Woodrow Wilson School: "An Air of Affairs"

Conference Program Encourages Studies in Specific Public Issues

Soon after the death of its greatest president, Princton University established the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs--dedicated, in the words of a memorial plaque, to a "leader in education and the affairs of state" and to the "prophet of a new world order." Throughout its 29 years, the School has concerned itself primarily with undergraduates, for, although a promising graduate division has developed since the War, the unique strength of the School lies in its rigorous and attractive program for juniors and seniors in Princeton College. From a mass of applications, fifty students in each class are chosen to undertake research, writing and even speaking on the public affairs of the time.

The School is much more than a "current events round table;" it requires each concentrator to fulfill a carefully planned course schedule in the four sponsoring Departments--History, Politics, Economics and Sociology--and to approach current problems with a broad, inter-disciplinary back-ground.

The core of the School's program is the "Conference," a method of teaching particularly useful in the field of public affairs. Intended to "train students in the investigation of domestic and international issues, in public speaking and debate, and in the art of group deliberation and decision," each Conference runs for one term and considers such topics as "The United States and European Integration" and "The Role of the Government in Developing Nuclear Power." Each term of Conference requires the concentrator to prepare a long research paper, and eventually to defend it before a group of undergraduates.

Even though it involves more work than most Departments, the School each year attracts about twice as many applicants as it can admit. In recent years, from 70 to 130 sophomores have applied for the 50 available places. To the delight of the college admissions office, the School attracts to Princeton intelligent students, interested in public affairs who might otherwise have gone, say, to Harvard (which has no similar undergraduate program.)

When a sophomore is accepted into the School, he must plan his courses for the next two years "in such a way as to form a purposeful and consistent program." To help in this planning, the administration has appointed an Undergraduate Program Advisor, Professor W.D. Carmichael. "Without an apparatus to patrol course selection," says Carmichael, a former Rhodes scholar, "concentration in the School could become aimless." His students, who range from "better-than-average to extremely good," Carmichael explains, are "carefully shepherded" in their approach to these "fascinating, challenging issues of public policy."


The School offers three basic fields--Government and Economic Life, Government of a Democracy, and International Affairs,--as well as a number of more specific topics such as The Near East, the Far East, or Latin America in the Modern World. If a student chooses to work, for example, in Government of a Democracy, he may select his courses from a list which includes Public Finance (Economics), English Constitutional History (History), Public Opinion (Politics), and Urban Sociology.

Although a concentrator draws up his course program with the aid of the Undergraduate Program Advisor, the courses themselves are offered by the several departments which cooperate in the School. In fact, the School's sole teaching enterprise is the Conference Program. Each Conference follows a schedule designed to provide definition of a public policy issue, individual research into its various aspects, formal discussion of all research papers, and finally a resolution expressing the consensus of the Conference.

At the start of each term, the 50 juniors in the School divide into three groups of approximately 17 students. This fall two Conferences are engaged in a study of "Combatting Inflation in the American Government," while the other is concerned with "Recent Changes in British Society" and the future of the British Labour Party. After an organization meeting early in the term, a stiff basic reading list is assigned, and students are given three weeks to complete it.

After the "Constituent Meeting," the broad main topic is divided so that each member of the Conference can study a sub-topic in depth. For example, the Conference on inflation in the American economy, this fall touched on "inflation and income distribution," "the national debt in an inflationary environment," and "public intervention in the wage-price process."

Professor Carmichael calls the next step, "a month in the library." During this period, students are expected to work on well-organized and well-documented research papers of around 40 pages. Considering that a History honors thesis at Harvard is 80 pages, these Conference papers, produced in four weeks, seem a rigorous requirement.

During the next two weeks, faculty members meet with each student for individual discussions on the papers. For the remainder of the term, students read and defend their papers at weekly formal sessions.

Finally, the Commissioners, seniors acting as Conference leaders, coordinate all the material, and help the chairman--a senior of "high standing"--to organize a final report, which is duly filed in Firestone Library.

In recent years, Conferences have dealt with "Democracy in Trade Unions," with "Problems of American Foreign Policy in North Africa," with "U.S. Policy toward Communism in Asia." This spring a diversified choice awaits members of the School, for topics include: "Egypt's Role in World Affairs," "Soviet Aims in Foreign Policy," and "National Security and Individual Freedom (e.g. the Fifth Amendment)."

As a supplement to research, students get new perspectives on their topic from prominent guest speakers. For the Conference on American inflation, the School has invited Arthur Burns (former Economic Advisor to the President), the chief lawyer for David McDonald's Steelworkers Union, and Senator Clark of Pennsylvania. In coordinating top-flight outside speakers with its academic program, the Woodrow Wilson School sets an example which might be followed with profit in Harvard College.

In its unique program, the School faces a number of dangers. First, the Conference could degenerate into a hollow shell, a well-organized outline. But this is unlikely, for students accepted into the program are well-qualified for the type and quantity of work required.