Petraeus, who has been an active University alumnus and who returned to campus as recently as this past spring, has publicly voiced interest in the Princeton presidency in the past, but seemingly as a joke used to deflect questions regarding his interest in the presidency of the United States. But sources close with Petraeus, who declined to comment at length for this article, indicate that his interest in University leadership is very real and that he is actively considering leading Nassau Hall.
The timing of Tilghman’s sudden retirement calls for the brand-new CIA director to decide immediately whether he wants to switch his career trajectory. At the same time, the prospect of a Petraeus presidency is punctured by questions about his readiness for a post usually reserved for academics. Despite these complications, according to some, Petraeus’ affinity for the University may mean that the door is not permanently closed for the military leader to lead the University in the future.
A genuine interest
Petraeus’ interest in the Princeton presidency was displayed most recently at a private, off-the-record event at Ivy Club in April. At the event, Petraeus repeated the remark that he would like to one day lead the University, according to multiple people in attendance. The event was open to Ivy upperclassmen, juniors and seniors in the University’s Reserve Officer Training Corps and professors affiliated with the military.
One individual asked Petraeus, a retired four-star general who oversaw American combat operations in Iraq and later led United States Central Command, whether he was considering running for President of the United States, one of the attendees at the Ivy event explained. “I am running for president of Princeton,” Petraeus answered, drawing laughter and applause. His remarks at Ivy mirror two earlier comments he gave to The Telegraph in London and The Daily Beast in July 2011, when he also conveyed his desire to be University president.
But three individuals close to Petraeus — both from his Princeton years and beyond — confirmed that Petraeus isn’t kidding. In fact, while Petraeus has reportedly enjoyed heading the CIA for the past 12 months, he could be open to succeeding Tilghman, though sources noted that the timing would have been better for Petraeus had Tilghman not retired for a couple more years, as she had previously indicated she would.
Michael O’Hanlon GS ’91, who lectures in the Wilson School and considers Petraeus a close friend, explained that he did not think Petraeus’ jocular comments should belie the validity of Petraeus’ ambitions. O’Hanlon, who is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, D.C., guessed that Petraeus has had five private conversations with him about serving as University president.
“I don’t think it was a complete throwaway line,” O’Hanlon said, referring to the joke. “I think he really meant that the notion of being president of Princeton was very appealing to him, and he could imagine circumstances in which he would be president of Princeton if Princeton offered it to him,” he explained.
Petraeus may be taking inspiration from one of his mentors while he was an undergraduate at West Point, Daniel Kaufman, who left the military to become the founding president at Georgia Gwinnett College. The pair is close enough that Petraeus delivered the commencement address at Georgia Gwinnett in 2009.
Kaufman said in an interview in June, prior to Tilghman’s announcement, that he had “had some conversations” with Petraeus about him moving to lead the University, including a discussion at Petraeus’ August 2011 retirement ceremony from the military.
“He’s always been interested in his own continued development and the development of young people,” Kaufman explained. “I think he sees being University president as being a way to contribute using not only his intellectual skills but his leadership skills.”
One alumnus who is close with Petraeus said he and Petraeus have spoken about a Petraeus presidency at “periodic intervals” since Petraeus won the James Madison Medal in 2010 at Alumni Day. The alumnus noted that he and Petraeus had discussed the idea of seeking the post within the past six months and speculated that Petraeus was aware of Tilghman’s retirement announcement this weekend.
The alumnus, who said he had informally lobbied many alumni, students and Trustees about the possibility of a Petraeus presidency, all of whom were reportedly excited by the idea, said Petraeus’ aspiration stems from a love of Princeton specifically as opposed to a broader desire to lead a university.
“I don’t know any alumnus that is as passionate about this University as he is,” the alumnus said. “David Petraeus would love to be president of Princeton University for the reason that he loves the University,” he added.
Even other mentors, Wilson School friends and Princeton professors of Petraeus that were not privy to the CIA director’s private thoughts still noted that this career change is plausible and conceivable.
John Duffield GS ’89, whom many called Petraeus’ closest friend while the pair studied at the Wilson School, said even though he hadn’t heard of any interest in Princeton’s top post from his longtime friend, he would not be surprised to see Petraeus seriously consider the position.
“If an opportunity like that came along, I wouldn’t put it past him,” Duffield said this summer, explaining that Petraeus was “loyal to his institutions.”
Even though Duffield thought Petraeus’ prior remarks about the Princeton presidency may have been light-hearted, he noted this summer that things might change if Tilghman retired.
“Maybe in that context, it’s crossing the line from jest to seriousness,” Duffield said.
In a short statement provided to The Daily Princetonian through a CIA spokesperson, Petraeus said despite the comments of these sources and though he maintains a close relationship with the school, he had no plans to depart the CIA for University leadership.
“I think I’ve made my respect and admiration for the great faculty and student body of Princeton University very clear, and I will reiterate that now. As it currently stands, however, I am living the dream here at the CIA,” Petraeus said in the statement.
