At the same time, walking into Tilghman’s office is not entirely unlike meeting with a professor. Over the summer, clad in khakis and a blue short-sleeved sweater, she greets visitors warmly, as if she were preparing to help them with a problem set.
Tilghman — who turns 63 today — was inaugurated as Princeton’s first female and first scientist president eight years ago this month. When she took over, some doubted whether she could handle the administrative pressures and managerial burdens of her new post. But over the course of her tenure so far, Tilghman has transformed gradually from an inexperienced and unconventional candidate into a confident but conventional president.
When Tilghman’s predecessor, Harold Shapiro GS ’64, announced his retirement in 2000, student opinion held that the University was seeing the departure of an accomplished yet inaccessible manager. A 2001 editorial in The Daily Princetonian described Shapiro’s tenure almost exclusively in terms of financial achievements and stated, “President Shapiro’s presence at Opening Ceremonies and Commencement bookend our time here at Princeton. Unfortunately, few of us had a chance to meet him — let alone see him — in between. At the end of this year, we’ll be losing a great leader back to the teaching ranks, but in some ways, we have already missed him.”
Part of Tilghman’s job, then, was to remedy this disconnect between the students and administrators created by Shapiro’s aloofness. And while she has made some progress in this area, she has not shied away from decisions that run contrary to student opinion.
A beloved biology professor prior to her appointment, Tilghman won the President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching in 1996, and one student even shaved her initials — SMT — into the back of his head to celebrate the end of a semester. Since becoming president of the University, Tilghman — who said she accepts “virtually every” student invitation she receives — has become a fixture at campus performances and athletic events. Several former USG presidents said she was actively engaged in soliciting student feedback and working with undergraduates. But in a referendum last spring, only 22 percent of undergraduates said they thought the administration listens to their concerns when making its decisions.
A 2003 ‘Prince’ poll showed that Tilghman had only a 33 percent approval rating among undergraduates, a result Tilghman said she “didn’t take … too seriously.” If students want more input into administrative decisions, they should do more to make their voices heard, she added, citing sparse attendance at administrator-led town hall meetings in the 2006-07 academic year.
USG president Connor Diemand-Yauman ’10 acknowledged that in recent years there has been considerable tension between the student government and Nassau Hall but suggested that the perceived divide between the administration and students could be positive.
“You’re bound to ruffle a few feathers when you challenge the status quo, and President Tilghman isn’t afraid to do just that,” he said in an e-mail. “Quite frankly, if you don’t shake some things up when you’re in a position like that, it’s hard for me to believe you’re doing a good job.”
Tilghman has challenged the traditional upperclassman residential and dining experiences, and some undergraduates have accused Tilghman of undermining the eating clubs by launching the four-year college system, but she insists that she is not out to shut down Prospect Avenue.
“My ideal would be to have a system where every student lived in a residential college, and was associated with a college for their four years at Princeton, and every student had a relationship with an eating club,” she said, adding that she thinks the University will likely see the creation of a seventh residential college sometime within the next 25 years.
Tilghman has overseen the eating club financial aid program and the creation of shared meal plans, but she has expressed concerns about the Bicker process, a topic club officers have refused to budge on.
“I think the Bicker process is one that divides the student body, that it causes a lot of pain for students who are unsuccessful,” she said. “If we could evolve into a system where there is a less divisive way for students to become members of eating clubs, that’s what I would like to see … It’s going to be slow, and it’ll involve primarily student leadership.”
But at times Tilghman has shown she is not afraid of acting rapidly and on her own initiative, even when it may elicit opposition from the University community.
During her first two years as president, Tilghman faced considerable criticism from students, faculty and alumni for appointing four women to top administrative positions: Amy Gutmann as provost, Anne-Marie Slaughter ’80 as Wilson School dean, Maria Klawe as engineering school dean and Janet Rapelye as dean of admission.
Each was the first woman to hold her respective post, and complaints were voiced all over campus and beyond. In March 2003, the ‘Prince’ published an editorial saying it seemed “implausible that this many women … could have ended up at Princeton through a completely gender-blind process,” and in January 2004, the Princeton Tory ran a cover article titled “The Modern Mommy University.” Even The New York Times picked up the controversy in early 2004.
