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.”
But there were also successes — big ones. Asked about the major ways in which Princeton has changed over the past 12 years, Tilghman cites several:
- The increased presence of the arts. Princeton has been able to attract more students who are talented in the arts, and to provide more opportunities for students to explore the arts once on campus.
- The amount of interdisciplinary work “and the ease with which it seems to happen” — not just in the sciences, but across the academic spectrum.
- The composition of the student body. Among other changes, the number of low-income students and those from other countries has increased.
- Princeton’s global initiatives, including the bridge-year program, summer Global Seminars, internships, semesters abroad, and language programs. Students “are bringing back those new experiences and perspectives, and making us a more interesting place as a consequence,” Tilghman says.
- The transformation of the chemistry department as it moved into the new Frick Laboratory and the creation of the Princeton Neuroscience Institute.
- The expansion of the Center for African American Studies and its move into Stanhope Hall, on the front lawn of the campus.
- The launch of the four-year residential-college system, which had been approved under Shapiro but was developed during Tighman’s tenure.
- The creation of the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, providing Princeton with “a new focus on energy research, just in the nick of time.”
Much of PAW’s conversation with Tilghman concerned Princeton’s growing inclusiveness, and where she believes it still falls short. The University has trailed the Ivy League in the percentage of undergraduates receiving Pell grants, an indicator of economic diversity, and Tilghman is leading a working group studying the obstacles that keep low-income students from attending selective colleges. “It is a tough problem, but I think it’s not an insoluble problem,” she says. “The committee that I’m chairing right now is coming up with some pretty interesting ideas that we’re going to leave for my successor and for the board to continue to work on.” She argues that “you cannot in good conscience admit to Princeton a student who you know cannot do the work” — but she clearly sees opportunities for change.
She describes two target groups of low-income students: “the thousands of students out there ... who are perfectly capable of doing the work right now who don’t even know to apply to Princeton,” and those who could succeed with some assistance. About the latter group, she asks, “What should we be doing to increase their likelihood of ending up, maybe not at Princeton, but at very selective colleges and universities?”
She says she is proud of the decision to end a binding early-decision admission program, beginning with the class entering in 2008, explaining that former Harvard president Derek Bok’s articulation that it advantages the advantaged “was something that resonated very deeply with me.” When Harvard announced in September 2006 that it would end early decision, Tilghman says, she seized the opportunity for a similar move at Princeton. Based on her conversations with other college presidents, she expected that “we would soon be followed by many of our peers, and we could really make a difference in the college-admission process in the country. Obviously that did not happen.”
When Harvard announced in March 2011 that it would again offer early admission, it became untenable for Princeton to be the only one in its peer group without an early option, “given that Harvard was probably our most serious competition for students,” Tilghman says. “So I regret that that forced us to make a decision we might not have made otherwise,” she says: to return to early decision with a nonbinding early–action program. “Sometimes you just have to be pragmatic and recognize the reality of the situation.”
Tilghman also takes pride in the alumni conferences, beginning in 2006, that have promoted a “revival of connectedness to Princeton” among graduates who may not have had positive experiences as students, including women, LGBT alums, and members of racial and ethnic minority groups. “I’m not sure there’s anything that we’ve done that’s more powerful than those conferences,” she says.
Since announcing her decision to step down in September, three months after the completion of the $1.88 billion Aspire fundraising campaign, Tilghman has had no second thoughts. “What I’m looking forward to more than anything else is having flexibility in my life,” she says. She will begin a one-year sabbatical in London after leaving office, and one sign of that new-found flexibility is her plan to fly back for the birth of her first grandchild: Her daughter, Becca ’03, is pregnant, and Tilghman intends to “become the world’s best grandmother.”
She expects to spend her time in London thinking about college access for low-income students and about how to improve science policy. Then she will return to Princeton to teach and to be with students, which she considers the most enjoyable aspect of her job. Talking with students, she hears aspiration to make the world a better place. But she also hears anxiety, a feeling that the world is increasingly competitive and challenging, even though “the vast majority [of undergraduates] would say there’s no better way to prepare yourself for that world than to be a student at Princeton.” She would like to emulate Shapiro’s life after Princeton; she admires how he has pursued public service in voluntary positions, chairing commissions and leading important studies.
As the interview nears an end, Tilghman has one more point to make — about change, and tradition, at Princeton. Alumni have expressed concern to her that, as the student body changes from what it was in years past, “that deep loyalty to the place will be diminished.” But in fact, she says, the opposite is happening.
“One of the things that I’m really proud of is the intense connectedness of the youngest alumni classes to Princeton,” she says, noting the return of 1,000 class members for their third reunion. “They’re not just coming for a big party, but they feel a real debt of gratitude to this place, and they also feel an immense love of the place. ... We’re not seeing any diminishment at all in this deep connectedness that matters so much to the University, and for which we are so justly admired.”
W. Raymond Ollwerther ’71 is PAW’s managing editor.