Princeton University president Christopher Eisgruber says India is a growing source of talent for the institute, both in terms of students and faculty. On a recent visit to New Delhi, Eisgruber spoke about Princeton’s India engagement, fund-raising plans and harnessing the alumni network. Edited excerpts from an interview:
What brings you to India?
I am here to increase connections with India. India is an increasing source of talent for us—both students and faculty. We want to come here and form partnerships to solve global problems—problems existing in the US, India or elsewhere. We want to do this not by opening centres and campuses but by facilitating networks between people and faculty and finding a way for our researchers.
We don’t count the number of agreements. The admission applications are growing (from India) though we are a small university in terms of the total number of students—we have just 5,200 undergraduate students and 2,600 graduate students, most of them at the doctoral level. India is the fourth largest source of foreign students in our university. There are 55 Indian passport holders at the undergraduate level and 75 graduate students. This is a significant jump when you compare it with the situation some years back. This number will continue to grow.
We also run a programme in Varanasi, in which some of our undergraduate students come here to do service work for a year before returning to Princeton. Several of our faculty members are doing research in India. One of our professors, Angus Deaton, who has been awarded the Nobel Prize in economics, has worked in India on research projects to do with well-being and health sectors.
You are an advocate of liberal arts education. In Delhi, you interacted with Ashoka University. What’s the merit of liberal arts in current times?
Liberal arts is fundamental to what Princeton is. We have a great strength in social science, engineering, etc. This liberal arts tradition is part of our DNA. I am not an authority particularly on India, but can say that liberal arts prepare you to meet the challenges of the future.
Yale University president Peter Salovey and you managed the finance of your respective universities during the economic slowdown as provosts. Both of you are now presidents. So, are Ivy League varsities indicative of a trend—manage finances better to grow?
I know Peter well (smiles). What is gratifying is that even during the downturn, our alumni were forthcoming and generous. We give significant financial aid to our students and even during tough years, we continued to do so despite our endowment corpus dropping. Nearly 60% of our students receive financial aid from us.
What’s the health of your endowment corpus, and how are your fund-raising plans shaping up?
We are always raising funds. Because we believe by investing in the extraordinary talents of our campus, we can produce returns for society. We recently said that we want to grow our undergraduate student strength.
But aren’t your endowments giving you good returns?
Since 2000, including the economic downturn years, we have had 10% return compounding, including those tough years when endowments dropped by 25%. A 10% compounding is a pretty strong return from our endowment investments. One Bloomberg report spoke about six-month returns, but we invest for the long term, not for six months; and six-month returns do not dictate our budget.
Our endowment spending is relatively low—4.1% (annually)—and we are thinking whether we should be spending more from it because the returns on endowment are so strong. The overall endowment size is over $20 billion.
As provost, you successfully raised $1.88 billion. What’s your next fund-raising target and where does India feature?
Yes, you are right and the credit goes to my president under whom I worked as provost... We may go for another round of fund-raising, but when I won’t be able tell you now. At least 60% of our past students received financial assistance and that amount is equal to the tuition fee. So, most of the students are getting education for whom tuition fees is zero, low or there is some other aid. Our alumni are grateful and that’s why they return that in some form or the other. At least 61% of our ex-students contribute to the university. We will undertake a fresh fund-raising campaign for our new initiatives.
Would you put a number to that plan?
Let me say that universities often get too obsessed with numbers. Our job is to maximize the mission (of good education), not maximize profit. Maximizing revenue is a mistake.
Mistake by Princeton too?
I don’t know. I belive we are very disciplined. You spoke about $1.88 billion, but if you look at what some peers are doing, the numbers are gigantic.
Are you looking to harness your alumni network in India?
Yes, we are now working on it.