Thriving in the presidency

Jennifer Greenstein Altmann

After nearly one year at the helm, Tilghman finds her job consuming -- and exhilarating


President Tilghman in a rare moment of repose.

Princeton NJ -- In Shirley M. Tilghman's first year as president of Princeton University, she could be found discussing new uses for computers with 100 members of the Office of Information Technology, teasing retiring Humanities Council Chair Alexander Nehamas at a reception in his honor, listening to a graduate student defend his thesis in molecular biology and examining crisis management at a con-ference convened by Gov. James McGreevey about critical infrastructures. And that was just during one week in April.

Those events are typical of the enormous range of subjects with which Tilghman is involved as president. Her jam-packed schedule (see "A day in the life") fills each of her days with the same exhilaration that she found in science.

"The biggest surprise is how much I love the job," said Tilghman in an interview looking back on her first year in office. "I spent the first 25 years of my professional life saying that nothing could be more fun than science. But I have now had to revise that statement, because I have found something that is just as exciting and challenging and rewarding, and that gives me personal satisfaction to the same extent as what I was doing as a professor."

Tilghman was selected last May as Princeton's 19th president after serving on the molecular biology faculty since 1986. Her first year has been marked by some key accomplishments. She drew several major academic heavyweights to the Princeton faculty. She assembled her new leadership team, appointing Amy Gutmann as provost and filling several other top-level positions. She worked to attract a $30 million donation from Meg Whitman '77 for the new residential college and a $60 million donation from Peter Lewis '55 for a new science library. And just as she was start-ing her first academic year, she thoughtfully responded to the enormous and unanticipated challenge of the Sept. 11 tragedy and the anthrax scare.

She also took actions that demonstrated her administration's priorities. She accelerated the timetable for raising the wages of the University's lower paid workers, and she created a task force to develop a long-term strategy to attract and retain talented women faculty in the natural sciences and engineering.


A day in the life

Princeton NJ -- President Tilghman's typical day is filled with a broad range of activities involving a wide variety of people. Here is her schedule for Thursday, April 18.

8:30 a.m.   Gives an 80-minute lecture to the 240 students in "Introduction to Cellular and Molecular Biology"

10 a.m.   Meets with Provost Amy Gutmann

11 a.m.   Makes phone calls and answers e-mails

11:30 a.m.   Delivers welcoming remarks at a Building Services luncheon, which honored the 235 employees who provide janitorial and other support services at Princeton

Noon   Attends meeting of the Academic Planning Group, which assembles weekly to review issues related to academic life

1:30 p.m.   Goes to Small World Coffee with James Trussell, acting dean of the Woodrow Wilson School

2 p.m.   Holds office hours for students

3 p.m.   Makes a phone call to a candidate for a dean's position

3:30 p.m.   Meets with a faculty delegation to discuss a candidate for recruitment

4:30 p.m.   Attends a lecture by Irish poet Seamus Heaney titled "'Hellenize It': Poets, Poems, Predicaments in Greece and Ireland"

6 p.m.   Makes phone calls and answers e-mail

7 p.m.   Hosts a buffet dinner at Lowrie House for the participants in a scientific symposium and their families

She has been highly visible outside the University, meeting with high school students in Washington, D.C., Chicago and Los Angeles to talk about the excitement of science. At Los Angeles' King-Drew Magnet High School of Medicine and Science, students peppered Tilghman with questions about the links between genes and diseases. One student said Tilghman's visit had prompted her to want to learn more about DNA and other genetic issues.

Tilghman's visits with alumni in nine U.S. cities garnered huge turnouts: 800 alumni in San Francisco, 300 in St. Louis, 650 in Philadelphia and 1,000 in New York City. "The outpouring of support was incredible," said Margaret Miller, director of the Alumni Council. "Alumni are very enthusiastic about her and excited about the things she's already accomplished."

Tilghman also is beginning to play a role in educational issues in New Jersey. McGreevey selected her to co-chair Prosperity New Jersey, which will work to improve the relationship of the state's educational institutions with business, state government and local communities.

Staying current with science

In addition to carrying out her duties as president, Tilghman has spent Fridays during the last academic year at her laboratory, meeting with students and postdoctoral fellows to review their research and suggest new directions. And she co-taught an introductory molecular biology course for 240 undergraduates (see "For Tilghman, there's a science to the presidency" on page 5).

She also has engaged students in less formal settings, chatting with a couple of dozen at an informal breakfast at Lowrie House, holding open office hours about once a week and sharing Thanksgiving dinner with several international students, along with family members and some friends. She has eaten lunch at every residential college, dined at eating clubs, taken in her share of lacrosse and basketball games and even made a surprise appearance at the Katzenjammers' quadrennial jamboree this fall. "It appealed to the ham in me," Tilghman said.

"She's been on the move seven days a week, right from the moment that she took over the presidency," said Thomas Wright, the University's vice president and secretary. "She seems to be tireless."

Last summer she made it a priority to meet with large numbers of staff and faculty members in senior and junior positions. "I wanted to find out what they were working on, what they thought needed improvement and what their aspirations were for their departments," Tilghman said.

