Q&A: Tilghman speaks on retirement
Hours after announcing that she would step down as University president, Shirley Tilghman sat down with The Daily Princetonian to discuss her retirement and the highlights of her presidency. Tilghman told the ‘Prince’ that the residential college system wasn’t designed as exactly as she had hoped, that she chose to retire after deep thinking over the summer and more.
The Daily Princetonian: Could you explain your decision to resign?
Shirley Tilghman: With the [Aspire] campaign concluded and leading up to knowing that the campaign was going to conclude, I began to think about what I wanted to do next. What I realized is that almost everything, if not everything, that I had set out to do as president I’d either done, or in the case of the Lewis Center [for the Arts] for example, I am confident that it is irreversibly on its way to being done. I began to ask myself what’s next.
What I began to realize is that for me to start brand new things, I would have to have a five-year runway. You’ve been here long enough to know that that’s about the amount of time it takes to get something done at this University. We are not a command-and-control climate or environment, and that means that you need time to build support, to build consensus, to build resources, to get a major new project underway. That’s when I began to understand that I was either looking at one year or five years.
It really came down to whether I thought that it would be good for Princeton or would it be good for me to stay on for another five years. I had eliminated two, three or four [years] because of this problem. After sober reflection — and I didn’t really make a decision until the middle of the summer — but after a lot of sober reflection and conversation with the chair of the board, Katie Hall ’80, I began to understand that it was going to be much better for Princeton if I step down now. It would be 12 years.
That’s actually, in terms of university presidencies, a long time. I don’t know what the national average is, but it’s well under 10. It was time for a new president to come in, to assess where we are. We’re an extraordinary institution, but we are not perfect, and there are a lot of ways in which we can be better. I think that’s going to be a more critical assessment if it’s done by somebody who’s not going to feel responsible for what’s already happened. That’s one of the things that happens to every leader. In the beginning you can be critical of everything because none of it is your responsibility. 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.
DP: You said five years is about the length of time that it takes for anything to happen. What are some projects that you have overseen that make you look back?
ST: The one that’s been the saga is the Lewis Center for the Arts. We started thinking about the Lewis Center in 2003 or 2004. That set in motion a faculty committee that spent an entire year thinking about what the arts should look like at Princeton. At that point we began to think about where it would be. If you think about the Lewis Center, that’s much more than five years. That’s been an eight-year saga. Maybe that’s an extreme example, but I would say another example is renewing the chemistry department. My first conversation about the chemistry department probably happened a week into my presidency, and we opened the new Frick [Chemistry Laboratory] two years ago. There’s another example where to get from the first conversation to something that’s reality took seven to eight years.
DP: A while ago you had said that you were planning to retire at the end of the Aspire campaign, which was your predecessor’s approach. He led his campaign, and then stepped down. Was that weighing on your mind?
ST: It certainly in the past weighed on my mind, but in the end that wasn’t an important part of my thinking. My thinking really came down to this one-year/five-year dilemma. I still feel like I have a lot of energy and I feel like I have a lot more that I’m hopefully going to be able to give. The question became did it make sense to me to start thinking about a 16-year, 17-year presidency, and I think my conclusion was no.
DP: Last year, you walked back on your assessment of retiring at the end of your Aspire campaign. Were you thinking then that you might stay on for five more years?
ST: I don’t know that five was in my head, but I was completely uncertain about what I was going to do. At that point. I was much less clear in my own mind why I couldn’t do two or three more years. Honestly, I was in a state of considerable indecision about it. It really wasn’t until this summer that I started laying out the reasons pro, the reasons con and approached it in my usual analytic scientific way. This clarity came around the one-year/five-year issue.
DP: How did you tell the trustees?
ST: I told them yesterday afternoon in an executive session with the board. At every board meeting, something called the committee of the whole, which is the meeting with the whole board normally in September, where I present my annual report, which I’ve written for them every year. I think they went into the meeting thinking that that was what I was going to do in the committee of the whole, but instead I let them know of my plans.
DP: How did they react?
ST: They were very generous. They feel, as I do, that together — the board, the faculty, students, staff — we’ve done a lot of good things in the last 11 years and a lot of things to be proud of. They were being gracious about that, but no one tried to talk me out of my decision, which was a very respectful thing for them to do. I don’t make decisions lightly.
DP: Did anyone from the Board of Trustees encourage you to step down?
ST: No. I’d only been encouraged to make the other decision.
DP: You weren’t feeling any pressure?
ST: Just the opposite pressure.
DP: Do you have any regrets?
ST: Certainly, no big regrets. Have I made mistakes? Sure, I’ve 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.
DP: What mistakes did you make?
ST: I made a couple of personnel mistakes, which I’m obviously not going to tell you what they were. Peter Lewis [’55], when I first became president, said, "look, you’re going to make mistakes."
