In final years, Tilghman thought, and re-thought, exit
Sometime this past summer, Shirley Tilghman found herself in conversation with Harold Shapiro GS ’64, her predecessor as University president. The two presidents, who have a mentor-mentee relationship, were speaking openly about the state of the University and of Tilghman’s career. Tilghman told Shapiro, who traded One Nassau Hall for a smaller office in Wallace Hall 11 years earlier, that she had personal ambitions besides leading the University, just like Shapiro had.
“I always wanted to go back to teaching before I retired. When I turned 65, I said to myself, ‘Hey, if I don’t do it now, when are you going to do it?’ ” Shapiro told Tilghman, according to Shapiro’s account of the meeting.
“Well, you know I’m 65,” Tilghman responded, according to Shapiro.
And on Sept. 22, five days after Tilghman moved beyond that threshold and turned 66, she emailed the University community announcing her retirement after 11 years as University president.
To hear Tilghman describe it, she wrestled with the decision over the summer, crafting a pro-con list. As the Aspire campaign headed toward conclusion, during a period of relative calm before the academic year began, Tilghman had a breakthrough thought: If she were to stick with the job, she would have to stay for at least five more years. If she committed to anything less than five, she would not be able to oversee new projects through their completion. She decided then that it was her time to leave.
But this explanation belies retirement planning that began at least three years ago. In the intervening years, Tilghman displayed uncertainty as she backtracked her initial prognosis, only to later follow through with the original plan. That three-year period was punctuated by substantial successes in two major University initiatives, which paced Tilghman for the planned June 2013 retirement. But those years also included two explicit steps taken by Tilghman in different directions — the purchase of a personal home in Princeton in 2010 and the announcement in February 2012 that she had no intention of retiring soon.
September 2009 — December 2011: Plans for retirement and home purchase
In September 2009, after eight years on the job, Tilghman told The Daily Princetonian she planned to retire one year after the Aspire capital campaign concluded. This would have set her departure date as June 2013, if the five-year campaign progressed on schedule. It did — despite the recession, by the summer of 2009 Aspire had raised more than $1 billion of the $1.75 billion it hoped to raise.
Tilghman said at the time that following the completion of the campaign, she would stay on for the 2012-13 academic year for a “victory lap” to thank donors. She would then retire, just as Shapiro had after his own five-year capital campaign. According to Tilghman, she had informed the University Board of Trustees about this plan.
Though she told the ‘Prince’ about her plans in September 2009, Tilghman said in an interview last month she did not think seriously about her retirement until Aspire neared its end. It was only in the last year of the campaign that she began to seriously entertain thoughts about stepping down, she said.
“It was really a question once the campaign was over. What was the right amount of time before turning over the reins to the next president?” Tilghman said last month.
But in December 2010, as the five-year campaign entered its third year, the University president took an affirmative step toward securing her post-presidency future. Four days after Christmas, Tilghman purchased a $1.5 million home at 9 Campbelton Circle, according to records from the Princeton Tax Assessor’s Office. The house is just down the road from Lowrie House, the University-owned property where the president traditionally lives, and just a few doors down from Shapiro’s post-presidential home.
The home came on the market in March 2010, after the husband of Mary Cross — a woman who owned two homes in that neighborhood and others in Nantucket, Mass., and Florida — died. Cross’s husband, Ted Cross, was on the Princeton University Press Board of Trustees, and likely knew Tilghman, Shapiro said.
No real estate agent is associated with the transaction in the Multiple Listing Service used by realtors, indicating Tilghman purchased the home from Cross privately.
Fred Lepore ’71, who lives on Campbelton Circle as well, said he has never seen Tilghman in the current house. Many other faculty live in the neighborhood, according to Lepore, which used to be part of a large estate prior to the 1940s.
Tilghman declined to comment on the home purchase.
Eight months after purchasing the home, Tilghman leased it to Vice President for Campus Life Cynthia Cherrey, who moved into an apartment in Princeton after coming to the University from Tulane in August 2010. Cherrey said she moved into the house in the summer of 2011. As part of the deal, Tilghman told Cherrey she would move back into the house once she left the presidency, though the two did not discuss when that exact moment would be, according to Cherrey.
Beyond a brief interview at 9 Campbelton Circle, Cherrey also declined to comment on the home.
Shapiro said he did not think Tilghman’s home purchase was a major step toward retirement. Five or six years before he retired in 2001, Shapiro purchased his house at 10 Campbelton Circle, where he lived during his final years in office. Shapiro explained that he chose to purchase the home in part because he would need a private residence to retire to at some point.
Chair of the board of trustees Kathryn Hall ’80 said she was aware Tilghman had bought private property, but she did not interpret it a sign of impending retirement. Shapiro said he was unaware of Tilghman’s motivations and that he has not seen Tilghman in the house on Campbelton Circle.
Meanwhile, Tilghman was consistently meeting her goals in Nassau Hall. The Aspire campaign was on track, and the Borough Council approved the zoning for the University’s Arts and Transit Neighborhood, ending a six-year town-gown battle that Tilghman has described as a personal and emotional project.
