Biography and History

The Dean of the College is Princeton University’s third-oldest deanship. President Woodrow Wilson established the office in the spring of 1909 to oversee disciplinary and extra-curricular concerns. Today, the Dean of the College has administrative oversight of admission to the undergraduate college, the curriculum of the College, and the services and agencies designed to promote the academic development of undergraduates. The Dean of the College is also charged with the application and enforcement of the rules and standards relating to undergraduate scholarship, standing, and attendance in the University.

Over the years, deans of the college have presided over committees including the Faculty Committee on Examinations and Standing, the University Committee on Discipline, the Probation Board, the Committee on Non-Athletic Activities, the Faculty Committee on Athletic Eligibility, and the Program for Servicemen. The Dean of the College is ex-officio chair of the Faculty Committees on the Course of Study, Examinations and Standing, Continuing Education, and Undergraduate Admission and Financial Aid. The dean is an ex-officio member of the Council of the Princeton University Community, the Faculty Committees on Discipline, Public Lectures, Schedule, and Undergraduate Life, and sits with the Faculty Advisory Committee on Appointments and Advancements. Often, the Dean of the College is called upon to speak to alumni and student groups and at events outside of the University.

Edward G. Elliott, a professor of politics, served as the first Dean of the College, from 1909 until 1912. Howard McClenahan, who held the office until 1925, succeeded Elliott and was heavily involved in preparing the campus for World War I. McClenahan spent a significant portion of his tenure embroiled in a dispute after he declared several athletes ineligible. A group of alumni charged that the faculty was biased against athletes, and some called for McClenahan’s resignation from the Intercollegiate Athletics board. In the face of calls for his resignation as dean, McClenahan maintained that Princeton must put academics first.

Christian Gauss, who had been one of Woodrow Wilson’s original preceptors, served as Dean of the College from 1925 to 1946. Much admired for his sense of justice and fairness, Gauss became an almost legendary figure whom Howard Medina ’09 called “perhaps the best-known and best-liked college dean in America.” Gauss faced immense changes on campus after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, from the implementation of the Selective Service Act to an increase in withdrawals to students’ requests for permission to marry. Gauss temporarily left office in 1943 to plan a post-war curriculum that, at President Dodds’ urging, focused on maintaining Princeton’s standards as a liberal arts school after many students switched to math and sciences during wartime. In addition to his efforts to meet the challenges wrought by World War II, Gauss, a great fan of athletics, garnered much favor during his tenure through his efforts to keep football at Princeton and his advocacy for the repeal of Prohibition.

Dean Francis Godolphin, a World War II veteran, took office in the postwar years (1946-1955). During a time of resurgence in campus activities and extreme overcrowding, the University administration was faced with the problem of providing housing for married veterans and their families. Godolphin in particular contended with, among other workload increases, a surge in correspondence with local draft boards and work with Selective Service issues. Godolphin also saw scholarship funds and employment opportunities under pressure and an increase in recommendations to graduate and professional schools. Amid the bustle of post-war adjustments, the Office of the Dean of Students was created to take on extra-curricular and social functions previously overseen by the Office of the Dean of the College. The Dean of the College still dealt with issues of discipline, and Godolphin came to the defense of the University Discipline Committee following a Daily Princetonian editorial that criticized suspensions as a form of punishment. Godolphin also defended University regulations when students protested a rule that barred women from dorms after 7 p.m., restrictions against cars on campus, and state liquor laws.

The latter half of the 1950s saw continued high enrollment and overcrowding everywhere on campus, but Dean Jeremiah Finch (1955-1961) used his time as dean to become more involved in classroom activities than his predecessors. He played a significant role in the development of the undergraduate program of study and focused on undergraduate advisors’ evolving roles. Finch’s efforts led to an expanded curricular focus on Russia and Asia, and the development of engineering science programs. He initiated reading periods, advanced placement, and early concentration, and increased the emphasis on independent work for upperclassmen. Finch also developed the Princeton Scholars program, a highly selective program in which a number of freshmen were offered exemption from all formal course requirements in their first year. During Finch’s tenure students’ interest in religious and political activities grew, as did the number of complaints from alumni, trustees and some outside of the University regarding the liberal nature of upper class club regulations. In response the dean ordered a cut in entertainment privileges, which caused controversy that evolved into an unprecedented demonstration against the administration.