In my first year as president, the Ivy League presidents — I’d just joined them as a group — decided to institute this seven-week moratorium on athletic practices for all varsity sports. Their motivations made a great deal of sense to me at the time. There’s a lot of concern that varsity athletes were under tremendous time pressure and real concern that they didn’t have time to have the full experience of being Princeton students or Yale or Dartmouth students. That decision was roundly criticized and roundly resisted by students, by coaches, the athletic director, and eventually a year later the Ivy presidents modified the moratorium so that the time off could be spread out over a longer period of time than the seven weeks that we were mandating. That was a classic example where as a newbie, so to speak, I was blindsided by the resistance that happened in that decision. I participated very actively in reversing the decision next year. It was a learning experience.
DP: What are your thoughts about the rush ban?
ST: I don’t consider it a mistake. One of the things that gives me a lot of comfort about that decision is that it is happening at campus after campus after campus around the country. We weren’t the only university in the country that had come to the conclusion that delaying those kinds of decisions was in the best interest of the student body.
DP: You had been in contact with the chairman of the Board of Trustees throughout the summer. Was she aware of the decision before the rest of the trustees?
DP: And you decided for sure in the middle of the summer?
ST: Sometime in the summer. We had a number of conversations over that period.
DP: What were some of the things on your pro/con list?
ST: The pro list was pretty much what I’ve told you. The con list was that I loved the job. I’ve just loved being president. Change is hard, so I’m not entirely sure what my life is going to be like when I leave at the end of June. So that was a big con. Another con was that there were some ideas where I thought if I had five years, I had some ideas about what I wanted to do, so it was a matter of giving up those ideas, understanding that those were going to have to be left for the next president. So that was a con.
DP: You said that it’s good, in some cases, for a new person who’s not defensive of what happened under the old presidency, who feels free to criticize and move forward as they please. What decisions have you made that you would like the next president of the University to criticize or improve upon?
ST: How well the four-year residential college system has been embraced by the student body. Whether we made a mistake at the very outset by having only three of the colleges becoming four-year colleges. Whether we should have thought about the four year college system in a different way.
Those decisions were made before I became president. I was handed an agenda before I became president, which was three four-year colleges, three two-year colleges, how many students, etc. I was given that agenda, and I executed it as best I could. That’s one I would like to if I could put the clock back, I’d like to go and rethink that a little bit because I’m not sure it worked as well as everyone thought it might work.
If I could be queen for a day, which I have learned over time that you cannot be queen for a day, I would love to create a system for undergraduates in which students were members of a residential college for all four years and every student would have an affiliation with an eating club, so it’s just part of the experience of every single Princeton student, and I think if we thought about it differently 12 years ago, we might have been able to get closer to something like that than we’ve been able to get.
DP: Will you be remaining on Google’s Board [of Directors]?
ST: There is a practice at Google that when you resign from your current position you have to at least offer to resign from the board, so I intend to offer to resign from the board, and then it will really be up to [chief executive] Larry Page to decide whether he wants to accept that resignation, but I think it’s a good practice. I’m on the government committee, and I support that practice, so I’m going to follow it religiously.
DP: Do you want to step down?
ST: No, I love being on Google’s board.
DP: Has being on Google’s board weighed on your decision?
ST: Not really, because what we did when I went on the Google board is I told everyone in the [University] administration that I was going to recuse myself from every decision that involves Google. So for example, this most recent decision to move students to Gmail, I had no part in that decision whatsoever. No role whatsoever. So no, I don’t think it ever came into conflict.
I was in California four times a year at a minimum meeting with alumni, and so the amount of time that it took to organize those alumni visits around Google board meetings was just very efficient. I think I learned a tremendous amount from being on the board, some fraction of which I was able to bring back to Princeton so I think it was actually a valuable experience for me as a president.
DP: What qualities will you look for in your successor?
ST: You know, the hard and fast rule here is that I will play absolutely no role in the selection of my successor. That is the right way for the board to proceed, and so I have completely absented myself from any of the decisions that will be made on how to put a search committee together, how the search committee will go about their business. I’m very happy to be consulted by the committee, if they so wish, but I’m going to play no role in choosing my successor.
DP: What have you learned, over the years, are traits of a successful president?
ST: So some of what I’m going to say is probably a little personal. I think you have to love this place because the job’s too hard if you don’t love it. I’m almost in awe of some of my colleagues who go to be president of an institution that they don’t really know because in the beginning you just won’t be in that position. For me, it was incredibly important that I felt an immense attachment to Princeton. I think it helped when I was out speaking to groups on behalf of Princeton, you know, I could speak from the heart, I could speak from experience.
The second is you really have to like people because you’re with them all the time. This is the least lonely job on the planet, as far as I can tell, because you are literally with people, and you’re with people whose thinking and aspirations for Princeton are going to come from different perspectives. So you’ve got to be able to talk to a very accomplished alumni donor and prospective freshmen, and you’ve got to be able to enjoy talking to both of those people and being interested in their stories because being the president is translating people’s stories into ways to make Princeton better.
DP: If you were “queen” for a day, would your successor come from someone within the University?
