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From lab to leadership: Shirley Tilghman reflects on her journey as University president

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

After University President Harold Shapiro announced he was stepping down in 2001, Shirley Tilghman joined the presidential search committee, representing the natural sciences. A professor of molecular biology, Tilghman wanted to make sure a new president would support the new genomics institute that she was working to establish.

One day, Tilghman left a search committee meeting to give a lecture.

“The chair of the committee later took me aside and said, ‘while you were gone, we all decided you should be a candidate,’” Tilghman recalled.

Committed to her teaching and research, Tilghman said she had not considered an administrative role — let alone University presidency. But in learning about the president’s role in serving on the search committee, Tilghman saw that “this could be one of the most intellectually enriching jobs I could ever have.”

Shirley Tilghman went on to become the 19th president of Princeton University and the first woman to ever hold the position. During her tenure from 2001 to 2013, Tilghman focused on developing the science and arts programs, expanding financial aid, and promoting gender equality. Now, Tilghman serves on the Amherst Board of Trustees and the Harvard Corporation, which was involved in the high-profile resignation of Harvard President Claudine Gay, the first Black woman in the position. Just over a decade after her retirement from the University presidency, Tilghman sat down with The Daily Princetonian to reflect on her leadership and the current landscape of leadership in higher education.

‘I knew this is what I wanted to do with my life’: Combining science and education

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From a young age, Tilghman knew that she wanted to be a scientist. She explored mathematics and chemistry early in her college education, before a fascination with DNA replication ultimately drew her to the field of molecular biology. She earned a bachelor’s of science degree from Queen’s University in 1968 and her Ph.D. in biochemistry at Temple University. Tilghman spent much of her career exploring the genome and the process of embryo growth, serving as a professor of molecular biology for 15 years at the University prior to her appointment as president, and as founding director of the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics and the chair of Princeton’s Council on Science and Technology.

“I was a late arrival to the brand new field of molecular biology. But once I discovered it, I knew this is what I wanted to do with my life,” Tilghman explained.

When Tilghman began her journey as a scientist in the late 1960s, there were substantially fewer women in the sciences than today. However, she says she did not feel at a disadvantage — both during her work in molecular biology and later in her presidency. “I was raised in a family where my father, in particular, taught me to believe that I could do anything I wanted,” Tilghman said, “and so that gave me a fair amount of self-confidence.”

While serving as an undergraduate teaching assistant at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and later as a high school teacher in Sierra Leone, West Africa, Tilghman discovered a love of teaching. 

“I knew I wanted a career in academia, where I could combine science — which was my real passion — with education,” Tilghman said. “My most memorable moments in teaching are watching a student’s face light up, when suddenly they see and understand something that looked very complicated, or maybe boring, to them before.”

Robert Durkee ’69, who served as the University Vice President and Secretary during Tilghman’s presidency, remembers her way of engaging with students proved quite effective — which sometimes included taking to the field.

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“One of my favorite stories is that she realized in one of her courses she was teaching, she had a lot of lacrosse players,” Durkee said in an interview with the ‘Prince.’ “She decided that, if she was going to teach them biology, they should teach her lacrosse. And so, she learned a lot about lacrosse, went to their games, and became an avid lacrosse fan.”

Tilghman’s tenure: Gender equality, science, and the arts

Tilghman’s administration oversaw two initiatives to promote gender equality on campus: one among the student leadership, and the other among faculty.

In particular, the Steering Committee on Undergraduate Women’s Leadership, chaired by former Visiting Professor in Public Affairs and the University Center of Human Values Nannerl Keohane found an underrepresentation of women in “high-profile” leadership positions for campus organizations, such as the Undergraduate Student Government, The Daily Princetonian, and the University’s eating clubs. The report found that female students tended to take on high-impact roles that were “behind the scenes,” opting for secretary or treasurer roles rather than president. Ultimately, the committee reported cohesive recommendations to address these patterns, including broad encouragement for leadership in both men and women and practical steps to strengthen existing programs and opportunities.

“I’ve been noticing in the years that I’ve not been in Nassau Hall any longer, how often women are leading the student government, how often they are editors-in-chief of The Daily Princetonian, and are becoming the senior officers of eating clubs, and so on,” Tilghman said. “I think this was an effort that actually paid huge dividends over the long term.”

Tilghman’s own field, the sciences, also lacked in gender equity. While the ratio of women to men in the undergraduate student body was roughly equal, female representation at the faculty level in many sciences was not as strong. Tilghman’s administration looked to improve the conditions for female faculty members in creating the Task Force on the Status of Women Faculty in the Natural Sciences and Engineering.

Tilghman was also dedicated to supporting the early careers of young scientists, which had intersectional effects on gender equality as well. As she noted in a Last Lecture event on May 2, in the 80s and 90s, a decline in funding for biomedical medicine caused much of the remaining resources to be concentrated in the hands of senior members of the field, who were also mostly men.

“One of the most important things in any field, and this is certainly true of science, is that you need to be sure that there is a constant infusion of new young people into the field,” Tilghman said during the lecture. “I think one of the things that I feel very proud of is that I chaired not one, not two, but three different national studies into this phenomenon. The federal agencies that support science — unless they were really paying attention to what was happening to the youngest people in the field — were going to very quickly find themselves with a workforce that was aging.”