When he visited campus in April, Petraeus asked to meet with Tilghman prior to the reception at Ivy. Tilghman said in an email over the summer that she and Petraeus did not discuss his potential ascension to the Princeton presidency or to any other position at Princeton during the leaders’ hour-long one-on-one meeting. At the time of their meeting, Tilghman had publicly stated that she had no plans to retire in the near future, walking back previous statements she had made that she planned to retire one year following the completion of the Aspire capital campaign, which would have put her retirement at the end of this academic year.
The alumnus close with the CIA director said Petraeus is “very fond” of Tilghman and noted that the pair share an enormous amount of respect for one another.
If Tilghman planned to retire in a couple of years rather than this June, some said, then Petraeus would actually be in a position to campaign for and accept the position. But even though he is interested in the Princeton presidency, they said, it would be difficult for Petraeus to leave the CIA after less than two years.
“A year ago, this would’ve been a slam dunk for him,” the alumnus said. “But I think he is very happy in and with his current position.”
“I don’t think there’s much of a chance that he’ll replace Dr. Tilghman,” O’Hanlon, the Brookings Institution scholar who said he had discussed the presidency with Petraeus, said. “The timing’s off. I think he’s very committed to the CIA,” he explained, though he noted that if President Barack Obama loses this November, then perhaps Petraeus may need to find a new job.
Not an academic, but a leader
Even if Petraeus is sufficiently interested in the Princeton presidency to leave the CIA after such a short stint, some question whether the University’s Board of Trustees would select a candidate with limited experience working in a college setting. Petraeus’ most extensive experience in academia was the two years he spent between 1985 and 1987 teaching international relations at West Point while he completed his Wilson School dissertation.
Every Princeton president since Woodrow Wilson has come from a long career in academia. But many sources drew a potential parallel between Petraeus and Dwight Eisenhower, who returned from leading a war effort to head another Ivy League school, Columbia, before moving to the White House in 1953. These individuals criticized his leadership of the school, noting that the war hero had trouble relating to the faculty.
Duffield, now a political science professor at Georgia State University, said that the career experience of Petraeus might be out of step with what universities are looking for today.
“Ideally, your president would have impeccable academic credentials,” he said. “But maybe his success in other walks of life would make him acceptable to faculty.”
Robert Hutchings, who taught international relations at the Wilson School for 11 years and was an assistant dean before departing to become the dean of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, predicted that Princeton would be looking for a candidate with a more academic background in its next president, saying that Petraeus comes from a “different world.”
But though Petraeus might not match that criterion, Hutchings explained, Petraeus would easily be able to adapt to the demands of Nassau Hall as a leader.
“People who have accomplished as much as he has can adapt to new environments pretty well,” Hutchings, a former naval officer, said. He also noted that it was “logical” for Petraeus’ name to circulate as a potential University president.
Kaufman, the army officer turned university president at Georgia Gwinnett, noted that the two careers are not as different as one might expect and that his leadership ability would transfer.
“The transition is not as hard as people would think because the requirements for providing vision and strategic leadership ... are very similar,” he said.
Additionally, those close to Petraeus noted that though he chose to enter the military rather than academia like many of his Wilson School classmates did following graduation, Petraeus still has the mind of an academic. Colonel Mike Meese GS ’00, who heads the department where Petraeus taught during his two-year teaching stint at West Point and has deployed with Petraeus as an economic adviser, noted that Petraeus is passionate about higher education.
And his mentor, Kaufman, called him “a born teacher.”
“You can see it even in the way he commanded his units as he educated and commanded his subordinates. Anyone who is committed to the development of people is a natural attraction,” Kaufman explained.
During his career, Petraeus has drawn attention for the number of doctoral graduates like Meese that have served on his staff. In a 2007 column in The American Interest, a magazine focusing on international relations, Petraeus outlined a multipronged defense of civilian graduate school for military officials and explained the broader connection between higher education and military success.
“The most powerful tool any soldier carries is not his weapon but his mind,” Petraeus wrote. “These days, and for the days ahead as far as we can see, what soldiers at all ranks know is liable to be at least as important to their success as what they can physically do,” he explained.
‘A Princeton man through-and-through’
Petraeus’ deep respect for academia is reflected in his time at the Wilson School, an opportunity he embraced after serving as an officer and at the encouragement of his mentors.
After graduating from West Point in 1974, Petraeus spent seven years leading light infantry units. In the early 1980s, Petraeus became close with General John Galvin, who eventually asked the young officer to serve as his aide-de-camp.
Galvin said in an interview that it was clear from when he first met Petraeus that he had a sharp mind and enormous potential as a military leader. Galvin worked with Kaufman, who was then at West Point, to convince Petraeus to enhance his military career with an Ivy League graduate school education.
“Open up your world,” Galvin recalled telling Petraeus at the time. Galvin’s encouragement is apparently what pushed Petraeus, then a captain, over the top — Petraeus called Galvin “the reason I went to graduate school,” in the column.
