At a lecture given to graduating seniors in May, a student asked University President Shirley Tilghman what she was most proud of after 12 years at the helm. Rather than pointing to a specific accomplishment — Tilghman said that doing so would amount to “a Sophie’s choice” — she responded that she was proud she had managed to change the University at all.
“When you think of an institution this old with its traditions that it loves, and I love them too, and its propaganda, which of course we all believe, it’s often hard to persuade such an institution that it can get better,” Tilghman said at the lecture.
Chief among those traditions is Reunions, a weekend that is in many ways structured solely as a celebration of this institution. Princeton alumni are perhaps uniquely proud of their alma mater, and the weekend gives them the chance to raise their glasses and open their wallets in the name of the University as well as to reconnect with friends and classmates, attend panels and performances and watch famous alumni let their guard down.
This year’s Reunions will be Tilghman’s last as president, and alumni can certainly find plenty to celebrate in the accomplishments of her 12 years. Under her leadership, the University has increased financial aid, raised billions of dollars in the harshest economic climate in decades, constructed state-of-the-art academic buildings and libraries, laid the foundation for an entire complex focusing on the arts and expanded international opportunities for students and faculty alike.
These accomplishments have been documented extensively both in the pages of The Daily Princetonian and in what Tilghman might refer to as the University’s “propaganda.” Nevertheless, Tilghman explained that being a successful president requires acknowledging the imperfections and shortcomings that persist, especially when it seems that no one else will.
“I’ve often described myself as Princeton’s biggest fan and Princeton’s biggest critic,” Tilghman said in a May interview with the ‘Prince.’ “You have to be able to make a case for Princeton, and that’s where the fan part comes in, but if you start believing all your propaganda and believing that we’re perfect, you will fail as the president. You must be able to see the warts, and they’re there.”
Indeed, while Tilghman will most likely be remembered for the boldness of her accomplishments, her legacy will also contain some “warts” that will not be the subject of this weekend’s festivities. The Arts and Transit Neighborhood that will go down as one of her most high-impact and long-lasting achievements also strained relations with the town. At the time of her departure, Tilghman noted that her administration never quite figured out how to improve crucial aspects of student advising, the residential college system and Career Services. Students and recent graduates still complain about the controversial implementation of the grade deflation policy. Alumni who may have been sexually assaulted while they were undergraduates will return to a campus where, according to Tilghman, not enough has yet been done to alleviate the problem. Those who were frustrated with the predominantly white and male makeup of the faculty will return to find a faculty whose composition has not changed much over 12 years. And recent alumni who return with lingering questions about the abrupt dismissal of a Spanish lecturer who later committed suicide are still without answers.
For the most part, Tilghman said she has tried to play the role of “Princeton’s biggest critic” consistently throughout her career. Some issues she noticed early on in her tenure and took steps, with various degrees of success, to address. Others she admits acknowledging too late or not having done enough to address. Though she was the public face of the University for 12 years, and thus responsible for confirming the sort of self-confidence on full display this weekend, she said that acknowledging the “warts” and convincing the community that one of the best institutions of higher education in the world could get even better was just as an important aspect of the job.
For all the barriers she broke as the first woman and first scientist president, a look at the shift in campus geography provides perhaps the most concrete evidence of Tilghman’s legacy, even considering all the dollars raised and policies changed during her tenure.
The southern portion of campus has been transformed over Tilghman’s 12 years, reflecting the priority and emphasis she placed on the sciences, the arts and the residential college system. The stories behind these structures underscore not only her fundraising prowess but also the controversial disputes of town-gown relations and the resistance to and — in some cases — ineffectiveness of her signature campus life policies.More than three decades ago, at the beginning of the 1980-81 academic year, then-President William Bowen GS ’58 announced that million-dollar donations from the Rockefeller family and the foundation of former University trustee Dean Mathey, Class of 1912, would fund the creation of two of the three new residential colleges the University was planning to build. When asked whether the plan was intended to mimic the existing systems at Harvard and Yale, Bowen pointed out that Princeton’s was unique in its emphasis on underclassmen. He noted that as students became juniors and seniors, the colleges would become less important to them.