The one thing Tilghman knew she wanted to do even before becoming President was to establish Princeton’s presence in the field of neuroscience.

“I knew that we had to build the faculty and neuroscience [department], because just as molecular biology was probably the most impactful science in the second half of the 20th century, I strongly believed that neuroscience was going to have that role in the 21st century,” Tilghman said.

Despite the absence of a medical school on campus, the push for neuroscience ultimately culminated in the founding of the Princeton Neuroscience Institute. Tilghman also advanced the creation of other engineering buildings, such as the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment and the Lewis Science Library. Today, new spaces for the sciences continue to emerge with the construction of the new School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and Environmental Sciences buildings.

However, Tilghman’s focus was not restricted to solely science and engineering. According to Tilghman, only a few days after she was named president, a student “stormed into” her office and demanded that she “do something about the arts.”

“One of the critical roles of a president is to critically assess the strengths and weaknesses of the University,” Tilghman noted. “It did not take deep insight for me to realize that we were massively undeserving the student body with respect to the creative and performing arts.”

Tilghman spearheaded one the biggest efforts to expand the University’s arts programs with the construction of the Lewis Center for the Arts (LCA) with the support of a $101 million gift from Peter B. Lewis ’55 in 2006. The LCA provided new opportunities for students formally studying the arts and those involved in arts participation such as dance and a cappella.

In the eyes of Stanley Katz, a lecturer with the rank of Professor in the School of Public and International Affairs who has been at Princeton since 1978, the LCA was a great success for arts participation. Katz currently serves as the founder and director of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies and is President Emeritus of the American Council of Learned Societies.

“When I got here, and for a long time, the University had been struggling to provide a greater artistic opportunity,” Katz said. “It was her idea, as I understand it, that if we made these opportunities available, Princeton would become a more attractive place for creative undergraduates. I would say it’s her signature program.”

Katz said he knew Tilghman to be an active enjoyer of the arts herself. Katz and his wife went to all of the Princeton University Orchestra concerts, and they spotted Tilghman in attendance each time.

“We used to sit up in the balcony where she sat, and she was a very faithful member of the audience,” Katz recalled.

Passing the torch

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“[Tilghman, as a Canadian] wasn’t initially very familiar with the way we train undergraduates in this country,” Katz noted. “She probably recognized that it would be valuable to have someone helping govern the University who had been an undergraduate here and is deeply imbued with what that experience is all about.”

During her presidency, Tilghman worked closely with the current President Christopher Eisgruber ’83, who at the time served as University Provost for nine years.

One notable initiative that came out of Tilghman and Eisgruber’s conversations was the Novogratz Bridge Year Program, a program in which admitted students engage in a tuition-free cultural learning experience in one of six international locations for nine months before coming to Princeton.

“Universities don’t necessarily work very well when ideas come from the top and they’re executed below. They usually work the best when they’re coming from below and work up,” Tilghman said. “But the Bridge Year program was one of those examples where President Eisgruber and I felt strongly about how important it was for students to engage with the world.”

Despite reports of discrimination experienced by students abroad, Durkee affirmed the success of the program in his book “The New Princeton Companion,” citing that many Bridge Year alumni later take on leadership roles and other positions like Young Alumni Trustees or Pyne Prize winners. Additionally, Durkee noted that Tilghman had made many international visits as a part of her effort to increase global reach, with Tilghman being the first University president to make a presidential visit to South America.

In addition, Tilghman started the expansion of financial aid that has been at the center of Eisgruber’s leadership. One of the biggest financial challenges faced by the University during Tilghman’s time — and the United States as a whole — was the Great Recession of 2008. At the time, the Tilghman administration had cut back on almost all areas of the budget, except financial aid. 

Not only was financial aid preserved from budget cuts, it was increased further to support the students whose family circumstances had changed. Later, during Eisgruber’s presidency in 2022, the University announced that students whose family income was under $100,000 will receive full financial support, and in 2023, the percentage of Pell eligible students increased to 22 percent.

“The only way we can justify the wealth of Princeton is to make it accessible,” Tilghman said.

The ‘complicated issue’ of grade deflation

While many of Tilghman’s initiatives have been regarded as successful, the 2004 grade deflation policy — which asked departments to give less than 35 percent of students in courses an A-level grade — is among the most controversial policies of her tenure.

“It’s a complicated issue,” Tilghman told the ‘Prince.’ “At the time, the grading policies at Princeton were deeply unfair, particularly to students in the sciences and engineering. In the sciences, the answer is usually either right or it's wrong — it’s unambiguous. But an essay on Dante can be much harder to judge in a highly rigorous and quantitative way.”

Katz, recounting his experiences in the humanities and social sciences, agreed.

“Grade inflation was almost entirely in the humanities and social sciences. Engineers and hard scientists kept giving real grades. People in English, in Romance languages, and history did not,” Katz said. “Those were the students who felt they got hurt. So it wasn't a policy that hit all faculty and all students identically.”