Her top priorities seemed neatly timed to conclude by June 2013, her intended retirement date.
January 2012 – May 2012: No plans to retire
But in February 2012, Tilghman walked back her comments to the ‘Prince’ in another interview, saying that she had no plans to retire the next year.
“At the time, I thought that was a realistic plan. Nothing was set in stone,” Tilghman said, referring to the 2009 statement.
Tilghman explained there were many projects she wanted to see come to fruition — including the Arts and Transit Neighborhood — and that the exact year of retirement would be determined in private conversations with the trustees. Hall said at the time that the board was “very pleased” with Tilghman’s leadership.
This February announcement interrupted the timeline she had initially drawn, the same one she ended up executing. Tilghman explained that in 2009, she felt comfortable predicting her retirement years down the road, but the situation became far different when a retirement announcement stood just a summer away. Leaving Princeton’s highest post was now not just an abstract idea.
“I was expressing exactly the way I was feeling in both 2009 and 2012,” Tilghman said. “It’s really easy to say four years in advance when you think you might retire. But when it gets close, and when it becomes a reality, you have to think about it a little less cavalierly and a little more concretely.”
Tilghman said she made her February comment to avoid being “boxed in” to her June 2013 retirement date. Because she wasn’t certain, she wanted to leave her options open.
“You have to understand the difference between thinking about something that’s many years off and suddenly thinking about it when it’s imminent,” she said. “Those are psychologically really different phenomena.”
Hall added that while Tilghman was hopeful that two of her major projects — the Aspire campaign and the Arts and Transit Neighborhood — were on pace for completion, there was a psychological difference between expecting their completion and actually completing them. Even if the two projects had cleared their final hurdles by February, Tilghman could not be 100-percent sure about either of them, Hall said.
Still, the two projects did not show any serious signs of peril at the time. That February, the University had raised 94 percent of its goal and had “every expectation” that it would meet the fundraising target by the June 30 completion date. And at a meeting of the Council of the Princeton University Community that month, Tilghman discussed the arts neighborhood, suggesting that the new Lewis Center may be ready for dedication by 2017.
Borough Councilman Roger Martindell, a strong opponent of the development project, said the project was not in doubt in February. At the time, the project was subject to approval by the Regional Planning Board, which he said tends to approve large development projects — especially those proposed by the University. Therefore, he said, the Arts and Transit Neighborhood had a “fairly high chance of approval.”
Ruth Simmons, a former Princeton administrator and Brown president who joined Princeton’s board of trustees after stepping down as president in June, underscored the importance that university leaders place on seeing significant projects through to completion.
“It’s generally not a good idea to leave suddenly in the middle of unfinished business, so in that sense it’s not surprising to see a president make that decision,” Simmons said, referring to Tilghman’s timeline. “Leadership should be continuous through a significant period of planning,” she noted.
Hall declined to comment on whether Tilghman’s announcement was related to the progress of the ongoing Aspire campaign and whether reiterating a retirement plan would scare off potential final donors. “I think that’s just a hypothetical,” she said.
It is also possible that Tilghman’s comment did not signal a complete change of plans. Stephen Oxman ’67, the chair of the board of trustees prior to Hall who stepped down as chair in 2011 and from the board entirely in June 2012, said the statement “didn’t strike me as all that significant.” Oxman, who said he speaks with Tilghman every few weeks about University-related matters, said he had always expected her to retire in June 2013 following the Aspire campaign.
University Provost Christopher Eisgruber ’83, Tilghman’s top deputy who many faculty speculate to be a frontrunner for her replacement, said he didn’t focus much on the announcement or her retirement timeline, though he did say he was “delighted” when he heard in February that she would continue in her position.
During Reunions, Tilghman called the progress made on the Aspire campaign and the Arts and Transit Neighborhood two of the “highlights” of the past year.
June 2012 – December 2012: Decision to retire
After Commencement weekend passed, Tilghman said she finally had a chance to think about her future.
“This is an important decision,” Tilghman said in November. “I need[ed] time to think about it and I need[ed] time to be sure of the decision, and in February I didn’t even have five minutes to really think about it coherently.”
In the early part of the summer, Tilghman had not widely discussed her thought process with friends, peers or colleagues. In June, Tilghman traveled to Cambridge, U.K., where she met Harvard President Drew Faust, who is friendly with Tilghman, at a conference. While Faust said Tilghman told her about a recent home purchase, she did not tell Faust about an imminent retirement.
As the summer progressed and the Aspire campaign neared its June 30 completion date, Tilghman said she began to ponder her future. First, Tilghman attempted to construct a pros-and-cons list to make the decision and considered how many more years she could see herself leading Princeton. But Tilghman, who said she likes her job and is full of energy, soon realized that she couldn’t choose to work for two more years or three more years. She either had to retire that September and work for one more year, or instead double-down and work for five more years.
“I was not prepared to make a commitment for another five years — that was too long — and anything shorter — except one year — meant that I was going to be a caretaker, and that didn’t feel right to me either,” she said.
