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Don't call me Shirley

It’s been a rough few months for University President Shirley Tilghman. Thankfully though, her self-respect does not seem to fluctuate with the contents of the opinion section of The Daily Princetonian. That her cooler head seems to have prevailed through the student body outcry is no surprise, given that her steely disposition helped her guide Princeton through one of its toughest periods. It was Tilghman’s skillful managing that so shielded students from fallout from the financial crisis. Her positive imprint is felt across nearly every field of study, and her continued campaign to increase equal opportunity to all that Princeton has to offer ought to outweigh the understandable anger felt in the wake of the fraternity and sorority ban. Bitterness about a loss in a tiff on social matters should not cloud out a reasonable appreciation of what Tilghman has contributed to the undergraduate experience.

While I stand with the majority of my peers in vigorously opposing the ban on freshman rush for fraternities and sororities, I do so without collapsing into the all-too-common conniptions rife with repugnant ad hominem jabs. The latest, and perhaps most unbecoming, swipe at Tilghman came in an op-ed just last Thursday. Apart from boasting about engaging in polite discourse with the administration, the apparent motivation for the insulting opinion piece was that the author had not gotten what he wanted. Managing to include misogyny and an accusation of intellectual dishonesty in the title alone (read: “Be honest with me when you lie, Shirley”), the article reads like a litany of impotent retaliations against an unrelenting parent. That the article clearly serves as a vehicle for airing some other undisclosed frustrations with the University is besides the point. This article was the latest, if most offensive and childish, reactionary fit to a serious discussion.

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Again, I strongly support my fellow students who understand the important nature of Greek life to the undergraduate experience. But the spawning of stopshirley.com and the hollow threats to stop donating to Princeton because of a ban on freshman rush are completely inappropriate. These steps illustrate to me the precise error which led to the defeat: We sent children to an adult discussion. We are Princetonians, possessing the capacity to engage — and indeed convince — others of equal intellect of our point of view. Even more significantly and overlooked, however, is that, at the prospect of defeat, we take responsibility and continue to show respect to those who command it.

To look beyond the substantial accomplishments of overseeing the establishments of the Department of African American Studies and Whitman College, Tilghman has also proven her worth as a leader in the face of crisis. Standing strong in the wake of the Wall Street meltdown, she did not flinch at the evaporation of 23 percent of the endowment, a total loss of $3.7 billion. Loosing roughly three times the sum of the total University budget, of which the endowment usually covers half, is a perilous prospect. Remarkably, swift measures, such as salary freezes and moderate budget cuts, and a re-evaluation of Princeton’s investment strategy with the University Board of Trustees, left the University relatively unscathed. By all accounts, Tilghman’s calm and determined resolve helped significantly to bring Princeton through the storm.

Tilghman has, throughout her tenure, steadfastly emphasized the importance of fostering and furthering scientific education and discovery at Princeton. A distinguished molecular biologist in her own right, Tilghman has also specifically worked to increase opportunities for women in science. Marked by the Steering Committee on Undergraduate Women’s Leadership, Tilghman’s ventures to foster campus equality is beginning to yield tangible results. It was just over a week ago when the ‘Prince’ reported that Mathey College had initiated a pilot program called Women of Mathey Advising Network. The establishment of a localized, University-run support group for women on campus answers one of the calls by the Steering Committee to build the connections and confidence of undergraduate women so that they might feel comfortable pursuing positions of leadership on campus. Members of sororities are rightfully riled at the prospect of freshmen losing out on opportunities of the Greek system; however, it is important to also recognize other areas of progress made on the front of expanding equal opportunity for Princeton women.

Sure, it seems evident that by not recognizing the fraternities and sororities, the University does not have the authority to regulate them, and the process of formulating the ban could have been much more transparent. However, to hint at sinister undercurrents in the motives of the president, or to accuse Shirley Tilghman of being an outright liar only serves to undermine the credibility of the aforementioned points, as well as the argument’s orators. Now nearing the end of this protracted dispute, take the time to observe how cooler heads prevailed and to appreciate the many important accomplishments of our lambasted leader.

David Will is a sophomore from Washington, D.C. He can be reached at dwill@princeton.edu.

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