Upon hearing that University President Shirley Tilghman planned to step down in June, faculty from the Center for African American Studies expressed gratitude for her leadership in transforming Princeton's 43-year-old African American studies program into an interdisciplinary and internationally focused course of study housed in Stanhope Hall.
"The Center has existed in various forms since the 1960s, but it was only under the visionary leadership of President Tilghman that back in 2007, the president of the University made a recommitment to the study of African American history and life," CAAS interim chair Wallace Best said.
African-American students began matriculating at the University during World War II, and the number increased dramatically during the 1960s following recruitment efforts by President Robert Goheen ’40. In 1969, the University created a certificate program in African American studies that offered two courses in black history and literature. The next semester, the number of courses jumped to five, and 26 students — half of them white — declared concentrations in the program.
While serving as acting director of what was the Afro-American Studies Program, Ruth Simmons — president emeritus of Brown University and current member of Princeton’s Board of Trustees — shifted the program away from a dependence on visiting faculty and members of other departments to a program staffed by full-time faculty in the 1980s. In a time when black studies programs at other universities were struggling to receive funding, Tilghman sought to pick up where Simmons had left.
"By the time I became president in 2001, it was clear that we had assembled the parts of a great program in African American Studies, but it needed a new definition of what its academic mission was," Tilghman explained in an interview.
In the fall of 2005, Tilghman appointed a committee of eight faculty members led by philosophy professor K. Anthony Appiah to deliberate over the future of African American studies at Princeton. They discussed whether the program should become a department and offer concentrations or remain a certificate program in addition to what its intellectual focuses should be.
"She's a good leader because she tends to make good arguments, and she invites us to think about what's distinctive about Princeton and to make better what we can and keep it excellent where it is," Appiah remarked. "She is drawing us to think about what we could be doing rather than telling us what we should be doing," he said, adding that she was "astonishingly well-informed about what goes on in all fields, not just her own."
After a year, the committee produced a confidential report and gave it to Tilghman, who seconded their work and pitched it to the University’s Board of Trustees and University administration for approval. Since its adoption, Tilghman said, the report has become "the blueprint" for the Center and a "model for the rest of the country."
"The idea was to infuse discussions of race throughout the curriculum as opposed to having it only happen in courses in African American studies," Tilghman said, explaining that the Center adopted a joint appointment model so that faculty members affiliated with CAAS remained affiliated with their home departments.
"For heaven's sake, they are sitting in departments all over the University, which means that those kind of discussions are happening all over the campus," Tilghman said.
English and CAAS professor Daphne Brooks said the interdisciplinary nature of the Center allows undergraduates to recognize it as a place where they could have "lively and dynamic and fearless conversations that cut across disciplinary boundaries" and "put together history and literature and visual arts and [political science] and sociology all together in one classroom."
CAAS faculty noted the degree of freedom that Tilghman gave them while they were determining the structure and aims of the new center. They praised her ability to see that such a program could be complimentary to Princeton's approach to the liberal arts.
"She and everyone else in the administration didn't impose a particular model or a particular vision for what CAAS ought to be at Princeton," history and CAAS professor Joshua Guild said. "She sees and saw African American Studies as not in any way antithetical to a Princeton education or to a liberal arts education, but actually completely consonant with it; saw that what we were doing in CAAS really exemplified the best in liberal arts education, not only thinking in the United States, but thinking globally."
Dean of the College Valerie Smith, who is also a CAAS and English professor, said the new model for African American studies that Tilghman helped create was also unique in that it was internationally focused and comparative.
"Thinking about the ways in which racial identity and its formations have been constructed in this country, we thought that it was important to attract scholars and develop a curriculum that thought about race as a comparative formation," Smith said. "[So we] invited scholars who worked on Latino, Latina culture and Asian American culture and so on."
In 2007, what was then called the Program in African American Studies moved to newly renovated Stanhope Hall — the third-oldest building on campus. At this time, it was renamed the Center for African American Studies. Faculty said this was how they knew that Tilghman was committed to strengthening the program.
"It's enough for some administrations to say, ‘We'll put some money in a certain spot,' but it's another to really continually support its ideas. Even putting race as a topic of conversation not only in the center of University life, but also among alumni and donors and people in the world, it's very significant," CAAS professor Anne Cheng said.
The final step for CAAS was expanding the number of faculty through recruitment. Tilghman explained that while many universities use a "star system" in which they vie for the top performers in a given field, Smith — the first chair of the Center — decided that it would be best to approach rising stars among the younger faculty.
One of those rising stars was Brooks, who Tilghman personally asked to join CAAS.
"I was deciding whether to take a job at Princeton or to take a job at UC Berkeley, which is my alma mater and one of my favorite places on Earth," Brooks explained. "And for people who know me, the fact that I turned down Berkeley to come to Princeton and the role that Shirley Tilghman played in reaching out to me — a junior faculty member at that time — you know, calling me personally on the phone to say, ‘Look! I think exciting things are going to happen here at Princeton. Please come and be a part of that!' ”
Tilghman also played a major role in convincing Harvard professors Cornel West GS ’80 and Appiah to leave Cambridge for Princeton in 2001. While West, who taught at Princeton from 1988 to 1994, was deliberating whether to leave Harvard, he praised Tilghman’s “visionary leadership.” Tilghman’s on-campus advocacy and support of CAAS also almost lured Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. to follow his two colleagues to Princeton.
Tilghman said she is not worried about how the Center will fare under a new president because it operates under a sustainable model. Nonetheless, CAAS faculty said her leadership will be greatly missed.
"Her support and insistence that Princeton students understand African American studies as a critical and constitutive field of study was path-breaking," CAAS Chair Eddie Glaude Jr., who is currently on sabbatical, said. "She was an extraordinary advocate for African American Studies, and we are forever in her debt for her support. We will continue to build on her vision and her legacy for Princeton students in this subject matter. We are blessed with her leadership and we wish our 'sister President' well in her future endeavors."
Staff writers Buyan Pan and Rebecca Zhang contributed reporting.
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2012/09/27/31285/