Now at the end of Tilghman’s presidency, success in finding a place for upperclassmen in the University-sanctioned social scene is still an open question.
Residential colleges were clearly not Tilghman’s brainchild — after the founding of Wilson College and Princeton Inn (Forbes College), the initial plans for expansion were laid out in a 1979 report commissioned by Bowen. Nor was she necessarily the most active member in her administration in promoting them — former Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel played an active role in fostering the growth of the system since the 1980s. But by throwing her office’s full support behind efforts to expand the colleges, Tilghman made it clear that she envisioned a University in which residential colleges were ingrained in the fabric of campus social life.
The most visible and physical result of this legacy was the construction of Whitman College, the sixth residential college. The idea for the college stemmed from the 2000 Wythes Committee report, which recommended increasing the size of each incoming class by 125 students, and pointed out that the current five residential colleges would not be able to accommodate an additional 250 students each year. After the plans were finalized, then-eBay CEO and current Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman ’77 donated $30 million to the construction of the college — the largest ever by a female graduate. Tilghman said in the May interview that Whitman’s decision to make such a large donation signaled her support for and confidence in the University’s first female president; similar comments were made by former University Vice President and Secretary Thomas Wright ’62 at the time.
The idea of housing some upperclassmen in the residential colleges had been floated early on by Bowen’s Committee on Undergraduate Residential Life, but it was with the construction of Whitman College and the ensuing renovations of Butler and Mathey that the four-year residential college system was truly born. Initially, these three colleges allowed for a total of 300 upperclassmen to live in residential colleges among underclassmen.
In Tilghman’s words, the University was providing juniors and seniors with an additional “choice.” The University had a vision for a residential community in which students dined and socialized with those who lived around them and received academic and personal guidance and support from the same professional staff over four years, and the four-year residential college system would provide upperclassmen with the choice to opt in.
“Choice was the inherent good we were aiming for,” Tilghman said, emphasizing that the four-year system was not intended to draw in students who preferred other options.
Nevertheless, a decade after Whitman’s donation, Tilghman admits that the University has not yet “quite figured out the four-year residential colleges for juniors and seniors,” and Bowen’s words from three decades ago still ring true.“We haven’t made the four-year college choice as attractive as it should be, and I think what’s missing is the sense of community that is created in the eating clubs,” Tilghman said, noting that she has also noticed a similar sense of community in the co-ops.
Perhaps, Tilghman has said, the University erred in not making all six of the residential colleges open to students of all four years — a decision that, she noted, was made before her term began. She has posited that the best solution may be to encourage every Princeton student to be affiliated with both a residential college and an eating club. However, whatever the cause of the current state of the four-year system, the fact remains that in recent years, four out of five sophomores have indicated interest in joining an eating club by either bickering or signing in first round.
In her Last Lecture, Tilghman discussed the “bimodal distribution” demonstrated when graduating seniors are asked about satisfaction with the eating clubs — many students think they are one of the best things about Princeton, while others think they are one of the worst. She said she did not have strong views toward the clubs as a faculty member, but as president, she has come to appreciate the camaraderie they create for students who are members. Tilghman has taken steps to make the clubs more accessible, increasing students’ financial aid once they become upperclassmen to offset the cost of joining a club and initiating the shared meal plan program. In 2009, she charged a task force with examining ways to strengthen relationships between the University and the eating clubs. The group ended up recommending a multi-club Bicker system similar to the one the eating clubs recently adapted.
On the whole, Princeton’s current social life is structured in a very similar way to how it was when Tilghman first took office; students live in residential colleges for their first two years, and most join eating clubs for their last two, while a smaller number choose from three less-ubiquitous options in four-year colleges, independent meal plans or co-ops. The millions of dollars and the handful of committees, working groups and task forces have led to modest changes in the eating club system and modest gains in the numbers of upperclassmen living in residential colleges.
More extensive structural changes — such as the potential addition of a seventh residential college, which Tilghman has so far only hinted at — remain to be seen.
