Princeton University Office of the President.

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The President is the chief executive officer of the University. He presides at all meetings of the boards of trustees and of the faculty and at all academic functions at which he is present and represents the University before the public. The Trustee by-laws charge him with the general supervision of the interests of the University and with special oversight of the departments of instruction.

From the guide to the Annual Reports to the President, 1940-2010, (Princeton University. Library. Dept. of Rare Books and Special Collections)

The role of Princeton University's president, who is chosen by and answerable to the Board of Trustees, has evolved significantly since Jonathan Dickinson first taught a handful of students in his Elizabeth, New Jersey parsonage in 1747. By the close of Harold Dodds's tenure, more than two centuries later, the undergraduate and graduate student body had swelled to 3,584 and the faculty to 582, supported by an extensive infrastructure of libraries, laboratories, classrooms, and residential and recreational facilities. By the middle of the twentieth century, the president, once the heart and soul of a fledgling college chiefly concerned with preparing men for ministry, was charged with leading a complex multi- disciplinary and non-sectarian institution.

The presidents of Princeton University (or the College of New Jersey as it was known prior to 1896) have always served as their institution's chief executive officer. Their primary function, however, is no longer pedagogical but administrative, and even in this sphere, they now share their duties with others. Their leadership remains a critical factor in Princeton University's success, but their centrality and ubiquity have slowly diminished. In the words of Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker, “Today the president of an American college, as its educational leader and chief administrative officer, is vital to its prosperity and progress, but two centuries ago he was still more important, for the entire life of the institution centered upon him.” Of Aaron Burr, Sr., the College of New Jersey's second president, Wertenbaker writes: “He was president, professor, secretary, librarian, purchasing agent all in one.” ( Princeton, 1746-1896 )

Even when Princeton University had far outgrown its small beginnings, presidents like Francis Landey Patton carried a disproportionate burden, though by the close of the nineteenth century, this was seen as an error in judgment rather than a necessary virtue. According to David W. Hirst, “Even by standards of that day, the administrative structure of Princeton was spare to the extreme. Patton conducted college affairs from his study in Prospect. He had no personal secretary until 1895 when he assigned that position to his son, George Stevenson Patton '91, and there was no college or university secretary until the election of Charles Williston McAlpin in December 1900. Patton was assisted by only one dean for most of his term, during which he turned aside the faculty's urgent appeals to inaugurate a system of deans to accommodate the expanding institution.” ( A Princeton Companion ) In contrast, by 1957, when Dodds retired, the president could draw on the talents of no fewer than six deans, aided, in turn, by six assistant or associate deans.

The 15 presidents whose records can be found in this collection faced a wide range of challenges, from the warfare of the American Revolution, which left Nassau Hall in ruins, to the twentieth-century educational reforms that propelled Princeton University into the first tier of the world's universities. Their training and abilities also varied, and it is this diversity of men and issues, interacting with one another in unique ways, that have defined the office of Princeton University's president.

It has never been a self-sufficient office, even in its earliest incarnation, for presidents have always had to work in concert with the Board of Trustees and, as the latter's day-to-day involvement in the life of the institution lessened, with a corps of administrative officers as well. The will of the faculty, students, and alumni have also had an important impact on the power of presidents. Each of these groups has asserted itself at different points in history, from the rampaging students who helped to wreck the presidency of Samuel Stanhope Smith, to the faculty who agitated for Patton's removal, to the alumni who undermined Woodrow Wilson's initiatives concerning graduate education and undergraduate eating clubs. At times, however, power has been willingly shared, as the close partnership of James Carnahan and John Maclean, Jr., the College of New Jersey's ninth and tenth presidents, demonstrates.

Variety has also marked the length of presidential tenures. The combined service of Princeton University's first five presidents was under 20 years, thanks to stress and illness.

Carnahan, in contrast, headed the College of New Jersey for no fewer than 31 years, and four of the presidents represented here enjoyed tenures of between 20 and 30 years.

Familial and religious cohesion has given way to pluralism. Until Wilson assumed the presidency of Princeton University in 1902, the men who held this office were exclusively Presbyterian clergymen, and in two cases, family members succeeded one another: Burr by his father-in-law, Jonathan Edwards, and John Witherspoon by his son-in-law, Smith. It was not until 2001, however, that the gender barrier was broken with the election of Shirley Tilghman, Princeton University's first female president.

