After the announcement 12 years ago that she had been named Princeton’s 19th president, Shirley Tilghman began meeting regularly with the man who still held the job. Almost daily, until Tilghman took office six weeks later, she and Harold Shapiro *64 would sit down together in the president’s office at One Nassau Hall or over lunch somewhere on campus. Shapiro would brief Tilghman on everything from his views on the University’s academic strengths and weaknesses to the details of the operating budget.
“There are going to be days when you’re going to sit at your desk and say, ‘I just allowed a 260-year-old institution to come crumbling down,’” Shapiro told her. But he added: “Just remember that a week later, you’re going to be able to barely remember what the fuss was about.”
Those words have stuck with Tilghman, long after those budget details have changed again and again. “I have used Harold’s words of encouragement to keep me going,” she says in an interview with PAW in mid-April. Reflecting on her 12 years at the University’s helm, she describes feeling a “sense of intense responsibility for the well-being of an institution that I care very deeply about. As much as I have loved the job on a day-to-day basis, there’s no question that you do feel the weight of that responsibility all the time.”
As she prepares to step down at the end of June, there is little question that Tilghman has left her imprint on the University. Issues that seemed to be crises at the time have passed, and the institution is still standing — in the eyes of many, more solidly than ever.
The announcement that Tilghman would become Princeton’s first female president was major news around the world. She was not the first woman to lead an Ivy League university — Judith Rodin of Penn had that honor in 1994. But the appointment of Tilghman, a molecular biologist who had joined the Princeton faculty in 1986, drew particular attention. Tilghman — an “early advocate for women in a field still dominated by men,” The New York Times said — was “an unexpected and unconventional choice for this tradition-bound, ivy-decked campus.”
Selected just 32 years after the University had admitted its first female undergraduates, Tilghman recalls that the news “was not accompanied with unalloyed joy by alumni” — some concerned about her gender, others that she did not hold a Princeton degree. But she had developed “relatively thick skin” working in a field in which she was a minority, and she saw the comments as coming from people who cared about Princeton but worried that she did not fully understand “what makes it tick.” The concerns vanished quickly, she says.
Speaking with PAW, Tilghman is relaxed and animated, willing to discuss her toughest and most unpopular decisions as well as her legacy, her life after her presidency, and why alumni should be reassured by today’s undergraduates.
Her toughest decisions came as the University grappled with the recession of 2008–09, when the endowment lost 23 percent of its value. “It was a little deer-in-the-headlights in the beginning, where it was just hard to absorb what was happening,” she says. Although Tilghman says that the University had prepared financial models that included hypothetical gains — and losses — of 25 percent in the endowment, “we didn’t have a lot of time to figure out what we were going to do.” The University had grown accustomed to continual growth, of saying yes to new ideas. Suddenly to be forced to consistently say no — “that was hard,” she says.
Tilghman cites several critical factors in the University’s response to the financial crisis, including a reservoir of good will among faculty and staff toward the administration, a determination to be open about decisions, and a commitment to shared sacrifice. Only the lowest-paid workers and the junior faculty were exempted from a salary freeze. “The fact that we were all in it together really made a big difference,” she says.
Despite the challenges of the recession years, two actions involving students drew the most criticism during her presidency, Tilghman notes. The first was the June 2002 decision by the Council of Ivy Presidents to enact a seven-week moratorium on participation by athletes in coach-supervised practices — an attempt to ensure that student-athletes have time during the academic year to pursue other interests. “Had I been a more experienced president, I think I could have avoided that one,” she says, suggesting that she lacked a full understanding of how student-athletes balance sports and academics, and that she might have spoken with more students. Athletes and coaches opposed the moratorium, and the Ivy presidents modified the policy the following year.
The other initiative was the faculty’s approval in 2004 of a controversial grade-deflation policy, setting guidelines for the number of A’s in undergraduate courses. The policy “inevitably was not going to be enthusiastically embraced by students,” Tilghman says, but she now believes that “we could have explained it much more effectively and reduced the kind of opposition that it met with students.”