Princeton University

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PRINCETON UNIVERSITY. Founded in 1746 by religious reformers, Princeton University is one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in the United States. The fourth oldest school in the nation, Princeton's founders decided to establish the school after Harvard and Yale opposed the Great Awakening. Four Presbyterian ministers, all of whom were part of the New Light faction that was part of a split that took place in the Presbyterian Church in the 1740s, came together with three laymen to found the institution. It was originally called the College of New Jersey. The first classes were held in Elizabeth, New Jersey, in the parsonage of Jonathan Dickinson, its first president. The school was moved to Newark in 1747 and then in 1756 to Princeton, New Jersey. Like most eighteenth-century schools of similar stature, Princeton's curriculum emphasized the classics while the campus culture reflected the religious orientation of the school's founders. Throughout the eighteenth century, admission was based upon a knowledge of Latin and Greek. Attendance at prayer remained a requirement until the late 1800s.

In addition to establishing its place in colonial history as one of the academic institutions founded in response to the Great Awakening, Princeton was significant to the history of the early Republic because of its central role in both the American Revolution and in the development of Congress. Princeton was the site of an historic battle during the Revolution, the Battle of Princeton in 1777, and its president at the time, John Witherspoon, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Nassau Hall, which has been the center of Princeton's campus since 1756, briefly served as the meeting site for the Continental Congress in 1783. From its members, Princeton was able to claim nine graduates among the delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. This was more than any other college could boast. In addition, ever since the first meeting of the House of Representatives in 1789, the school has had at least one alumnus sitting in Congress.

Since Princeton attracted a significant number of southern students during the nineteenth century, the school's work was largely disrupted during the Civil War. Nevertheless, following the conflict the students were able fully to resume their academic programming. In 1896, the College of New Jersey officially changed its name to Princeton University. In 1902, Woodrow Wilson became Princeton's thirteenth president. Under Wilson's administration, the university's curricular and administrative structures were revamped. Wilson created departments of instruction with administrative heads, unified the curriculum, and greatly increased the faculty by creating preceptorials. Preceptors allowed students the opportunity to interact more with professors by meeting with small groups. Preceptors would later be used at colleges and universities across the country. Wilson went on to become the second Princeton graduate, after James Madison, to become president of the United States.

Although Princeton established its Graduate School in 1900, it was during the presidency of Harold Dodds in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s that the school became highly focused on graduate education and research. In 1933 Albert Einstein took an office at Princeton when he became a life member of the nearby Institute for Advanced Study.

Like the rest of America, Princeton University was touched in many ways by the social movements of the 1960s. Although it graduated its first black students in 1947, not until the 1960s did Princeton begin actively to recruit students of color. The university also voted to admit women as undergraduates in 1969. In the year 2001, Princeton's student body consisted of 4,611 students, of whom 48 percent were female. American minorities, including African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans, represented 26 percent of the student body. One of America's most competitive schools, Princeton admits only 12 percent of its applicants.

As Princeton University entered the twenty-first century, it maintained the fourth largest endowment in the country (preceded by Harvard, the University of Texas, and Yale). It is also the first major research university to have women in its two highest positions: Shirley Tilghman as president and Amy Gutman as provost.


"About Princeton." Available from

Leitch, Alexander. A Princeton Companion. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978.

"Women at the Top of Academe." New York Times (4 September 2001): A22.

Stephanie R.Sims

See alsoEducation, Higher: Colleges and Universities ; Great Awakening ; New Lights .

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Princeton University