“I think Princeton is a tough place to be president of, because it’s a very successful institution, and very successful institutions are much harder to shift,” Klawe said, recounting a moment in her first year as dean when one of the engineering school’s male faculty members — she declined to name who — approached her soon after announcing his retirement.
“He walked up to me and said, ‘My name is such-and-such, and I’m not going to talk to you because you were hired only because you were a woman,’ ” she said.
Klawe left Princeton in 2006 to become the president of Harvey Mudd College. Gutmann and Slaughter have also moved on since their controversial appointments: Gutmann has become Penn’s president, and Slaughter is now the director of policy planning at the U.S. State Department.
“Clearly these weren’t clunkers,” Tilghman said of her female appointments, adding that all of her hiring decisions are gender-blind. “To this day I am mystified, not so much that outsiders could have made that criticism, but mystified that our own students would make that claim. You know we have a student body that’s 50 percent women. These women are the best and brightest, most ambitious women in the country, and yet they are surprised that women are appointed to senior positions in the University? To me it was just mystifying. I’ll never understand it.”
Eight years ago, it was Tilghman’s own appointment to the University’s highest post that seemed mystifying. Initially, she was not even in the candidate pool, but rather a member of the committee charged with selecting Shapiro’s successor. One afternoon she had to leave a committee meeting early to teach a class, the rest of the group decided they wanted her off the committee — and in the running for the job.
An internationally renowned molecular biologist, Tilghman came to the University in 1986 and excelled as a researcher and a teacher, but she gained little experience as an administrator beyond her three years as inaugural director of the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics.
“There was … real skepticism about plucking somebody essentially out of the faculty who had not had a lot of University administrative experience and making that person the president,” she recalled about the search committee’s decision to consider her as a candidate. “And to be quite honest with you, I had skepticism about it when it was first proposed to me.”
But despite her unusual background at a University steeped in tradition, Tilghman has proven herself to be a talented manager after a rough first 18 months in office that stretched the inexperienced administrator to new lengths.
In her first year, Tilghman led the University through the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the subsequent anthrax scare originating in Princeton, the near-death of a female student who fell off the University Chapel’s north bell tower and the resignation of several high-profile administrators.
Then, in July 2002, members of the Robertson family filed a lawsuit against the University alleging it had misspent and mismanaged the endowment supporting the Wilson School’s graduate program. Tilghman said the “worst moments” of her presidency revolved around the six-year-long lawsuit that ended with a $100 million settlement last December.
“The Robertson lawsuit was just agonizingly horrible for her to deal with,” explained Tom Wright ’62, the former University vice president and secretary. “It just dragged energy and attention away from her and the institution … She did the very best one could under just awful circumstances.”
As she found her footing, however, Tilghman slipped into the role of administrator with aplomb. She built on many initiatives launched by previous Princeton presidents and conformed to the basic model of the presidency laid out by Shapiro and his predecessor, William Bowen GS ’58.
“I knew, really well, 15 or 20 university presidents while I was [at Princeton], and [Tilghman is] right up at the very, very top. Princeton is extraordinarily fortunate,” Wright said, adding, “She stands on very, very strong foundations.” He explained that since the era of former president Bob Goheen ’40 — who introduced coeducation and dramatically increased the size of the campus, student body and faculty — Nassau Hall has been run by steady hands, guiding Princeton in a direction set before any of those presidents themselves were in office.
The stability Wright described has helped make Tilghman an especially respected figure, Provost Christopher Eisgruber ’83 said.
“When other universities are looking for presidents … they’re asking, ‘How did Princeton get it right by getting Shirley Tilghman, and how can we find a president like Shirley Tilghman?’” he explained. “I think she’s the model for other institutions.”
Though she came to the job with little administrative experience, Tilghman has thrived in her managerial role, raising record sums of money for the construction of Whitman College, the Lewis Center for the Arts and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment.