Tilghman began to talk with Shapiro and Hall about the decision some time during the summer. Tilghman said she and Hall “sat down a couple of times and had a long conversation about it.” Hall declined to say how many times they talked or whether they met in person, citing the privacy of the conversations between the board chair and University president. Hall said they had “at least a couple of conversations.”
Tilghman said Hall did not ask her to step down. She also said there were no health or family issues that caused her to retire, nor was there a time-sensitive job offer she was considering.
Another consideration that made Tilghman more comfortable with retiring during the summer than she had been in February was the intermediary progress on the Arts and Transit Neighborhood. In April, the project got the go-ahead from the New Jersey Historic Sites Council. While Tilghman said in February that she had projects she still wanted to see completed, by the summer she was even surer that Arts and Transit was on its way to completion.
“That project which has been so close to my heart and taken a lot out of my hide, I wanted to be certain that the Lewis Center was on its way,” Tilghman said in November. “And by this summer, I was absolutely certain that that would be the case.”
Hall also suggested that Arts and Transit approvals during the spring could have impacted Tilghman’s thinking, saying the project now “had more clarity.”
Martindell, however, did not share Tilghman’s view, saying that despite a few lawsuits filed by opponents of the plan, little changed between February and the summer.
“There wasn’t any significant movement in one way or the other, as viewed from the seat in which I sat,” Martindell said.
In early September, Tilghman began to tell some senior officials she was retiring. Tilghman also told Hall at the beginning of the month, but she wanted to wait to tell the full board of trustees herself.
Eisgruber also said he knew about the announcement before the rest of the campus community, though he said he could not recall how far in advance. Faust said Tilghman might have sent out a note to her an hour before the official announcement.
On the afternoon of Friday, Sept. 21, before heading to Princeton Stadium to see the football team lose to Georgetown, Tilghman told the full board of trustees in a classroom in Lewis Library that she would retire in June. And then on Saturday morning, she emailed the student body with the news.
December 2012 – Future: The transition
The search committee is currently meeting to choose Tilghman’s successor, who will be named in March or April.
She said the rest of the academic year should be relatively quiet, as the administration does not plan to launch many new initiatives. Over the coming months, Tilghman noted, the University will open the new neuroscience building and is seeking another round of local approval for the arts neighborhood from the Regional Planning Board.
Eisgruber also cited the University’s new online course offerings through Coursera as another priority for Nassau Hall in Tilghman’s final year, saying the year would not be quiet but rather “business as usual.” He did, however, agree that brand-new projects may be shelved.
“It would be unusual to launch something new when a transition is taking place,” Eisgruber said.
Oxman and Simmons also shared Eisgruber’s view.
“If you’re in the final year of your presidency, you don’t want to do too much that will restrict the flexibility of your successor,” Oxman said. “Inevitably, when you become president of a place like Princeton, you inherit a certain part of the agenda of your predecessor,” he explained, noting that Tilghman’s successor would have to oversee the actual construction of the Arts and Transit Neighborhood.
Because the project has been so important to Tilghman personally, it’s progress may be of special significance to the outgoing president. As Simmons explained, some personal projects gain importance in the last year, which Simmons called the “best year of my presidency.”
“In your final year, you are acutely aware that there are some things around which you want to tie a bow,” Simmons said. “From a personal perspective, it becomes important to get certain things done that you don’t want to leave your successor.”
Tilghman will also continue to travel the world and thank Aspire campaign donors. Earlier this year, Tilghman traveled to South America to sign a strategic partnership with University of Sao Paolo, and she will travel to China during winter break and London sometime this spring for Aspire events, she said.
Her trip to London this spring will also provide an introduction for the 2013-14 academic year, when she will take a sabbatical. She will spend part of it researching science policy for the British government and writing at the Royal Society of London. She will not receive a salary from the Royal Society.
Tilghman said she also plans to spend time at her ski house in Colorado — which she hasn’t had the chance to visit much the past 12 years, she joked — and visiting friends and family in Canada, where she grew up. She will spend the rest of her time back in the Princeton area, presumably at the home on Campbelton Circle.
Shapiro said that after he stepped down from the presidency in summer 2001, he made sure to avoid the Princeton area in order to give breathing room to Tilghman, taking half a year off.
“The main thing, in my view, is not to be available to the campus community during that period. There’s a new boss in town,” Shapiro explained. “It’s just important to send the message.”
Tilghman has said that she plans to return after her sabbatical to the molecular biology department, where she taught for 15 years before being chosen from within the search committee to be Princeton’s 19th president. Fellow administrators noted that Tilghman was excited to return to the faculty and to the classroom, which they say she loves.
She will likely be extended a “flood of invitations to do all kinds of things” that take her away from Princeton, according to Simmons. The former Brown president recommended that Tilghman reject all offers initially and proceed slowly before making a decision. Shapiro even said he has already received calls from other companies asking him for help in recruiting Tilghman to their enterprises.
No matter what she does, Tilghman said she is looking forward to decompressing from the frenetic pace of the presidency.
“I’m going to find out what life is like when you’re not being ruled by a calendar,” she said, “and I’m really looking forward to seeing what that feels like.”