- The Washington Times - Friday, January 30, 2004

Forty-three years ago in his Inaugural address, President John F. Kennedy called on Americans to rededicate themselves to public service.

“Ask not what your country can do for you,” the idealistic young president said, “ask what you can do for your country.”

Several months later, my parents answered the president’s call, establishing a privately funded foundation that had one purpose and one purpose only: to prepare Princeton University graduate students for U.S. government foreign-policy careers.

They put $35 million into the project — a small fortune back then. And all they asked in return was that the funds be used “to establish and maintain or support at Princeton University … as part of the Woodrow Wilson School [of Public and International Affairs] a graduate school, where men and women dedicated to public service may prepare themselves for careers in government service, with particular emphasis on… those areas of the federal government that are concerned with international relations and affairs.”

But that was then, and this is now.

The original $35 million is now worth more than half a billion. But to hear Princeton officials tell it, most of today’s college students couldn’t care less about serving their country. Even if students were so motivated, they’ve said, the jobs aren’t there. End of story.

Yet, as former Education Secretary Richard Riley and the late Illinois Sen. Paul Simon noted in a recent report, America sorely needs bright young people in government to help us understand “other countries and other cultures — friend and foe alike.”

Wilson School grads should be lining up each year to take the State Department’s Foreign Service exam and to apply for positions with other agencies of government — the Agency for International Development, Defense Department, International Trade Administration, National Security Agency, and Peace Corps, among others — involved in foreign policy and international affairs. But they’re not.

No wonder the State Department and U.S. intelligence and security agencies remain “chronically short of analysts and diplomats with critical… skills,” as Mr. Riley and Mr. Simon noted.

Princeton has spent more than $250 million of the Robertson Foundation’s money over the years, providing full scholarships to 1,700-plus graduate students. Fewer than 12 percent of the program graduates have gone into government service in the relevant areas. Just three of last year’s 63 Robertson program graduates answered the call.

This is why my sisters and I have gone to court to end Princeton’s control of the Robertson Foundation and its endowment. We feel strongly, as our parents did, that the Robertson Foundation can contribute significantly to America’s security and prosperity by promoting the important career choices our parents envisioned.

Princeton’s administration argues it can’t force graduates to pursue government careers and stressing government service during the application and selection process would dilute the applicant poll.

This is nonsense. A national poll by Peter D. Hart Research Associates for the Partnership for Public Service found 84 percent of students believe a loan forgiveness program for college graduates who take federal jobs would be an effective recruitment tool. Isn’t a free ride — as the Robertson Foundation offers — an equally attractive incentive?

Other programs don’t make excuses. The National Security Education Program (NSEP), for example, requires students receiving its awards to seek employment with federal agencies involved in international affairs. If the students don’t fulfill the obligation, they must reimburse the government in full. Currently, some two-thirds of all graduate-level NSEP participants enter federal service — more than 5 times the Wilson School’s placement rate.

In these troubled times, the Robertson Foundation can provide our country with something it desperately needs: educated, motivated young men and women who understand “other countries and other cultures” and would be honored to answer President Kennedy’s call to service.

Princeton has proven over the past 43 years that it has no great interest in steering Wilson School grads to the government careers my parents envisioned. I’m sure we can find colleges and universities that would be honored to do so.

William Robertson of Naples, Fla., Princeton ‘72, is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit seeking to end the university’s control of the Robertson Foundation and its endowment.

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