Students paint during a Princeton Atelier class on public murals.
Students paint during a Princeton Atelier class on public murals.

As the first scientist to lead the University, President Tilghman began her term with the credentials to elevate Princeton’s profile as a research institution. But her colleagues in molecular biology, Tilghman jokes, had no illusions about having a guardian angel in Nassau Hall. Instead, she says, they feared she would “bend over backward not to favor them.”

While Tilghman’s scientific leadership would prove significant, her most transformative contribution to academic life came in an area outside her expertise: the creative and performing arts. In January 2006, she outlined her vision for an ambitious arts expansion at a meeting of the University trustees. Later the same day, she announced the gift that would fund it, a $101 million donation by Peter B. Lewis ’55. The Lewis Center for the Arts was launched the following year.

Tilghman tells PAW that the Lewis Center’s influence is visible on the campus calendar, which features performances and exhibits “virtually every night of the week,” and in the student body. “I think it’s brought to Princeton students that frankly would have gone to many of our peers, and some really talented students who would’ve gone to conservatories,” she says.

While Princeton now has more artists, it does not have creative and performing arts majors. Students either work toward certificates or simply take courses as electives. In a given semester, more than 10 percent of the undergraduate student body is enrolled in one or more Lewis Center courses, according to Professor Michael Cadden, the center’s director. Seventy-one students in the Class of 2012 earned certificates in the creative and performing arts, compared to 44 students in the Class of 2005.

Tilghman’s other major academic initiatives have included a stronger commitment to African-American studies, from the addition of prominent faculty (some, including the most famous, Cornel West *80, have since left) through the creation of the Center for African American Studies in 2006. She also increased Princeton’s international reach, establishing formal collaborations with a handful of international universities and creating the innovative bridge-year program, in which admitted students defer their freshman year to perform service abroad.

In 2004, Tilghman and then-Dean of the College Nancy Weiss Malkiel promoted an effort to curb grade inflation by reducing the percentage of A-grades awarded by Princeton professors. The guidelines — still a source of debate — spurred measurable progress toward their objective of bringing departments into closer alignment in grade distribution.

Tilghman’s scientific vision had a wide-ranging influence, aiding the establishment of new multi-disciplinary ventures such as the Princeton Neuroscience Institute and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment. She worked to strengthen the chemistry department with new faculty hires and the construction of the new Frick Laboratory. And she steered the University’s research agenda toward fields that she viewed as promising and important, both today and in the decades to come. A background in the sciences, Tilghman said, provided “instincts that were helpful in making these choices and decisions.”