Both the Wilson School and a similar program at Harvard offered him admission, but Petraeus chose to attend Princeton’s program because it was less common for military officers to attend, Duffield said, making it more appealing.
Though Petraeus only spent two years on campus and did not receive his undergraduate degree from Princeton, his involvement in the University over the past 25 years has resembled the connection of someone close to his undergraduate institution, the alumnus close with Petraeus said. He noted that the CIA director frequently ends emails with “PITNS!,” an acronym for part of the University’s unofficial motto, “Princeton in the Nation’s Service.”
“He loves the University and is a Princeton man through-and-through,” he said. “He wasn’t an undergraduate here but he might as well have been,” he added.
When Petraeus entered the Wilson School in the fall of 1983, he prepared to study for two years and earn a Master’s in Public Administration before returning to the military. But Petraeus soon realized that he wanted to earn a Ph.D., so he decided to cram the extra coursework into the two-year window that the military had given him to earn his degree. He then wrote his thesis while simultaneously teaching full-time at West Point.
As a student at the Wilson School, Petraeus displayed an academic intensity that continues to drive him today, his friends and professors said.
They described Petraeus as a bit isolated from the rest of his colleagues because of his different background. Unlike most of his classmates, Petraeus was married, which meant that he did not frequent Wilson School parties or live an active social life while at the University. Additionally, Petraeus came to graduate school as a captain with the clear intention of making the military his career after graduation, which did not characterize the average Wilson School graduate student.
As a result, Petraeus focused full-time on his academic work, studying under the tutelage of professor and international security expert Richard Ullman. Ullman, who is ill and was unable to comment for this article, was extremely influential in Petraeus’ education, according to Paula Broadwell, a biographer who works with Petraeus on writing projects and wrote “All In: The Education of General David Petraeus,” published this year.
Broadwell explained that Ullman would brutally edit Petraeus’ papers with a red pen, at one point telling the future CIA director that in his paper, “the whole is less than the sum of the parts,” according to Petraeus’ magazine column.
Petraeus and Duffield, his close friend, took a two-on-one directed reading course with Ullman that Petraeus had initiated. The papers for that course, Duffield explained, were the first drafts of his dissertation, “The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam,” which he finalized years later.
“He was very motivated and goal-oriented,” Duffield said. “He already had a pretty clear idea of what he wanted to write his dissertation on.”
Other classmates of Petraeus described him as serious, intense and hardworking, which some said was necessary because of his desire to acquire a doctoral degree on a compressed schedule. Yet despite this indefatigable commitment to his academics, he still maintained a separate commitment that he would never cheat on: physical exercise. Petraeus ran competitively at the time and would always find time to fit a lengthy run into his schedule, classmates said.
Since leaving the University, Petraeus had kept close tabs on his graduate school alma mater. Petraeus has formed personal relationships with many Wilson School students, especially those interested in the military, and has even recommended certain students for admission to its graduate program, according to Wilson School Associate Dean for Graduate Education Karen McGuinness GS ’85, who was in Petraeus’ Wilson School class.
He has returned to the Orange Bubble at least four times since 2005, including giving the Baccalaureate address in 2009 and returning for Alumni Day to receive the James Madison Medal in 2010. Marilyn Marks GS ’86, the editor of Princeton Alumni Weekly who knew Petraeus while both studied at the Wilson School, said Petraeus is gracious in making time for the magazine and even took one alumnus reporter on a tour of Mosul, Iraq.
McGuinness explained that Petraeus’ frequent visits and the counsel he provides to current and former students reflects a genuine attachment to the education he received.
“The only thing that is surprising is that he is busier than other classmates and he makes more time for the school,” she said.
To Galvin, the mentor who encouraged Petraeus to attend graduate school, Petraeus’ affinity for the school is part of a broader sense of loyalty that the military leader feels for institutions and people that have given him a great deal.
“When he gets into a subject, he cares forever,” Galvin said, noting that he and Petraeus are still close decades after first meeting. “I’m not surprised that he stays in touch with Princeton because he stays in touch with me.”
But as the presidential search committee prepares to begin the year-long recruiting and vetting process, one question is not just whether Petraeus would perform well as University president or whether he loves the school enough to lead it, but whether the University community is prepared to bring in an outside, military candidate to lead one of the nation’s top schools.
But according to the alumnus close to Petraeus, that’s precisely what makes his candidacy so intriguing.
“We’ve had a series and succession of academics running the University, and the sense of rebirth and refreshing novelty in having a non-university type as head of the University is part of the exhilaration that a lot of people feel about it,” he said.
Ultimately though, even if Tilghman, the Board of Trustees, the faculty, the student body and the alumni community all could stomach the optical change that Petraeus would bring to Nassau Hall, it would still come down to a basic question for Petraeus: Is he ready for the switch now?
“If not this go-around,” O’Hanlon said, “then maybe next time.”