Tilghman, set to retire this June after 12 years, has spent the last eight expanding the University’s commitment to the arts by building the Lewis Center for the Arts and pushing through the controversial Arts and Transit Neighborhood.
A molecular biology professor before her presidency, Tilghman may seem like an unlikely candidate to oversee a major expansion of the University’s arts programs. But according to Peter Lewis ’55, whose $101 million donation in 2006 made the creation of the eponymous Lewis Center possible, the initiative was all hers.
“Shirley came to me and told me, ‘This is a very high priority for me and for the University. Would you be willing to help me?’ And I said, on the spot, ‘Yes,’ ” Lewis said.
Tilghman approached Lewis at a time when she was mounting a campaign to reform the University’s arts programs. In 2005, Tilghman established a committee chaired by Architecture School Dean Stan Allen GS ’88 to analyze the role of the arts in the school’s academic environment.
The President’s Task Force on the Creative and Performing Arts recommended that the University should take advantage of its small size and make an interdisciplinary arts education available to all students, rejecting the conservatory-style approach favored by vocational arts programs.
Using the committee’s findings as a jumping-off point, Tilghman approached the University Board of Trustees in January 2006 with a detailed report titled “The Creative and Performing Arts are Central to the Mission of the University,” which outlined her plan to transform the arts at the University.
Tilghman’s report included provisions for establishing a Center for the Creative and Performing Arts, a Society of Fellows in the Arts, a joint research program between the Center and the Council for the Humanities, the Arts and Transit Neighborhood and additional financial support for artistic extracurriculars. It also emphasized the need for visual and interdisciplinary arts programs.
“For the most part, [prospective students] do not aspire to become professional artists, but they seek a university where they can integrate their academic pursuits with their artistic passions,” Tilghman wrote in her report. “They become not only music majors and art historians but physicists and philosophers; not only English and comparative literature majors, but economists and engineers.”
Lewis, whose donation to the Center was announced after the 2006 meeting, echoed Tilghman’s ambitions. Its name was changed to the Lewis Center for the Arts in 2007.
“Shirley did a lot of work to determine why we needed more facilities for students to study and participate in the arts,” Lewis said. “And a very critical reason was that we were losing applicants who we really liked because we didn’t have the arts programs that we needed to attract them in the arts.”
The Pulitzer Prize-winning Irish poet Paul Muldoon was appointed the first chair of the Lewis Center a few months later. In 2011, when Muldoon went on sabbatical, theater professor Michael Cadden took over as acting chair.
According to Cadden, Tilghman’s unique appreciation of the arts comes in part from her experience as a professor. She is known to attend the senior thesis performances of students in the Creative Writing and Theater programs. As University president, she stays up-to-date on the University’s various art programs.
“It would seem that she’s someone who has been touched very deeply by art, who genuinely likes to go and open herself up to whatever it is she’s seeing,” Cadden said.
One of the more controversial elements of the broader arts initiative was the six-year long battle to establish the Arts and Transit Neighborhood.
Tilghman’s report described the Neighborhood as “a magnet for Princeton students, faculty and staff interested in the arts and an important new point of contact for the campus, the surrounding community and the outside world,” but it faces vocal opposition from town leaders because it requires relocating the Dinky.
The plan was approved this past December despite the protests of groups such as Save the Dinky, headed by Princeton resident Anita Garoniak. Garoniak did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
According to Cadden, the primary motivation for the new buildings — which are strategically located near the McCarter and Berlind Theaters — was to provide space for growing arts programs.
“Literally, with dance, we couldn’t add courses because we didn’t have enough space for the courses to go into, and dance requires a particular kind of space,” he said.
When asked what he thinks of Tilghman’s legacy, Cadden is unequivocal, calling it “remarkable.”
“You could not have persuaded me 30 years ago that the arts at Princeton would be where they are now,” Cadden said. “We’ve come a long way.”
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2012/10/05/31399/