Cultivating faculty

One of her main concerns in the coming years will be "making sure that young scholars are allowed to blossom and helped to blossom here. Mentoring young faculty is a very high priority for me," she said.

Attracting prominent scholars to the faculty, including Anthony Appiah, Cornel West, Chang-rae Lee, Marina Brownlee and Daphne Brooks, was one of the highlights of her first year, Tilghman said. "Not only are they great scholars, but they are people who have the capacity to come and be true presences on the campus and make a difference," she said. "They will make our extraordinary faculty even better."

The president said she was surprised that she has spent as much time retaining current faculty as attracting new faculty. "We're a target because we have such an exceptional faculty," she said. "We need to be aggressive in our efforts to hold on to them and make sure that conditions to work here are truly optimal."

Tilghman also has singled out Princeton's staff as "a very high priority" for her administration. "We often say how proud we are that we offer the finest undergraduate education, and we often point to academic departments as the best in the world," she said. "I think we should be able to point to our staff and say it is the best staff in the country, and that this is the best-run university in the country. It's terribly important that people see Princeton as a terrific place to work." (For more of Tilghman's remarks about the staff and other topics, see "Big or small," page 5.)

A good deal of Tilghman's time this year was devoted to appointing a senior vice president for administration, a vice president for development and a general counsel, as well as replacing several deans. Robert Rawson Jr., chair of the Board of Trustees' Executive Committee, said she has assembled a strong team of administrators. "Shirley has laid the groundwork for substantial progress in the years ahead," he said.

Easygoing and accessible

Many who have interacted with her said that Tilghman's leadership style is easygoing and accessible. Oscar Smith Sr., the Dining Services unit manager of the Center for Jewish Life, found Tilghman friendly and down to earth when she joined students at the center for a Shabbat dinner in February.

"I was elated to have the opportunity to meet her," Smith said. "Before she left, she came to the kitchen. I thought that was really nice, that she took some time before she left to tell the workers that she enjoyed the meal."

"She's a very approachable president," said Anthony Grafton, the Henry Putnam University Professor of History. "You see her in Small World getting her coffee."

Tilghman also met with dozens of student groups during the year. She accepted an invitation from junior Abby Corson-Rikert to have dinner at the Brown Co-op, a kitchen and dining room on the second floor of Brown Hall where 25 students share cooking duties. "She was very engaging, and seemed interested in what we had to say," said Corson-Rikert.

Junior Robert Accordino has developed a friendship with Tilghman that started when he sent her an e-mail at the beginning of the school year. She attended the Tigertones benefit concert he organized at Lincoln Center last November -- "she was cheering in the second row!" -- and so enjoyed a student performance of "The Magic Flute" in which he starred as Papageno that she has a photograph of him and the other lead performers hanging over her desk. "What has struck me is that she's so interested in student life issues," he said. "She's made Princeton feel warmer and smaller than it ever did."

And she's been eager to hear new ideas and suggestions from members of the University community. Last fall she inaugurated the President's Lecture Series, which brings together faculty members from different disciplines to learn about each other's work, at the suggestion of Professor of Economics Alan Krueger.

"She's extremely responsive, and she's a very good listener," said Krueger, who sent her a memo outlining the idea last summer. "She has really assumed the role very well and very quickly, and energized the University."

Joe Kochan '02, who got to know Tilghman when he served as president of the Undergraduate Student Government, said she shows a keen interest in other people's views. "I was always amazed at how willing the president was to consider everything that was being said -- and not just out of politeness or duty, but to really take in and process what people were telling her, and then to make a connection between all the issues and how they play out on campus," he said.

Her personal touch mattered a great deal this year when it came to faculty recruitment. "I think it's one of the most valuable things I can do for the University -- help the faculty recruit -- so I never turn down a request to do that," Tilghman said. "Often one phone call (from the president) saying, 'We really want you to come' can make a difference."

Memorable moments

One of the memorable moments this year for Tilghman was the gift of $30 million toward the construction of a new residential college from Meg Whitman, president and chief executive officer of eBay Inc.

"Having an alumna who has been so successful so young be willing to give back at that level -- and having the first big new thing of my administration named after a woman -- was just an incredible experience," Tilghman said.

Some of the other highlights from her first year were special moments for the whole campus. Her installation last fall as president and the party afterward on Weaver Track and Field Stadium were "utterly magical," she said. Listening to Toni Morrison "speak to the dead" at the memorial service on Cannon Green a few days after Sept. 11 "was a moment that I'll never forget," said Tilghman.

And she recalled the way she felt at last year's P-rade, that pageant of Princeton alumni from the old guard to the senior class. "The president has this incredible perspective of being on a reviewing stand and seeing the generations go by, and it's absolutely moving," Tilghman said.

As she gets ready to watch the first seniors of her administration walk through FitzRandolph Gate at commencement, Tilghman is thinking about what she can accomplish in the future for Princeton. "Now that I have completed the important job of recruiting eight new members of the senior administration, we are ready to begin the careful process of outlining our goals for the future," she said.

See related articles
President enjoys making things happen whether big or small (Q&A)
For Tilghman, there's a science to the presidency

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