search needed to be conducted in complete secrecy in order to protect the reputations of the ultimately rejected candidates. Despite efforts by the press to infiltrate the committee and scoop a name or two, it didn’t happen. With a 17-member committee drawing from diverse constituencies, that’s impressive.
As we see in Washington time and time again, angry committee members have a tendency to leak information in order to create the impression (and expectation) that their preference is the same as the committee’s. But the University – and notably, public relations chief Bob Durkee ’69 — was able to squelch any leaks and keep Princeton’s search from ending up like Harvard’s. That was bad news for the ‘Prince’, but supposedly good news for the presidential runners-up, whose names we may never know.
5. The presidential search was delayed. Or it was early. April 21 can’t possibly be construed as “early April,” the conservative estimate that the University outlined for when it would have a candidate ready to announce. That means the search committee didn’t meet its initial deadline, which is surprising given they chose the man who had been the frontrunner all along. At Yale, they were able to elevate the provost after a two-month search.
An alternative theory? The University simply pushed back the goalposts and never announced it. A March draft of the communications strategy plan for the presidential announcement – which University officials accidently left lying around in the Faculty Room in Nassau Hall after the announcement – indicates that the University planned to announce the president in early May. That means the search committee was…early?