Staff question Petraeus GS ’87, need for academic background at presidential search forum
University staff members voiced concerns about the potential candidacy of former CIA director David Petraeus GS ’87 for University president at the third open forum held by the University’s presidential search committee Tuesday afternoon.
Deputy Dean of the College Clayton Marsh ’85, the staff representative on the committee, opened the forum, which was conducted as a public comment session rather than a Q-and-A session. Other committee members joining Marsh were trustee C. James Yeh ’87, student representatives Jeff Morell ’13 and Catherine Ettman ’13 and faculty representatives physics professor Lyman Page and sociology professor Miguel Centeno. University Vice President and Secretary Robert Durkee ’69, who is staffing the committee, was also present.
Marsh encouraged audience members to speak about issues they would like to see addressed, what long-term projects they would like to see continued and what characteristics they value in potential candidates to replace outgoing University President Shirley Tilghman.
Bob Callahan ’77, the head coach of the men’s squash team, said it is key to have a presidential candidate who can uphold Princeton's honor. Callahan said he had read about Petraeus’ interest in the position but questioned how appropriate it would be to name him University president in light of his extramarital affair.
“We have been very fortunate in having presidents at Princeton that have brought nothing but honor to Princeton in every aspect of their lives,” Callahan said. “It’s tragic ... but certainly Princeton is a world-class institution, and we only want the best representation at the presidential level,” he explained.
After the forum, Callahan clarified in an interview that he didn’t dislike Petraeus as a leader.
“I don’t know the guy, but I think that he has done such a great job for the country in so many ways. He is a fascinating character,” he said. “I just feel badly for him for whatever has happened. I’m not sure that he ever had a chance at president here, but it’s unfortunate that he had this tragedy.”
Callahan added that he approved of Tilghman’s presidency and expressed his desire that Tilghman stay on longer as president. The audience, a majority of whom were University staff members, expressed the same type of appreciative sentiment about Tilghman’s tenure, contrary to Monday night’s forum, which was full of community members who were disappointed with Tilghman.
University-affiliated staff and faculty expressed a diversity of interests at the forum.
Participants debated whether the University president should be purely involved in academia or have a more entrepreneurial spirit. Loretta O’Connor, the director of staffing for human resources, suggested that the search committee should take into consideration qualified people who do not have Ph.D.'s. She added to the view that those involved in pure academia shouldn’t be the only candidates considered.
“When I’m traveling for Princeton, I often hear questions about why Princeton isn’t more entrepreneurial,” another staff member said. “In that respect we are constantly being compared to MIT and Stanford and such, and I think we could do a better job in bringing out that balance in a president."
However, staff members involved in the humanities programs on campus said they believed in the idea that a University president should be from a pure academic background. Judith Ferszt, manager of the American Studies program, said she was concerned about the emphasis being drawn away from the importance of humanities and more toward science, technology and entrepreneurship.
“I really feel this is a problem,” Ferszt said. A faculty member from the linguistics department seconded this concern, noting that “you want someone who is intellectually curious.”
Another idea in contention involved Princeton’s reputation as the Ivy League’s most conservative school.
“I am hoping that the next president will be interested in initiatives that will adjust Princeton away from that conservative reputation,” another audience member said.
As the meeting wound down, one audience member flipped the forum and asked the students on the search committee about the student perspective on the presidential search. Both Ettman and Morell said students are interested in the search.
“If you look at the ‘Prince’ and articles that have been published already ... I’m actually pleasantly surprised at how thoughtful people are being about the diverse [characteristics] a president would have to have to lead this University,” Ettman said.
While the two student representatives were more forthcoming about the outlook of the student body, Marsh and the rest of the search committee present at the forum were less willing to offer their perspectives on what they are looking for in a candidate. When one audience member asked the search committee members to elaborate on what qualities they thought the next president should have, Marsh said, “I am a blank slate.”
After the forum ended, Durkee, who has served under multiple presidents at the University, said the committee is not looking to choose a Tilghman look-alike.
“You have to find the very best person you can, and then you just have to adjust to them. You don’t look to replace Shirley with Shirley. You look to replace Shirley with someone who is as good in his or her own way,” Durkee said.
The University Board of Trustees is expecting to receive a recommendation from the search committee on the candidate for University president by late March or early April.