ST: Not necessarily, because as you know [former University President Harold Shapiro GS ’64] was the president of the University of Michigan. Now, he did know Princeton because he had received a Princeton Ph.D. I would say, and if you take myself as an example, I have neither an undergraduate nor a graduate degree, but I taught here for 15 years. I would say some affiliation helps you understand what a very unusual place this is. Princeton is — I know we overuse the word "unique," but I think it is a unique place, and I think it helps if you understand the nature of that uniqueness. So I think really enjoying people and enjoying being with people is important. And then you need I think courage.
You know, I’ve taken my licks as president, and you have to be prepared to make decisions that are not going to be popular, that are going to get the comments section of the ‘Prince’ roiling. And criticism from lots of corners of the universe and a lot of that criticism comes because people care so much about this place; whether it’s alumni worried about why the football team lost last night or whether it’s students who feel the President isn’t meeting their expectations. I think the ability to think clearly and then occasionally you’re going to make some courageous calls.
DP: Did you discuss the presidency with David Petraeus [GS ’87] when you met with him last year?
ST: I did not. I love this rumor, but no, General Petraeus and I did not talk about the Princeton presidency. I think he assumed I was going to be president for years to come, and I think as director of the CIA, he had other things on his mind.
DP: There are different spheres that you as a president have made to the University. One of them is obviously academics. Another is financial aid and diversity. And another is social life, such as the rush ban and the expansion of the residential colleges. What sphere do you think you’ll be remembered in most?
ST: I haven’t thought about that question. I’m not sure. In the last day, trustees and some members of the cabinet have been talking to me about my decision. The theme that keeps coming through is this feels like a different place than it did 12 years ago, and I’ve been trying to deconstruct what they really mean by that, and some of it may be about a lot of the things we have done to try and make Princeton a more welcoming place, and that’s relevant for undergraduates very, very significantly, I think.
I think that’s actually true of faculty. I think we’ve tried to put in place family-friendly policies so that faculty and graduate students and post-doctorate fellows and staff don’t see that work, and families are in conflict with each other, so I think that’s a climate issue as well. I think that’s a great question. I think you’ll ask other people that question because they’re probably in a better position to answer that question.
DP: What do you think your legacy will be, and what will you hope it to be?
ST: Well, certainly I think there’s some really significant academic initiatives that I think are going to be lasting. I think the neuroscience institute has placed Princeton in a very competitive position in a field that is going to be really important for the future. I’m very proud that the Lewis Center has had the impact it’s had. We predicted it would have the impact of bringing many more students to campus who want to combine the world’s best liberal arts education with their love of art. I think that has had a big impact.
I think what we’re doing in African-American studies is very interesting. We’re creating a whole new model on how to build a program in African-American studies that is different from the early versions of African American studies and I’m proud that I had a role to play in that.
I’m just nuts about the Bridge Year Program, and I hope it lasts because I think it says a lot about this university and its commitment to serve, and the fact that the University today is a university that is looking outward as opposed to looking inward, and that wasn’t always the case. Princeton was often seen as a very inward-looking, self-regarding institution. I don’t think that’s true, it’s really looking out, and I think we’ve done a lot to get that to happen.
DP: So you think you changed the University’s reputation and how the rest of the world looks at it, in that regard?
ST: I don't think in a transformational way, but I think we’re well on the way, yes. And I think we’ve certainly done a lot to change the way in which our own community thinks about the world, and that was just as important as thinking about whether we’re being discussed at cocktail parties in Shanghai.
DP: What do you plan to do during your year off?
ST: So I’m going to spend some time with my family, I’m going to spend some time, I hope, in London. London is a city I love. I have good friends there, and the year I became president I had a sabbatical all lined up in London, which I had to cancel. So 12 years later I’m going to get that leave in London. So I’m going to spend some time in London and really think about coming back and going back to the faculty and teaching, which I would love to do, but also think about ways that I can be a good public servant.
I want to live "Princeton in the nation’s service," and I want to do it on a voluntary basis. I don’t want to go and run something, but I would like to do the kinds of things I think President Shapiro has done since he left office, which has been enormously beneficial to the United States. I think there might be ways I can do the same thing.
DP: Would you be interested in serving in government, in any way?
ST: Not in a full-time capacity. This is my home, and I want it to be my home.
DP: As the University’s first female president, what were some of the challenges at first and throughout your career? Did any of those lessen, and do you feel you’ve broken a barrier?
ST: I do. I don’t think this is going to be the real discussion as the next president is chosen, and I think that’s terrific. We had to break the barrier, but it’s broken, and I don’t think there’s anybody who will be remotely interested in whether the next president is male or female. I think they’re going to be interested in who that person is and what qualities that they bring with them.
DP: What would you say is your biggest accomplishment? What first comes to mind?
ST: It’s almost like asking me "Sophie's Choice," to choose among my children. On a pragmatic note, which is probably the wrong way to answer your question, getting this University through the Great Recession of 2008 intact and with most students and most faculty barely noticing.
DP: Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
ST: Just that I consider the great privilege of my life to have been in this position. I never dreamed that I would ever be a university president, and certainly I never dreamed of one, a university, of this quality. But it has been a privilege, an honor and a blast. So it has just been great.