While her presidency’s impact on the structure of Princeton-specific social institutions may have been modest, her actions and attitudes toward issues in collegiate social life that exist all over the country were not. In a country where heavy consumption of alcohol has become stereotypically associated with college social life, Tilghman has called for moderation and responsible use at Princeton, both through the formation of the Alcohol Coalition Committee and in a 2010 column in which she claimed that a perceived uptick in high-risk drinking left students vulnerable.
High-risk drinking, in addition to hazing and selectivity, was a principal factor in the Tilghman administration’s decision to prohibit freshmen from rushing Greek organizations. The ban was a recommendation of the Working Group on Campus Social and Residential Life, which Tilghman convened in response to the findings of the Eating Clubs Task Force. The policy — intended, in the administration’s view, to prevent students from limiting their social options early on in their Princeton careers — drew intense criticism from members of Greek organizations and other students, not least because the University was essentially aiming to regulate student groups that it otherwise did not officially recognize. Nonetheless, Tilghman maintains now that the policy was successful, noting that it truly did ban freshman rush as far as she can tell.
“One of the things you learn in positions like this is that you can’t please everybody, and if you try, you’ll get nothing done,” Tilghman said.
Alcohol, Tilghman believes, is also in part responsible for the prevalence and underreporting of sexual assault on college campuses. These issues have gained steam nationally due to questions raised at peer institutions such as Yale and North Carolina about institutional handling of sexual assault cases. In an unpublished 2008 survey conducted by several Princeton offices, one in six female undergraduates reported experiencing nonconsensual vaginal penetration during their time at the University, an extraordinary number compared to the number of sexual assaults reported to the Department of Public Safety, let alone the number of students internally disciplined for sex offenses where no criminal charges have been pressed. The University’s published statistics note that one in eight students is a victim of “power-based personal violence,” which includes sexual assault.
“So much of this is driven by alcohol,” Tilghman said. “It’s a problem everywhere,” she added, noting that she does not believe the situation is any worse at Princeton. The 2008 survey indicated that Princeton’s figures were slightly below the national average for college campuses.This past fall, Vice President for Campus Life Cynthia Cherrey invited a University of Massachusetts psychologist, David Lysak, to speak to administrators, staff and students. Tilghman said she found his research “eye-opening,” particularly the revelation that a large portion of the cases can be traced to relatively few predators. While she said identifying those few predators was one of the best possible solutions, she noted that this would require victims to come forward, which has been a problem.
Overall, Tilghman said she does not think her administration has done enough to address sexual assault on campus. “But we’re very focused on it now,” she said, noting that Cherrey and University Health Services Executive Director John Kolligian are currently working on addressing the issue.
“This is a national issue,” Cherrey said. “It has manifested on college campuses and because of that we have an obligation to make progress in this area.”
Tilghman’s predecessor, former president and current Wilson School professor Harold Shapiro GS ’64, noted that given the difficulty of solving the problem of sexual assault on campus, any modest progress would be beneficial.
“That challenge has been around a lot longer than President Tilghman’s been around,” Shapiro said.
With a president from the molecular biology department, faculty in the sciences have said that, while they didn’t feel Tilghman favored them, it was helpful to have a president who understood their background. Throughout her tenure, the sciences on campus have transformed, both in terms of their spatial presence on campus and in the number and types of programs offered.Tilghman began early, thanks to a $60 million donation by Peter Lewis ’55, which funded the construction of a new science library, designed by prominent architect Frank Gehry. Tilghman had noted that the dispersion of different science libraries across campus was inefficient and believed a consolidated, modern structure would benefit students in the sciences.
Even before Tilghman began as president, donations from Lewis had helped to spearhead her expanded vision for the sciences on campus. Thanks to a $35 million gift from Lewis in the mid-1990s, Tilghman — a molecular biology professor who joined the faculty in 1986 — founded the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics, which is now housed in the Carl Icahn Laboratory by Poe Field.While Lewis had provided the funding and namesake for the institution she founded and led, it was not until an airplane ride that Tilghman and Lewis took to California to meet with Gehry about the library that their friendship developed.
