Cautioning against Further Pre-Professionalism at Princeton

In the most recent faculty meeting held April 23, the faculty voted on two important changes to academic life at the University. The first was passage of calendar reform, which the Board previously endorsed. The second was unanimous approval of a new Journalism certificate. The Board commends passage of both of these measures, in particular because they demonstrate the faculty’s responsiveness to the opinions and advocacy of the student body. The University has offered Journalism courses for over 50 years, and many students and the Humanities Council have advocated for Princeton to create a certificate in the field. Given the high interest in the Journalism certificate and the breadth, depth, and quality of the University’s existing courses in the subject, the Board supports approval of the certificate. However, we caution the University against creating many additional “pre-professional” certificates, which we believe would undermine Princeton’s admirable and valuable focus on a liberal arts education.

Princeton, in contrast to some of our peer institutions such as the University of Pennsylvania, is known for its focus on the liberal arts. The benefits of a traditional liberal arts education are many. Courses are aimed at providing students with robust critical thinking skills that help them think through and solve any question or challenge they encounter at Princeton and after graduation. Precepts and seminars encourage robust intellectual discourse and argumentation between students. All students are exposed to a wide range of classes and academic pursuits because of the distribution requirements. As a result, students leave Princeton having developed their intellectual curiosity, accumulated a broad academic skill set, and explored diverse interests, rather than having focused on the specific skill set of one area such as business or law through a pre-professional program.

There is certainly some merit to pre-professional programs in that they equip students with technical and practical skills in a certain area, which can prepare students well for the workforce and signal interest to future employers or graduate schools. It is for this reason that the University offers a few certificates that are professionally oriented, including the existing Finance certificate and the new Journalism certificate. However, some students’ participation in these programs may be motivated by job preparation, rather than purely by intellectual curiosity. Therefore, we caution the University against creating many other professional certificates, such as “Pre-Law” or “Pre-Medicine” certificates. Adding too many pre-professional certificates would likely erode the liberal arts focus of Princeton’s education.

Were there widespread pre-professional certificates, students might feel compelled to pursue these certificates in order to signal their interest in post-graduation opportunities. In the status quo, because Princeton is known as a liberal arts institution, students do not have to major in technical subjects to obtain jobs after graduation. For example, investment bankers do not expect Princeton students to have majored in business, and accordingly investment banks often hire Princetonians from majors as diverse as Politics or English. By contrast, at a school like UPenn, students may be expected to major in Finance at the Wharton School in order to be competitive applicants for these jobs. Creating additional professional certificates and cultivating a more pre-professional atmosphere at the University could impose more career-oriented expectations for course selection on students. This could undermine students’ intellectual freedom and flexibility to explore varied subject areas because certificate programs often have stringent requirements for courses and independent work. Given the limited scope of current pre-professional programs at the University, we do not believe these certificates erode Princeton’s commitment to the liberal arts. But we do believe the approval of the Journalism certificate is an important opportunity to reiterate the value of a liberal arts education.

University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 put it well: “I came to Princeton because I wanted a liberal arts education that would enable me to pursue multiple interests rigorously and deeply. I concentrated in physics, but the courses that most shaped by intellectual life were in constitutional law, political theory, and comparative literature.” That he made his career as a constitutional scholar and President of the University, despite having majored in physics, is a good example of the career flexibility and intellectual breadth that a Princeton liberal arts education offers students. As the faculty continues to consider future certificates, we urge them to keep this value in mind and avoid approving many additional pre-professional certificates.

Jack Whelan ‘19 and Nicholas Wooldridge ‘21 abstained from the writing of this editorial.