J. Merrill Knapp (1961-1966) served as Dean of the College at a time of national concern over the college attrition rate, which Knapp addressed in several articles in national publications. He strengthened interdepartmental programs and created new opportunities in regional studies. He also made it possible for students to take one class per year on a pass/fail option. Knapp further developed the University Scholar Program and started the Experimental Research Scholar Program in the Department of Politics and the Woodrow Wilson School. He also formed the Cooperative Undergraduate Program for Critical Language and revised the Sociology Department curriculum.

Dean of the College Edward Sullivan (1966-1972) played a major role in initiating coeducation at Princeton. Sullivan sought to increase both variety and flexibility in the life of the undergraduate and encourage self-education and discovery. He introduced the course reduction system, which reduced course loads for freshmen, sophomores, and seniors. This move went against a national trend at the time toward heavier course loads and increased specialization. Early in his tenure he revamped the School of Architecture curriculum and the Latin American Affairs Program. During a time of political unrest on campus following the United States’ invasion of Cambodia, Dean Sullivan quelled parental fears about the University shutting its doors after 4,000 students, faculty, and staff endorsed an anti-war strike. In part to allow for political involvement, students were allowed to postpone completion of academic work at the end of the spring term.

From the early 1970s deans of the college have focused heavily on matters of teaching and curriculum. Neil Rudenstine (1972-1977) moved into the position after serving as dean of students and contending with the 1972 anti-war strike, and focused his interest on the interrelationship of social and intellectual pursuits of undergraduates. Rudenstine served as a member of the Commission on the Future of the College, a major study of the college which had been commissioned by President Robert Goheen in 1970 to review undergraduate education at Princeton.

Under Dean Joan Girgus (1977-1987) the use of computers and technology in the classroom rose, and curriculum became more interdisciplinary in nature. Among her other duties, Girgus served as Princeton’s representative to the Ivy Policy Committee. As a member of the Faculty Committee on Examinations and Standing, Dean Nancy Weiss Malkiel (1987-present) has devoted much of her work to studying grading patterns at Princeton, with an eye to grade inflation. She has also worked to encourage students to broaden their intellectual pursuits and explore the offerings of Princeton’s smaller academic departments. During Malkiel’s tenure as dean, the Office of the Dean of the College has developed new core requirements, expanded the Freshman Seminar Program, and diversified the curriculum. Malkiel’s administration has also focused on improving the teaching of science to non-majors and writing instruction for all undergraduates.

Deans of the College, Department, Tenure as Dean

Edward G. Elliott, politics, 1909-1912

Howard McClenahan, physics, 1912-1925

Christian Gauss, modern languages, 1925-1946

Francis R. B. Godolphin, classics, 1946-1955

Jeremiah S. Finch, English, 1955-1961

J. Merrill Knapp, music, 1961-1966

Edward D. Sullivan, French, 1966-1972

Neil L. Rudenstine, English, 1972-1977

Joan S. Girgus, psychology, 1977-1987

Nancy Weiss Malkiel, history, 1987-

Source: From the finding aid for AC149

  • Office of the Dean of the College Records. 1919-2015 (inclusive).

    Call Number: AC149

    The Office of the Dean of the College is charged with overseeing undergraduate admission, curriculum, and academic development. The records document the work of the Dean of the College and the office staff, as well as faculty, students, alumni, and trustees whose work and interests have fallen under the domain of the Office of the Dean of the College. This record group contains annual reports, meeting minutes, departmental records, and correspondence.

  • Undergraduate Academic Files. 1921-2015 (inclusive).

    Call Number: AC198

    Consists of individual academic files of former undergraduate students of Princeton University, containing grades, transcripts, and other information relating to the subject's academic career.