Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Eighty Percent Solution

Robert Goheen (1919-2008)

“Home,” says Frost, “is the place that when you go there, they have to take you in.” There are other slightly more upbeat definitions, such as that home is where even spitting rain on New Jersey Turnpike in rush hour can seem vaguely comforting in its familiarity. There is nothing vague, however, about the comfort and familiarity attendant upon the reunion of long-married couples; and I sat down with the greatest pleasure to a light supper of soup and salad.

My theory was to hit the ground running—or actually sitting, the posture more appropriate for a library—but I have fallen into the reverie of pleasant distraction. On Saturday I have to give a little after-dinner speech at a celebration marking the fiftieth anniversary of the foundation of Wilson College, the first of the undergraduate residential colleges in Princeton University. I haven’t actually prepared the talk, but have enjoyed the leisure of preparing to prepare, so to speak.

In fact Wilson College, like many academic institutions, had several “foundings”. The one with which I was associated came in the fall of 1968, when for the first time a small number of freshmen accepted an invitation to join. The master then (Wilson’s first) was the late psychologist Julian Jaynes, author of the once-famous book entitled The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. It was Jaynes who had shepherded the Woodrow Wilson Society through its infancy and its transition in becoming Wilson College.

I became the second master just at the time that the anti-War protests were becoming serious, and from that period—especially the spring of 1970, with the Kent State massacre of early May—come some of the most vivid memories of my career. In this country an institution that is celebrating a semicentennial is usually considered venerable. My fear is that a person who has been associated with it for more than forty of its fifty years might have some claim to the same adjective.

Princeton actually has two alumni who became presidents of the United States. I’ve always thought it a little lame that so many things Princetonian are named after Woodrow Wilson, and so few after James Madison. When after a long interval I became Master of Wilson College for a second time in the 1980s I conspired with my friend and colleague Sean Wilentz to pretend that the Wilson involved was Edmund Wilson of the class of 1916, perhaps the greatest literary critic America has produced; but that never caught on. But if I had the chance to pick my own name today, I would call it Robert Goheen College, and Goheen is the real subject of this post.

Consider this a very tardy tribute to a much-admired mentor and friend. I was away from Princeton in the spring of 2008, when he died; and I could not even attend his memorial service. Bob Goheen was the President of Princeton University from 1957 until 1972. I really came to know him only after he left the presidency, and fully to appreciate his true greatness only in his later years, after his service as Ambassador to India. Goheen was as “old Princeton” as they come. He came out of a Presbyterian clerical family, and had taken both his B.A. and his Ph.D. here. He was an assistant professor of Classics at the time of his election. Everything in his background suggested that he would be a thoughtful guardian of the institution’s dearest traditions. How many could have guessed that he would transform it as he did?

For it was President Goheen who presided over the most monumental institutional changes of the twentieth century—and all of them for the good. These included putting the university irrevocably on its path to a nearly unique financial security, dramatically expanding the faculty and the “physical plant,” and charting an essentially new course for undergraduate life. It was in no easy or simply fashionable way that he came to espouse the innovation (which then seemed so radical) of the admission of women students. And so far as undergraduate residential life is concerned, he is the true father of the Princeton college system.

For a very particular, indeed eccentric reason I was struck by a single sentence in the impressive obituary published by the New York Times: “Dr. Goheen would eventually build or acquire 38 buildings, increasing the university’s indoor square footage by 80 percent.” It was the percentage that struck me, for it brought back to my mind the conversation in which he had recruited me to become the Master of Wilson. He invited me to lunch in the faculty club. I was still an assistant professor, and a one-on-one presidential luncheon in a the public dining room rather went to my head. I proceeded to give the president a little lecture on precisely what needed to be done to reform undergraduate social life. I did so with no small degree of certainty, which he tolerated with a polite patience, considering that he had been pondering the issues involved for several years and I for about two weeks. Then he said something I shall never forget. “You know, John, these are complicated questions, and reasonable people are of different minds about them. I’ve had to adopt a little rule of thumb: don’t ever be more than 80 percent right. It just isn’t seemly.”

When I survey what is passing for “political discourse” in our land these days, I hear an angry cacophony of one-hundred-percenters. No wonder their approval rating is seventeen percent.