Respected American academic and Princeton University Provost Deborah Prentice was in Greece recently for a meeting of the trustees of the Princeton Athens Center, an initiative of the Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies, which has operated under the directorship of Dimitri Gondicas since it was founded in 2016.
Princeton’s Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies was established in 1979 with an endowment from Stanley Seeger (1930-2011), the renowned art collector, patron and Philhellene who adopted Greek citizenship due to his love of the country.
Starting this fall and through 2020, Princeton is celebrating the 40th anniversary of its Hellenic Studies program with a series of lectures and events covering a broad range of subjects and disciplines. Among these, a special event at the Princeton Athens Center recently paid tribute to the Greek donors who bolstered the field with special endowments for scholarships, innovative studies programs and research seminars, among others.
As provost at Princeton, Prentice is the senior academic administrator. The social psychologist has been on the faculty of the respected American university since 1989 and was named provost in 2017 after serving as the dean from 2014 to 2017 and chair of the Psychology Department for 12 years.
My first question is whether, as the person responsible for ensuring the smooth operation of such a venerated institution, she has pondered the role of the academic environment in propagating the social norms of its host country.
“The rules of society are unwritten, whereas universities are governed by written, legal rules. However, as educational institutions, we certainly affect the mechanisms that create and reproduce social norms,” she says.
“Some social norms may dictate staying silent; we don’t want silence but dialogue,” she says.
Are there limits to dialogue? Should dialogue be encouraged, say, with groups trying to reinstate the ban on abortions in the United States?
“We would never support the prohibition of abortions, but on the other hand we would also never prevent a discussion with the people who do support such a thing,” Prentice answers.
I put it to the academic that the fact abortion is back on the table at all suggests that perhaps nothing can be taken for granted in the US when it comes to rights.
“I would say that that is not entirely unfair,” she responds, agreeing that there is one thing that history has taught us and that is not to take anything for granted. “Nothing is unshakable,” she says. “Only the Parthenon is unshakable.”
Prentice is a firm believer in equal access to higher education as the most effective way of dealing with social inequality.
“Inequality is propagated in many different ways, but we at Princeton contribute to the battle against it by ensuring that 25 percent of our undergraduate students come from low-income families and are eligible for state grants,” she says.
The university, she adds, picks students who have excellent academic records and helps them in their last years of high school so that they can keep their grades high and aim for a good university or college.
Another group of 14 percent is made up of undergraduates who are children of Princeton alumni, while the majority consists of students from all over the United States and other parts of the world, whose fees help cover the cost of the others. This mechanism, explains Prentice, is important in helping to combat inequality.
But why should a Greek undergraduate choose the US instead of equally good universities in Europe?
“Because in the US, they will have two years of education before having to decide what they want to major in, something that is not possible at European universities,” she responds.