“For me, it’s very fitting that we go out together,” said Lewis, who will be leaving the University’s Board of Trustees at the end of the year. “What’s developed is a friendship. It’s focused around Princeton, but it’s even more than that.”
Tilghman has often described Lewis as a mentor of hers and described his early advice about how she would inevitably make mistakes and how that was just part of the job as “empowering” during her Last Lecture. She said she is still grateful for his early gifts, which she said helped her administration gain credibility initially.
But the Tilghman administration’s fundraising success extends beyond Lewis’ early gifts. The University saw record-high Annual Giving rates, and Tilghman oversaw the five-year $1.88 billion Aspire campaign — the largest in the University’s history — through some of the harshest economic conditions in decades. Though she said she had little prior experience soliciting donations, colleagues had noticed Tilghman’s knack for fundraising as early as 2002, when Wright told the ‘Prince’ that Tilghman “wows” potential donors. Tilghman herself said she believes her curiosity about people’s lives and experiences is part of what helps her relate to donors on a personal level. Lewis, while noting that much of the credit is due to the University’s Office of Development, described Tilghman as persistent in her fundraising efforts.
“She just stays at it and works her behind off in front of a very receptive audience,” Lewis said.
Funds that her administration raised from the McDonnell and Keller families, as well as from two anonymous donors, helped establish the new neuroscience and psychology building, which will be called Peretsmen-Scully Hall and is expected to be fully operational in the fall. In this case, Tilghman and the trustees recognized that institutional support was needed for the fast-growing field. The other huge mark Tilghman’s legacy will leave on the sciences and the physical campus is the Frick Chemistry Laboratory, which was born out of Tilghman’s recognition that the chemistry department had outgrown Old Frick, which had been its home since 1927. Unlike the other projects, New Frick was not funded by capital donations, but from royalties off the patent of cancer drug Alimta, developed in partnership with drug company Eli Lilly, although Princeton is the sole owner of the patent.
In all these situations, Tilghman identified a field or resource in which the University was lacking and placed funds and efforts into revamping it. This approach was also effective beyond her field of specialty. The Center for African American Studies saw significant gains under her tenure. The center was established in its current form in 2007 when it was moved to Stanhope Hall, centrally located next to Nassau Hall, which had previously been the home of the Department of Public Safety. The headlines surrounding the growth of African American Studies at Princeton focused primarily on the recruitment of star scholars such as Cornel West GS ’80 and Anthony Appiah, in part due to the former’s well-publicized falling out with then-Harvard President Larry Summers. However, Tilghman said it was the recruitment of talented young scholars to the program that truly laid its foundation.
Another academic area in which Tilghman identified a gap was the international opportunities offered to both students and faculty. In this field, she leaves a legacy of strategic partnerships with foreign universities, summer global seminars for undergraduates and the Bridge Year Program. Tilghman noted that much of the progress began after the 2007 Princeton in the World Report, written by history professor Jeremy Adelman and former Dean of the Wilson School Anne-Marie Slaughter ’80, which recommended the creation of the Council on International Teaching and Research.
On the other hand, Tilghman described the creation of the Bridge Year Program in her Last Lecture as a top-down initiative born out of a frustration she shared with Provost and President-elect Christopher Eisgruber ’83: the low number of students studying abroad. Bridge Year Director John Luria said he sees the origins of the Bridge Year Program in the Adelman-Slaughter report as well but credited Tilghman with creating the working group — led by comparative literature professor and current Whitman College master Sandra Bermann — that ultimately led to the recommendation for the program.
“I wouldn’t necessarily call it top-down, but clearly Dr. Tilghman and Dr. Eisgruber had a vision of how they wanted to engage in the world,” Luria said. He noted that while the service-oriented program is very different in nature from the academically-focused study abroad, it nonetheless contributes significantly to the Princeton undergraduate experience.
