Robert Goheen and the Open Mind

Robert F. Goheen

Robert F. Goheen

Robert F. Goheen was a professor of classics when he was selected, at the age of 37, to become the 16th president of Princeton University. When he began his term in 1957, Princeton was a good school. But it was also very much a southern men’s club. When he stepped down in 1972, Princeton was one of the world’s great universities, having grown greatly in size and budget; in research productivity; and in ethnic and racial diversity. And it had become coeducational.

That last change was probably the most traumatic. Princeton’s trustees voted in favor of coeducation in the spring of 1969. The first women to be admitted as freshmen in an incoming class arrived that fall, members of the class of 1973. I was a member of that class, and I remember the turmoil on campus, with television crews running all over asking everyone what they thought of the matter. Since I had attended a coed elementary school and a coed high school which had far more diversity than was found at Princeton in 1969, I didn’t see much novelty. In fact, with only one hundred women and about one thousand men in the class, I found the ratio disappointing!

Goheen had championed coeducation in spite of some fierce opposition, mostly — although not exclusively — from alumni who decried the loss of a tradition and threatened to withhold their monetary contributions in protest. Moreover, his support marked a reversal of his earlier position. In 1965, he opposed coeducation, but changed his mind four years later.

I asked him about this in 1972, when I interviewed him just prior to his retirement from the presidency for a news program I had on WPRB, Princeton’s radio station. Why, I wanted to know, had he changed his mind? “Because I was wrong,” he answered, and stopped. I remember my surprised, “That’s it?” He went on to explain that during the four intervening years he had talked to literally hundreds of people and had become convinced that by remaining a male-only institution, Princeton would not only miss out on the numerous benefits of having bright young women in the college; but would also lose the opportunity to attract a significant number of young men and faculty who were not interested in a segregated environment.

“What you want to do when you realize you have made a mistake,” he said, “is admit it, explain your reasoning, and move on.”

This brings us to the reason for telling this story. Not being a classics major, and not having much of a talent for Latin, I never sat as a student in one of Goheen’s classes. Yet as I reflect on the impression he made on me some 35 years ago, I realize that Robert Goheen, who died this week at the age of 88, was one of my best teachers.

The lesson I learned is to encourage discussion and to keep an open mind. Goheen’s point was that there is no such thing as a bad idea, and we are better served if everyone has an opportunity to express his or her views. Goheen’s example was not limited to the issue of coeducation. Those were turbulent times in the nation and especially on college campuses. The war in Vietnam, civil rights, women’s rights; all were controversial and divisive issues and many universities saw violent, disruptive protest. At Princeton, Goheen promoted debate, allowed peaceful protest, and took steps to allow participation in the discussion by all members of the community. I credit his leadership for the fact that protests at Princeton remained peaceful and that the university remained open and operating.

Today we live in an age where much of our daily discourse is dominated by those who have the loudest voices. They may be political leaders or corporate CEOs, television talk pundits, op-ed columnists, or just people you meet on the street. They spend far more time talking than listening. Their minds are permanently made-up. And their strategy is generally to preach only to people of like mind and to demonize anyone with an opposing view.

It is, I think, a counter-productive strategy.

Goheen’s tenure as president ended in 1972, but in no way did he retire. He served as president of the Council on Foundations and for three years was the United States Ambassador to India. At his death, he was still teaching as a senior fellow at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

Princeton has had three presidents since Goheen and all have continued the policies he spearheaded. The university has continued to grow in size and in the diversity of both students and faculty. Women in the college are on an equal basis with the men and have achieved every distinction, academic, athletic and extra-curricular. Princeton’s current president, Shirley Tilghman, I should note, is also its first female chief executive.

The radio station, WPRB, has taken to playing music which gives me a headache. But what the heck, I still have an open mind.

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