In 2002, Wright told the ‘Prince’ that Tilghman was an especially talented fundraiser on a personal level. “She connects extremely well with potential donors — she’s enthusiastic and interested,” he said. “I’ve seen her twice at fundraisers … with [my] classmates. She wows them.”
But plans for many of Tilghman’s campus expansions came to a halt last fall because of the economic downturn. In just 12 months, the University saw the value of its endowment drop from $16.3 billion to an estimated $12.2 billion, leading to massive project delays and deep budget cuts.
Still, Tilghman said she believed Princeton was weathering the storm admirably, crediting her colleagues at Nassau Hall with helping her make difficult decisions. In the past, she has referred to herself as a group thinker — someone more successful at solving problems with others than on her own.
Dean of the Faculty David Dobkin said this philosophy has held true during his tenure at the University. “I guess you’d have to say that she had the final say,” he said. “But when you look at the dynamic of the meetings it never felt that way. I never felt that I got an order from my management.”
Tilghman explained that Princeton “works through consensus building.”
“People in industry look at all our committees and wonder how we get anything done. And the answer is it takes us a little longer to get to the decision, but I would argue that we almost always come to the right decision as a consequence of the fact that we do it slowly and carefully, and as a community,” she said, noting that this has been particularly true during the recent recession when some peer institutions have had to take even more drastic actions.
The University offered retirement incentives to faculty and staff this summer, but it has not publicly mandated layoffs, unlike Harvard and Yale. Last week, Harvard announced that its endowment, the largest of any university, fell 27.3 percent in the last year, and Yale placed its drop at roughly 30 percent. Princeton projects its loss will only be around 25 percent.
Donations to the University’s $1.75 billion Aspire capital campaign, which passed the $1 billion mark this summer, have slowed, however, and one important part of the campaign, Annual Giving, has already underperformed. In July, the University announced that it received only $44.6 million during the last year, more than $11 million short of its goal.
Still, Tilghman is adamant that the next four years “must” see the construction of the Andlinger Center and the neuroscience building, as well as the realization of the Lewis Center’s “phenomenal potential,” though she acknowledged that these plans are ambitious and remain uncertain.
Tilghman hinted at a deep emotional connection to the artistic expansion, admitting that she “gets weepy just thinking about what it has meant for the University.”
She emphasized the arts in recounting three of her favorite moments as president, listing the opening of the Lewis Center and the 2007 world premiere performance of Alexander Pushkin’s “Boris Godunov” in McCarter Theatre, as well as the 2006 bonfire celebrating the football team’s victories that year over Harvard and Yale.
But the uncertain economy has pushed back the construction of the arts neighborhood, which was announced in 2006, and much of the arts program is still run out of the relatively small building at 185 Nassau St. Currently, there is no planned starting date for the construction of the Arts and Transit Neighborhood, a project that will rely heavily on the success of the Aspire campaign.
Tilghman said she has told the University Board of Trustees to expect her to stay on through the Aspire campaign’s culmination in 2012, after which she “would like to take a victory lap” for one year and then retire in June 2013.
This is the same schedule Shapiro followed after the culmination of his own campaign in 2000, and for all the worries floated early on about her unconventional background, Tilghman has been a president almost exactly in the mold of her recent predecessors. In the eight years that she has overseen physical, academic and administrative expansion, Tilghman has exceeded the expectations of some and disappointed others. From her inauguration in September 2001, Tilghman began by absorbing as much as she could about the University and struggling with serious challenges like the Robertson litigation. As she slowly learned her way around the presidency, Tilghman began to spearhead shorter-term projects like eliminating Early Decision and getting more involved with undergraduate life on campus before moving on to major expansions like Whitman College, the four-year residential college system and the Aspire campaign.
“It’s the rhythm of a presidency, which is why I think once this campaign is over and we have a year to celebrate it, it’s time for me to move on,” Tilghman said, choosing her words carefully but confidently, as a professor might. “It’s time for someone to come in with a whole new fresh pair of ears and eyes and re-evaluate where we are, and find out all the things I missed. And I’ll miss a lot.”