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Former U. president Shirley Tilghman to co-chair NJ commission on reopening economy

Former University President Shirley Tilghman.
Sameer A. Khan / Fotobuddy via Office of Communications

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy announced on Tuesday that former University President Shirley Tilghman will co-chair a commission on the timing and process of the state’s recovery following the COVID-19 shutdown. The newly established group will work closely with Murphy’s administration. 

New Jersey has been hard hit by the pandemic. Among U.S. states, it is behind only New York in COVID-19 infection and mortality numbers. As of 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 28, New Jersey had confirmed more than 114,000 cases and upwards of 6,460 deaths.


The Restart and Recovery Commission includes experts in healthcare, business, finance, higher education policy, and economics. Among its 21 members are a number of University affiliates, including Prudential Financial CEO Charles Lowrey ’79 and former Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and former University Trustee Lisa Jackson GS ’86.

Ben Bernanke, the former Chair of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System and former chair of the University economics department, has also been named to the commission.

Kenneth Frazier, CEO of pharmaceutical company Merck and Co., will co-chair the commission with Tilghman.

“The role of the commission is to provide the best possible advice that we can to Gov. Murphy as we begin to plan for the relaxation of the sheltering order that has been in place for some time now and the steps that need to be taken to reestablish the economy in the state,” Tilghman said.

Tilghman, who served in Nassau Hall from 2001 to 2013, is also a professor of molecular biology and public policy at the University.

Jackson wrote in an email to The Daily Princetonian that she believes “a thoughtful and purposeful restart of our economy is not only essential but an opportunity to build resilience.”


“New Jersey has no shortage of talented, hardworking citizens,” she added, “and this recovery should do justice to the human and economic losses they have sustained and the sacrifices so many are making.”

Although Tilghman said she has not worked with the governor in the past, she suspects one of the reasons he selected her for the commission was her co-authorship of a March 25 op-ed that supported the governor’s stay-at-home order. The piece’s other co-authors were University professors of neuroscience Sam Wang and Sebastian Seung.

Murphy signed Executive Order No. 107, which instructed New Jersey residents to remain at home, on March 21.

“We tried as best we could to explain why the governor had made this decision and why it was so important that all of us follow his direction,” Tilghman said. “I think Gov. Murphy read it and was grateful that people were speaking out in favor of this very difficult decision he had to make.”

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Jackson wrote to the ‘Prince’ that Gov. Murphy called her personally to ask her to join the commission.

“It is because I believe he shares my values that I am happy to serve,” she wrote.

Lowrey shares Jackson’s commitment to the state’s recovery and the governor’s plans.

“I thank Gov. Murphy for his leadership and invitation to participate on this important commission,” he wrote in a statement to the ‘Prince.’ “By combining leadership and expertise from the private and public sectors, we can demonstrate the strength of the Garden State and place New Jersey at the forefront of a national recovery.”

For Murphy, this task force is about “bringing together some of the sharpest minds our state and nation have to offer,” according to Planet Princeton.

Tilghman echoed both Lowrey and Murphy, noting that “the individuals on the commission represent an immense brain trust — people coming from every imaginable industry, private and not-for-profit.”

“My role as one of the co-chairs of the commission is to elicit their expertise and their advice, then try and synthesize what all of us are saying so that we can give the governor as good advice as we possibly can,” she said, “because at the end of the day, he will be the one who makes these decisions.”

The commission will begin to hold virtual meetings immediately. Advising the governor on when to restart will be among the first orders of business, according to Planet Princeton.

When asked whether she has any estimate at this time about what the timeline for restarting will look like, Tilghman said, “That’s an easy question. Because the answer is no.”

“We don’t yet have a good estimate,” she explained. “It will depend to a very large extent on what is happening with the rate of new infections in the state. It’s very difficult to imagine beginning to relax the restrictions if the rate of new infections is as high as it is today, for example. It’s going to depend on what happens in the next week or so.”

Regarding the possibility of online learning for the University in the fall semester, Tilghman said she has no reason to know the University’s plans. “At the end of the day, it will be President Eisgruber’s decision when to reopen and what that reopening will look like,” she added.

Although the safe restart of society will be the immediate issue on the commission’s table, they are also responsible for evaluating the long-term economic issues at play, as well as public health, workforce, and transportation implications.

From the Planet Princeton report, state officials noted that the commission will develop strategies for how the state and federal government can support the economic recovery of the private sector and identify pockets of critical need for federal intervention. According to these officials, while advising on “potential investments… to position New Jersey’s economy for long term success,” the commission will also promote “equity for disadvantaged communities.”

When asked what will guide her in advising the governor on these goals, Jackson wrote that she has dedicated her career to protecting human health and the environment.

“I have always believed that you do not have to choose between a healthy environment and a strong economy,” she wrote. “I am also guided by a commitment to ensuring there is fairness and equity so that communities that have suffered most are not left out.”

For Lowrey, this is a moment of optimism and hope: “New Jersey’s road back starts today.”