“There were a lot of good reasons to try to change [grade inflation], to make grades more meaningful, more reflective of student accomplishment,” Katz added. “But it turned out it was not so easy to do.”

Many students voiced strong opposition to Tilghman’s grade deflation policy. In 2009, one student wrote in a ‘Prince’ op-ed that the competitive nature of the policy has harmful psychological effects, effectively turning the academic sphere into a “modern-day gladiator arena” that was “making us into monsters.”

Despite student criticism that the policy put students at a disadvantage when applying for jobs and graduate school, Tilghman said the University found no conclusive evidence to support the perceived disadvantage.

Still, under Eisgruber, the University removed numerical targets for letter grades, effectively overturning the grade deflation policy in 2014.

Tilghman added that even today, the University includes a statement on every student’s transcript explaining the grading policy from 2004 to 2014 to inform admissions offices and employers.

‘To thread the needle between safety versus free speech’: Tilghman on the current landscape of higher education

Tilghman stepped down from the University presidency in 2013 after over a decade of leadership. Using the words of her colleague Keohane — Tilghman described the presidential experience as “standing in front of a carousel.” The first year was like an astonishing experience where every development and policy came like a brand new horse, but as time went on, she realized she “recognized the horses” each time they came around, which meant it was time for “a fresh pair of eyes to take a hard and cold look at Princeton.” 

“I have, over the years, created an agenda of things I wanted to accomplish at Princeton,” Tilghman said at her Last Lecture. “I don’t for a minute tell you that I accomplished them all, but I accomplished a lot of them.”

After stepping down from the University presidency in 2013, Tilghman returned to the Department of Molecular Biology as a professor, leading a course titled “Modern Genetics and Public Policy,” which was last taught in Spring 2022. While Tilghman no longer wanted to run another large institution, she was still passionate about science and higher education.

Today, she serves on several advisory boards related to genetics and molecular biology, in addition to her voluntary membership on the Harvard Corporation and the Amherst Board of Trustees.

“These boards are often composed of people who know nothing about running a University, who come out of the legal profession, who come out of corporate America,” Tilghman said. “Often, what they need is someone on the board to explain the peculiarities of the way in which universities run, as opposed to the way a corporation runs.”

Given her role on the Harvard and Amherst boards, Tilghman is still deeply involved in the current landscape of higher education. During the resignation of President Gay at Harvard, the Harvard Corporation expressed support for Gay despite the public outcry over her December congressional testimony on anti-Semitism at Harvard and accusations of plagiarism.

“There has been criticism of American higher education coming from both the left and right. I think some of it is deserved. I think some of it is not,” Tilghman said in reference to the current higher education landscape. “But if we are not working tirelessly to bring higher education back into as positive a public view as possible, then I think we’re at risk of losing something truly precious about the United States.”

Scrutiny over higher education has been amplified due to the pro-Palestine encampments and protests on college campuses across the country, including the recently concluded “Gaza Solidarity Encampment” at Princeton. 

“I think the only time I would say it is comparable were the kinds of protests that we saw back in the late 60s and early 70s, around the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War,” Tilghman said. “I think it’s extraordinarily challenging for these leaders to thread the needle between safety versus free speech.”

Tilghman explained, “I am a firm supporter of what are called the Kalven Principles, which basically say that academic leaders should only speak out on issues that have direct relevance to the teaching and research mission of the universities.” The Kalven Principles originated at the University of Chicago and were officially adopted by the faculty at Princeton in 2015.

This approach is motivated by the impact of institutional speech on free speech. “On issues where there are two sides to the debate, no matter what you say, you’re going to alienate and potentially suppress speech on campus,” Tilghman said, “and it’s the suppression of speech that is the most problematic because universities are a place for debate — they’re not a place for issuing edicts.

The core difficulty surrounding institutional speech are the cases in which it is unclear whether a certain issue is directly related to the institution’s mission or not.

“And I think that’s where great judgment comes in,” Tilghman said. “You can’t make a hard and fast rule that makes it easy. There are going to be times when it’s tough to figure this out.”

“It’s enormously challenging for these leaders to balance free speech and the right to protest, which is sacrosanct in our institutions, against the need to preserve and protect the safety of members of the communities, students, faculty, staff, everyone. We’re right now seeing the tension between those two,” she added.

‘We want to be judged as a president’: Reflecting on her legacy

“There is no question that when I was first appointed president, there was a lot of conversation about the fact that I was the first woman to lead,” Tilghman said.

But that wasn’t the only historic label associated with her leadership. She was the first scientist to be named University president and the second female president of an Ivy League institution. Tilghman also broke the long-standing tradition of Princeton-educated presidents, and it was unprecedented to go from professor to president without prior administrative experience. 

When asked about how she felt about these labels being a part of her legacy, Tilghman referenced conversations she had with other early female Ivy League presidents. 

“What we all agreed on is that we can’t deny that we were the first,” Tilghman said. “But in the end, we want to be watched, not as a woman president — we want to be judged as a president. We wanted that distinction to slip away as people got more and more used to seeing women in leadership roles, and that we be judged in the same way that you would judge a male president.”

Coco Gong is a Features staff writer for the ‘Prince.’

Please send any corrections to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.

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