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U. presidents, past and present, reflect on their time in office

Two former University presidents, Shirley Tilghman and Harold Shapiro GS ’64, joined University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 in a lecture on Thursday to reflect on their times leading the University and provide life lessons to the graduating class of 2017.

The presidents' conversation covered topics including the role of the University president, suggestions to improve the University, and personal moments of self-doubt and uncertainty.


Shapiro explained that running a University is a unique experience — one that is not analogous to running a large corporation.

“It's like being a general partner at a law firm,” he said. “You need to do whatever you can so that the students and faculty do what they need to do.”

Tilghman noted that being the University president entails being the public face of the University, and so the president has to deeply believe in what the University is doing and articulate it well. However, it is also important for the president to be deeply critical of the University, she said.

“The president has to be the University's biggest fan and also her biggest critic,” Tilghman said. “One of the greatest risks that an institution like Princeton faces … is that you begin to believe your own propaganda.”

She added that the president needs to determine how the University can improve, and this has to be viewed as a long-term endeavor.

When asked about advice for graduating students, Tilghman said that there is one thing that she said to the graduating class every year during commencement ceremonies.


“Aim high and be bold, don't be afraid to take risks, don’t be afraid to try something that doesn't have to be a decision that's going to determine the rest of your life,” she said. “I want some of you to take opportunities to smell the flowers … take some time to reflect and enjoy.”

Eisgruber said that his advice to graduating students is to set aside one hour and privately write on a sheet of paper what they genuinely care about and what matters in life. He explained that it is worthwhile to revisit this write-up, and he said that this exercise can have a huge impact in overcoming stereotypes, citing research presented in Claude Steele’s “Whistling Vivaldi.”

“You need to know when to walk away from an opportunity,” Eisgruber said. “Know what you stand for,” he added.

The president’s talk took place as part of the Last Lectures series. The event took place at 2 p.m. on May 11 in McCosh 50.

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