After 12 years, Tilghman to step down in June
The trustees learned the news for the first time this weekend, though Tilghman told Kathryn Hall ’80, the chair of the board, about her plans to retire prior to Friday’s meeting. Hall and Tilghman both said the board had encouraged Tilghman to stay on as president. Tilghman plans to finish out the year and then take a year leave, partially in London, before returning to the faculty.
Tilghman led several major University initiatives after being picked from the faculty ranks to lead the school in 2001. From Nassau Hall, Tilghman expanded the residential college system with the addition of Whitman College, launched and completed the five-year, $1.88 billion Aspire capital campaign, created the Lewis Center of the Arts, fought an ultimately victorious battle to establish an Arts and Transit Neighborhood and recently banned freshmen from rushing Greek organizations.
On Saturday, Tilghman told The Daily Princetonian in an interview that she had “no big regrets” about her tenure, though she noted that she had certainly made mistakes.
“Would I like to take those mistakes back? Of course I’d like to take those mistakes back. But was there a single day where I thought, ‘Gee, I could be back in the lab doing cool science instead of sitting here in this office’? There wasn’t a single day I had that thought,” Tilghman said.
Tilghman’s announcement came as a surprise after previous indications she had no plans to retire in the near future. In an interview with the ‘Prince’ in February, Tilghman said she had no immediate plans to retire, walking back earlier statements that she planned to retire at the conclusion of the Aspire campaign, which ended this summer.
Hall will lead the search for Tilghman’s successor. The search committee will include nine trustees, four representatives from the faculty, two undergraduate representatives, a staff member and a graduate student. University Vice President and Secretary Robert Durkee ’69, who will staff the search committee, said the nine trustees on the committee are decided but declined to name them. The undergraduate representatives, he said, will be decided in consultation with the USG.
Durkee, who has served under four University presidents, said immediately following the announcement the retirement was “largely unexpected.”
“We didn’t know this was going to be the precise time, but we knew once the campaign was over it was probably time for the president to move on,” Durkee said in an interview in his office. “We all hoped it would come a little bit later.”
Tilghman said she chose to step down this year after the Aspire campaign concluded because she thought projects she undertook were on their way to completion.
“What I realized is that almost everything — if not everything — that I had set out to do as president I’d either done or ... I am confident that it is irreversibly on its way to being done,” Tilghman said. “I began to ask myself what’s next.” To start new projects or initiatives, she said, she “would have to have a five-year runway.”
Hall, who said she has a “close relationship” with Tilghman, put the 19th president’s decision in the context of the capital campaign’s conclusion. Hall said following its completion Tilghman had the opportunity to breathe and reflect on what is best for the University.
Tilghman explained that she made the decision by asking a similar question: What is best for the University? After her 12-year presidency, which she noted is a long tenure for the leadership post, a new president would be better able to critically assess the state of the institution.
“After 12 years, you’re inevitably more defensive, less critical, because a lot of what you should be looking at really critically is your work. This is the right time for Princeton to have that transition,” she said.
In a 2009 interview with the ‘Prince,’ Tilghman explained that she planned to retire at the end of the academic year following the Aspire campaign — this academic year — saying there is a “rhythm of the presidency.” That phrase returned in Tilghman’s Saturday email announcing her departure, who noted the “natural rhythm to university presidencies.”
Tilghman’s 12-year presidency follows on the heels of the 13-year presidency of her predecessor, Harold Shapiro GS ’64. Princeton presidents preceding Tilghman have served terms of similar length.
When Tilghman was chosen by — and from within — the search committee to lead the school in 2001, she had fairly little administrative experience; a molecular biology professor, she had led the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Intergrated Genomics. But Hall said that despite this inexperience she learned quickly on the job.
“It wasn’t that she grew; it was just unknown how much she would emerge as a really effective leader of a very large, very complex organization,” Hall said. “And honestly, I would say that, really right off the bat, she proved herself really adept at that intersection of managing a large complex organization, being able to chart a course, being able to motivate people to be able to follow her course and being able to communicate that very clearly.”
Associate News Editor Luc Cohen and Staff Writers Michael Granovetter, Buyan Pan and Marcelo Rochabrun contributed reporting.