John Frederick Wilson (1933-present) was born in Ipswich, Massachusetts and received his Bachelor of Arts at Harvard University in 1954; Master of Divinity and Doctor of Philosophy at Union Theological Seminary, New York City in 1954 and 1957. He was a postgraduate at the Institute for History Research, London, 1958-1959. He taught in the department of religion at Barnard College, Columbia from 1956-1958.
Wilson joined the Princeton faculty in 1960, served as assistant dean of the college from 1965 to 1972 and as chair of the Department of Religion from 1973 to 1980. He was named the Agate Brown and George Collord Professor of Religion in 1977. He was master of Forbes College from 1983 to 1999, and served from 1994-2002 as Dean of the Graduate School. He retired in June, 2004 as Emerti faculty.
As a scholar, Wilson specialized in American religious history. Among his early publications were Pulpit in Parliament and Public Religion in American Culture. With Paul Ramsey, he edited The Study of Religion in American Colleges and Universities. He later published a critical edition of A History of the Work of Redemption for the Yale Edition of The Works of Jonathan Edwards. Among other activities, he directed a long-term project on Church and State in American History that published two bibliographical volumes and a number of specialized studies.
Upon announcing his retirement from the position of graduate school dean, Wilson said:
For some time, I have planned to return to the Department of Religion after celebration of the Graduate School’s centennial year in 2000-01. My great regret is that I will not have a hand in planning for the future of the Graduate School as Princeton develops under President Tilghman’s leadership. The next years promise to be a period in which the entire institution will flourish, taking advantage of its unique profile as a top-flight research university committed to educating not only superior undergraduates but the next generation of researchers, scholars and teachers in arts, sciences and engineering disciplines.
“The Graduate School has thrived under John Wilson’s exceptional leadership,” Tilghman said. “He has helped reshape graduate education with initiatives that have significantly increased financial support for doctoral students. Through outreach efforts he oversaw and carried out, the school has achieved a higher profile in recent years, both on campus and among alumni.”
Wilson indicated that the increased support for doctoral students was the achievement of which he was most proud. The University implemented an expanded fellowship program that provided all first-year doctoral students in the sciences and engineering with full tuition and a stipend to assist with living expenses. In addition, all doctoral students in the humanities and social sciences -- who already were supported through fellowships during the academic year – became eligible to receive summer stipends.
“Both former President (Harold) Shapiro and former Provost (Jeremiah) Ostriker recognized that, especially as research doctoral programs remain small in scale or even contract in size, competition for the most promising students will only become more severe,” Wilson said. “Under their leadership and with the strong support of the trustees, Princeton has placed itself ‘at the head of the class’ through its first-year fellowships and its summer stipends.”
Under Dean Wilson and with the help of a new grant from the Mellon Foundation, he expanded a major program of summer stipends. By 1998, nearly a thousand students— 80 percent of those eligible—received some support for the summer, the most productive time of year when classes, visiting lecturers, and other distractions were at a minimum and non-academic employment was sometimes a temptation or necessity. This moved graduate students in the humanities and social sciences toward parity with those in the natural sciences and engineering in terms of full-year support.
Thanks in large measure to a robust economy and to the success of the University’s 250th Anniversary Campaign, the Graduate School was in exemplary shape at its Centennial. The University enjoyed an endowment of one million dollars per student (by far the highest of any major university in the country) and the Graduate School offered nearly 600 University fellowships (including 247 endowed and named fellowships), 330 government-sponsored assistantships in research, and 262 assistantships in instruction worth between $12,165 and $37,830. The total budget for student aid was nearly $34 million. Remarkably, only 16 percent of the graduate population earned their keep by teaching; fully 56 percent were on University fellowships that freed them to concentrate on their scholarship—almost exactly the number who were supported by outside fellowships thirty years earlier. Most of Princeton’s peers funded only the first two years before qualifying exams and then left the students to teach for the duration, though several competitors were beginning to imitate the Princeton pattern in order to compete. Even science students were being increasingly supported in their first year by University fellowships. Traditionally, their advisors’ research contracts would have paid their educational costs. But tying new students to ongoing research projects was believed to hamper their initiative and development, and to restrict their choice of suitable advisors.