The initial goal was to have 100 students participating in the program each year, and he said Bridge Year is well on its way to meeting that goal. “I think the Bridge Year program adds a lot to President Tilghman’s legacy,” Luria added.
While she has changed the nature of teaching, learning and research in these fields, in addition to many others, Tilghman has not, in her mind, sufficiently changed the composition of those faculty members doing the teaching and research. In an interview with the ‘Prince’ in 2002, Tilghman listed increasing the diversity of the faculty as one of the core goals of her tenure. Ten years later, Tilghman tasked a Trustee Ad Hoc Committee on Diversity with identifying ways to diversify the faculty, administration and graduate student body. Last October, the committee found that the faculty was still more than 80 percent white and 75 percent male, indicating that the administration’s efforts had not, Tilghman said, been successful.
“They have not succeeded because we have continued on a path of business as usual,” Tilghman said. “What business as usual has given us is modest gains, with an emphasis on the word ‘modest.’”
Improvements in these fields required a great deal of public criticism on Tilghman’s part of areas in which Princeton was not up to par.
But regarding the incident that has perhaps drawn the most scrutiny and criticism from outside the University community during her tenure, Tilghman has remained all but silent.
The abrupt suspension of former Spanish lecturer Antonio Calvo and his ensuing suicide in April 2011 resulted in a barrage of inquiries from students, supporters and from the international media on why Calvo was fired and why the University used seemingly unusual measures in his dismissal. Two weeks after the incident, Tilghman wrote in a statement to the ‘Prince’ that proper procedures were followed and that she could not publicize the details of his dismissal without “an unprecedented breach of confidentiality.” Tilghman did not comment on the April 2012 revelation that the University had strayed from its standard procedure in the reappointment process in Calvo’s case. In the May 2013 interview, Tilghman once again declined to comment on the incident.
“I think too much has been written about that,” she said.
But what has drawn the most internal scrutiny, especially among the student population — documented multiple times in almost every section of the ‘Prince’ — and also among some tenured faculty, has been the controversial implementation of the grade deflation policy.
It remains unclear if the policy has actually been able to contain grade inflation. Individual professors are not forced to follow the policy, as it is presented only as a guideline.
In a 2011 column in Princeton Alumni Weekly, Tilghman pointed out that the policy had had little impact on students’ overall grade point averages.“The impact has not been to radically lower grades or GPAs; rather, grades are now fairly awarded throughout the University, and we know that at least some companies and professional schools appreciate the fact that an ‘A’ at Princeton is really an ‘A,’” she wrote. She concluded by expressing pride in the “integrity with which grading at Princeton is done.”
In any case, President-elect Eisgruber has already voiced his support for the policy, as did Dean of the College Valerie Smith after she was appointed in the 2011-12 academic year. Yale is now even considering implementing a similar policy.
Tilghman will also pass along to Eisgruber ongoing efforts to revamp Career Services. She said that while she believes the agency is on the right trajectory, students she meets with commonly express the belief that advising primarily focuses on jobs in finance and consulting. Tilghman noted that these types of industries tend to have “well-oiled” recruiting operations but that helping students who have other career goals is an ongoing challenge.
Director of Career Services Beverly Hamilton-Chandler said the addition of a new position — Assistant Director for Arts, Nonprofit & Public Sector — has helped in that realm.
“Having someone anchored in that position has been helpful,” Hamilton-Chandler said. “Students have interests based on geographic preferences — where they’re coming from — industry preferences, and they may be interested in industries that have not done a lot of recruiting here.”
While the science-related buildings constructed on the lower part of campus certainly stand out for their modernity, the project begun under the Tilghman years that will likely alter the physical campus the most has yet to truly begin. First presented at a 2008 meeting of the Council of the Princeton University Community, the University’s proposal to transform the arts on campus has faced a number of setbacks since it was first envisioned in the middle of Tilghman’s tenure.
