When Shirley Tilghman begins to steer University policy as Princeton's next president, she will bring with her a record of efforts to advance the interest of women in higher education — including criticizing one of academia's most venerated institutions.
Calling tenure a "dirty trick" and "no friend to women," Tilghman has advocated a bold position to reconcile the conflict of a system that forces women to focus most on their career during their peak reproductive years.
Rejecting more moderate solutions, such as extending the trial period before which a tenure decision is made, Tilghman explained her views in a New York Times column on Jan. 26 1993.
"I favor a more radical solution: abolish tenure entirely," she wrote.
But in an interview yesterday, Tilghman was eager to point out that her views have changed.
"When I wrote that it was certainly at a time when I was purposely provocative," she said. "I wanted to bring attention to an issue that was needing scrutiny."
However, the editorial generated a slew of discussion, and now after eight years, Tilghman holds a less incendiary opinion.
"At some point it strikes me it would be worth having a group of faculty to study the question," she said. "All I want is that we reexamine the question."
However, Natalie Angier — who profiled Tilghman in 1996 for the New York Times — explained that Tilghman's own status as a tenured professor provided the necessary security for her to express her views openly.
Though the University president automatically becomes a tenured faculty member when he or she is appointed, the Board of Trustees can decide to dismiss the president at any time.
"She said that [tenure should be abolished] as a comfortably tenured professor," Angier said of Tilghman. "What she said then and what she can say now as president of Princeton University are two very different things."
Tilghman said tenure is a valuable institution in higher education because it protects a faculty member's academic freedom and provides a mechanism for peer review.
While the conflict arising from women's simultaneous desire to have children and to perform well for tenure remains a stirring issue in academia, many officials believe tenure is necessary.
"The ultimate question is tradeoffs, and I still maintain that the advantages of tenure in terms of guaranteeing academic freedom are vital," said James Perley, former president of the American Association of University Professors.
Though the president does not have any direct involvement in decisions of tenure, he or she holds strong influence in setting the tone for administrative discussion.
The group that evaluates faculty members for promotion to tenure is the Committee on Appointments and Advancements — also known as the Committee of Three — on which Tilghman served in 1989-90 and 1995-96.
"She was very careful about reaching judgements," said Jeffrey Grossman, a Romance Languages and Literatures professor who served contemporaneously with Tilghman in 1989-1990. "You could always respect whatever decision she came up with because she worked hard to get there."
The University's current tenure system allows a six-year window for a faculty member to work before being evaluated for tenure. Though it has one of the shortest trial periods in the Ivy League, the University's tenure system permits the Committee of Three to extend that period by one year if the faculty member has a child.
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