The contributions of Princeton University's presidents have varied with the times in which they lived and in proportion to their talents and resources. Their ranks have included statesmen of the stature of Witherspoon, the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence, and Wilson, who guided the United States through the First World War. They have included accomplished educators like James McCosh, whose impact was likened to “an electric shock, instantaneous, paralyzing to the opposition, and stimulating to all who were not paralyzed.” They have included pioneers like Burr, who oversaw his institution's move from Newark to Princeton in 1756 and the erection of Nassau Hall. They have included gifted administrators like Dodds, who, notwithstanding the turmoil of the Great Depression and the Second World War, set a new standard of academic excellence and, as the development of the Woodrow Wilson School attests, gave his university a global outlook. And, inevitably, there were presidents who failed to sustain the burdens of their office: men like Smith, whose tenure was marred by a fire that gutted Nassau Hall in 1802 and student riots that led to mass suspensions in 1807. Indeed, Smith is one of four presidents who have been compelled to resign under pressure. The other three are Ashbel Green, Patton, and Wilson.

The series descriptions that follow provide individual profiles of Princeton University's first 15 presidents, as well as insights into the changing character of their office. As a whole they were an able group of leaders who successfully guided their institution through the social, political, and economic vagaries of two centuries. Though Latin and Greek have fallen from their position of curricular pre-eminence, though Nassau Hall is no longer the place where students study, eat, sleep, and worship, and though financial transactions are no longer entered in the president's own hand, the work of the presidents documented in this collection continues to bear fruit today. The names and tenures of these men are listed below:

President Tenure

Jonathan Dickinson 1747

Aaron Burr, Sr. 1748-1757

Jonathan Edwards 1758

Samuel Davies 1759-1761

Samuel Finley 1761-1766

John Witherspoon 1768-1794

Samuel Stanhope Smith 1795-1812

Ashbel Green 1812-1822

James Carnahan 1823-1854

John Maclean, Jr. 1854-1868

James McCosh 1868-1888

Francis Landey Patton 1888-1902

Woodrow Wilson 1902-1910

John Grier Hibben 1912-1932

Harold Willis Dodds 1933-1957

From the guide to the Office of the President Records : Jonathan Dickinson to Harold W. Dodds Subgroup, 1746-1999, 1830-1869, (Princeton University. Library. Dept. of Rare Books and Special Collections)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf Office of the President Records : Jonathan Dickinson to Harold W. Dodds Subgroup, 1746-1999, 1830-1869 Princeton University. Library. Dept. of Rare Books and Special Collections.Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library. Princeton University Archives.
creatorOf Annual Reports to the President, 1940-2010 Princeton University. Library. Dept. of Rare Books and Special Collections.Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library. Princeton University Archives.
referencedIn Princeton University. Office of General Counsel. Office of General Counsel records, 1865-1999. Princeton University Library
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Bowen, William G. person
associatedWith Burr, Aaron, 1716-1757 person
associatedWith Carnahan, James, 1775-1859 person
associatedWith Davies, Samuel, 1723-1761 person
associatedWith Dickinson, Jonathan, 1688-1747 person
associatedWith Dodds, Harold W. (Harold Willis), 1889-1980 person
associatedWith Duffield, Edward D. (Edward Dickinson), 1871-1938 person
associatedWith Edwards, Jonathan 1703-1758 person
associatedWith Finley, Samuel, 1715-1766 person
associatedWith Fox, Arthur E. (Arthur Eugene), 1891-1957 person
associatedWith Gemmell, Edgar M. (Edgar Mills), 1911-1990 person
associatedWith Goheen, Robert F. (Robert Francis), 1919- person
associatedWith Green, Ashbel, 1762-1848 person
associatedWith Hibben, John Grier, 1861-1933 person
associatedWith Maclean. John, 1800-1886 person
associatedWith McCosh, James, 1811-1894 person
associatedWith Patton, Francis L. (Francis Landey), 1843-1932 person
associatedWith Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. corporateBody
associatedWith Princeton University corporateBody
associatedWith Princeton University Administration. corporateBody
associatedWith Princeton University Faculty. corporateBody
associatedWith Princeton University. Office of General Counsel. corporateBody
associatedWith Shapiro, Harold T., 1935- person
associatedWith Smith, Samuel Stanhope, 1750-1819 person
associatedWith Wilson, Woodrow, 1856-1924 person
associatedWith Witherspoon, John, 1723-1794 person
Place Name Admin Code Country
Universities and colleges--New Jersey--Princeton--Administration
Princeton University
Universities and colleges--New Jersey--Princeton--Departments
College administrators--New Jersey--Princeton

Corporate Body

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SNAC ID: 33533980