This financial support was bolstered by the quality of the Princeton faculty which was all the more impressive if their small numbers were used to calculate a per capital index of research productivity based on awards, grants and publications. Hugh Davis Graham and Nancy Diamond’s 1997 book concerning the period after World War II, The Rise of American Research Universities, did just that, and ranked the Princeton faculty second in the country behind Stanford’s. Letters of recommendation from professors such as these obviously raised their students’ chances of landing good jobs and the Graduate School’s enviable placement rate. Princeton graduates did well during this time with more than 60 percent completing their degrees within seven years, the average time-to-degree dropped to 5.67 years (the median only 5.16 years) in 1998-1999 and 94 percent had found jobs, two-thirds of them in academic settings.
These factors combined contributed to graduate programs scoring high in U.S. News rankings. In 2002, U.S. News & World Report graduate school rankings were released with three Princeton departments among the top five nationwide (history, economics and the Wilson School), and an additional three departments rated in the top 10 (English, politics, sociology.) Latest ratings for math and science were in 1999, ranking Princeton math and physics departments in the top five, biology and computer science in the top ten. Wilson commented, “I’m pleased by the ranking of many of the Princeton departments.”
It was also during his tenure that the Graduate School saw an influx of foreign students to many departments including the hard and soft sciences. Earlier Deans, Hamilton and Ziolkowski, noted that “in some of our departments…foreign students are comparable to the best in the University or, indeed, in the world. As an institution, we would be much poorer intellectually without them.” And in 1998, as foreign enrollments hit 37 percent, Dean Wilson added an economic spin, “We must insist on the importance of educating the strongest applicants from other societies. Training in research at the cutting edge of significant fields is one of the strongest ‘product lines’ that our economy has to offer the world.”
“Of course, we have also been concerned that our graduate students are well served with housing options and in terms of social facilities.” During this administration, the University announced plans to build additional graduate-student housing. Wilson also noted the Graduate School’s successful introduction of online application forms, stressing their increasing importance in light of the school’s global reach.
Dean Raboteau noted in his administratively visible Report of the Strategic Planning Committee for Graduate Education, that “Princeton is one community of education, not two. Because graduate students stand at the intersection of the teaching, learning, and research activities of the university, “Graduate education is central to its intellectual definition and identity…and should be better integrated into it.” Again in 1995, John Wilson, the dean of an institution that was now nearly a hundred years old, felt compelled to observe—once again—that “the Graduate School tends to be underappreciated for the role it has played in Princeton’s rise to eminence over the last generation.” Two years later he produced for President Shapiro, a graduate alumnus who should have had needed no persuasion, several pieces of “fragmentary, and often fleeting” evidence to show that “in small but significant ways, graduate students were becoming more effectively incorporated into the life of the university that was so strongly oriented to the undergraduate college.” He pointed to “the unapologetic acknowledgement of the important roles played by assistants in instruction; the improved common life at the Graduate College; the use of Wyman House, before 1993 the dean’s residence, for “significant University intellectual gatherings” such as the Gauss Seminars; and the new hooding ceremony for graduate students at Commencement in Alexander Hall, supplemented by a brunch at the Graduate College for friends and family.”
Wilson also contributed to the important and newsworthy addition to the Princeton inter-curriculum, i.e., the Institute for Integrative Genomics, funded by the 250th Anniversary Campaign and directed by Shirley Tilghman, Howard A. Prior Professor in the Life Sciences. When it opened in 2002, the flexibly designed Institute in the new Carl C. Icahn Laboratory was meant to deploy senior and visiting faculty and five-year postdoctoral fellows to study whole networks of genes and how they worked together. As in the other extra-departmental units, graduate students learned and made discoveries by working with their own and associated mentors.
After leaving his position as Graduate School Dean, Wilson, a specialist in American religious history, turned his attention back to several long-term projects that were “essentially interrupted” when he became dean of the Graduate School. His scholarly research has focused on religion and public life and religious thought.
Rounding Out a Century: The Princeton Graduate School, 1969-2000 by James Axtell; The article originally appeared tin Willard Thorp et al., The Princeton Graduate School: A History, ed. Patricia H. Marks, Princeton NJ: Association of Princeton Graduate Alumni, 2000, pp. 321-362.