The idea for the Lewis Center for the Arts was a perfect example of a bottom-up initiative, according to Tilghman. At her Last Lecture, she discussed how, in conversations with students during her first years in office, she realized that both curricular and extracurricular arts offerings were underwhelming. Because of how widespread the problem was and how long it had been affecting the University, Tilghman decided that bold action was necessary. She then convened a task force that made a recommendation for the center, received a $101 million donation from Lewis — to date the largest in University history — and began to lay the plans.
Tellingly, the task force’s recommendation called for an “arts neighborhood,” missing a key word from what is today known as the Arts and Transit Neighborhood. After choosing the Alexander Corridor as the location for the arts complex, the University soon ran into disagreements with the local municipalities over the proposed relocation of the Dinky station, owned by the University, 460 feet south. Tensions flared after the University announced in February 2011 that it would abandon the plans since the negotiations had reached an impasse and threatened to stop contributing a voluntary payment in lieu of taxes to the Princeton Borough. Members of the local community said they had voiced concerns about the proposal all along, which were ignored. The University countered that it had the legal right to move the terminus and that the Neighborhood would infuse money and jobs into the community.
Less than a month after it became clear the plans were in jeopardy, Tilghman announced that she had no plans to retire at the end of the 2012-13 academic year, contrary to statements she made to the ‘Prince’ in 2009. In the recent May interview, she said she would not have retired had the Arts and Transit Neighborhood’s future still been uncertain and that she was comfortable retiring now that she was confident the progress made toward the construction of the Neighborhood was irreversible.
“She’s a finisher,” Lewis said, noting that while she has been successful at “virtually everything,” the center may be one of the most important accomplishments to her personally. “I have to think that the Lewis Center for the Arts is probably the biggest thing and maybe the thing that touches her emotions the most.”
The University ultimately received approval for the necessary zoning to construct the Neighborhood and move the Dinky, though the proposals were met with intense resistance every step of the way. Relations may improve due the consolidation of the Borough and the Township under Mayor Liz Lempert, who supported the Arts and Transit proposal, but town-gown tensions were high during Tilghman’s last years, notably under the last Borough Mayor, Yina Moore ’79, an outspoken opponent of the Dinky relocation.
Tilghman now said she would have approached the negotiations differently if she had another chance, noting that she would have personally intervened earlier in the process.
All of these accomplishments, and all of this progress, of course, would not have been possible had Tilghman not noticed a “wart.” Some of these warts — such as the chemistry department’s need for new facilities or the lack of opportunities for students interested in the arts — were widely accepted as a problem that needed addressing. Other supposed warts she saw — such as the effects of freshman membership in Greek organizations — were viewed in a different light by many members of the community. Some — such as the lack of international opportunities — she noticed early on in her tenure, took steps to address and saw through to completion. Others — such as the diversity of the faculty or sexual assault on campus — she said her administration may not have done enough to combat.
Whatever the outcomes of her efforts to address these issues, her willingness to publicly acknowledge them in order to get the ball rolling has been just as crucial to her job as highlighting the University’s strengths, she said.
“The University has to be both a servant and a critic of society,” said Shapiro, repeating a popular refrain of his. “It’s the same thing internally … You have to be careful about reading your own propaganda.”The issues Tilghman hasn’t addressed, of course, she leaves to Eisgruber. Guiding the current provost to success, Lewis said, could be one of her most long-lasting legacies.
“Ideally, she’d be remembered for grooming a terrific successor,” Lewis said. Unlike Tilghman, who had no experience in the central administration before assuming office, Eisgruber has occupied the University’s number-two post for more than a decade. Even before being named president, he attended most of Tilghman’s top-level meetings, leaving him intimately familiar with the responsibilities of the presidency.
“It had been in my mind that we had a president in the making,” Tilghman said of Eisgruber.
As for Tilghman, she is looking forward to traveling and spending time with her family for a year before rejoining the faculty. Her son, Alex, is a sound engineer and recently worked on the production for the NCAA Final Four. Her daughter, Rebecca Tilghman ’03, is a collections manager at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She is expecting a child — Tilghman’s first grandchild — to be born in Tilghman’s year off.
“I’m going to be an attentive grandmother,” Tilghman said.