Princeton's Public Service Struggle

Nice update in today's Wall Street Journal on the Robertson family's lawsuit against Princeton University. The suit alleges that the school has failed to use $35 million donated in 1961 (after investments, the fund is worth $650 million now) in the way it was intended: to train graduate students at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs to serve in the federal government.

It's unclear at this point who is likely to prevail in the suit, but documents provided by the family to the Journal indicate that the university has struggled for decades with meeting the mandate to develop federal civil servants. Here's an excerpt from the piece:

In a confidential 1972 memo to Princeton's president, the then-dean of the Wilson School expressed impatience with the Robertsons' insistence on preparing students for federal service with a focus on international affairs. "What bothers me" about the terms of the gift, wrote the dean, John Lewis, is "the unspoken premise that, with respect to any American institution dealing in public affairs, the highest per-se loyalty automatically must be to the U.S. government. ... The university should resist a blind commitment to nation-state parochialism."

Princeton reports that from 1973 through 2005, 229, or 12 percent, of the 1,923 graduates of the Wilson School's graduate school took their first job with the federal government in international affairs, and another 184, or 10 percent, worked for the U.S. government in other capacities. The rest went into law, academia, consulting, state and local governments and nongovernmental organizations. The university calls the goals laid out when the fund was established "aspirational."

It's going to get harder, not easier, to meet these goals from here on out. The federal government continues to grow as a force in society (and internationally), but is adding few of its own employees. Increasingly, its work focuses on leveraging the work of contractors and non-governmental organizations--especially in the foreign affairs arena in which the Wilson School specializes. More than ever, Princeton's graduates can expect to do their work from outside the civil service. And if they're like most other college graduates in recent years, they're just fine with that.

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