look at Princeton's president's first year
On a relatively calm morning in July, before the admission story
broke, PAW's associate editor, Kathryn Federici Greenwood, sat down
with President Tilghman to look back at her first year in office
and look ahead to her goals for Princeton's future. A story based
on this interview appears in our September 11 issue.
PAW: What has surprised you about being president and your responsibilities?
Tilghman: The thing that has surprised me more than anything else
about the job is how much I have enjoyed it. It wasn't simply that
I didn't think I would enjoy it. But the extent to which I enjoy
it has really surprised me.
PAW: What is it that you have enjoyed?
Tilghman: It's a large number of things. It has to do with how
intellectually challenging the job is. I don't think that I had
anticipated that. It has been simply fascinating to learn about
the complexity of the issues that come into this office, to begin
to learn about academic areas that I knew nothing about, and to
learn about some of the administrative sides of the university that
I really knew almost nothing about.
The other component is how much I have enjoyed being an enabler.
Because I think that is one of the primary jobs of the president
is to find ways to make things happen for other people. And that
has just been intensely enjoyable.
PAW: I read about how you helped the Princeton rowers who wanted
to try out for the Canadian National Team but didn't have any money
to travel to the tryouts.
Tilghman: It was a relatively simple matter to put them in touch.
I couldn't solve their problem but what I could do was put them
in touch with someone who might be able to solve their problem.
And as it turned out, Jo Johnson in development was able to solve
PAW: Have there been any ways in which you weren't prepared for
the challenges you face as president?
Tilghman: The most difficult thing this year has been learning
when I need to drill down into a problem and really understand the
details and there are problems where it is very important
that you drill down and understand the details. But just as often
there are problems that you should be prepared to let someone else
take the responsibility of doing the drilling down.
The hardest thing for me has been that in science there are no
problems like the latter. In other words, the answer in science
is always to drill down. You should always know as much as you can
about the subject that you are thinking through. More is better
is always the case in science. In administration, it's not possible.
And the hardest thing has been understanding which kind of problem
PAW: What are the most important things you do as president: is
it retaining faculty?
Tilghman: This past year was dominated by making new appointments
in both the faculty and administration. I was counting up the other
day as a result of that New York Times article, how many senior-level
appointments we have made this year and it's been 10. Meaning deans,
vice-presidents, and directors senior-level positions. It's
extremely rare, thank heaven, that a year would have that many.
It's an enormous job, but it's also been a great opportunity to
put a team in place that is new and excited about the challenges
and that I've been able to choose myself.
But coming back to your original question about surprises: One
of the biggest surprises is how much time I spend working on faculty
development. It's actually very enjoyable because it's given me
a chance to meet some of our faculty that I didn't know before I
became president. And I now have a much better sense of the new
faculty who are coming in because I've actually met them.
PAW: I would imagine a lot of the development and retention of
faculty doesn't have to do with salary?
Tilghman: It isn't money in the end that is usually the critical
issue. The critical issue is the intellectual environment and really
finding out from people what it is that they want in their work
environment what kinds of interactions they want with their
colleagues, students, and with Nassau Hall and so on. And there
are times when we can accommodate them and there are times when
we cannot accommodate them. And we just have to be honest about
PAW: What is your vision of where Princeton will be in five to
Tilghman: That is something that I am still resisting making large
pronouncements about. I think that when you and I met last year,
I said that I'm going to spend the year learning. And what I'm spending
the summer doing is reflecting on what I've learned. I could certainly
say in the broadest terms that I don't see a fundamental change
in the next five to 10 years in Princeton's overall goal.
I think we continue to believe that we are the best undergraduate
teaching-research university in the country, and our focus on education
is one of the things that distinguishes us from many of the universities
we are compared to. I don't see that changing. I think that is our
great strength. And we have to sustain it.
Because of our reputation, it gives us an opportunity to begin
to help all of higher education think about what good teaching is
and think about what are the ingredients of a great education, how
should education be delivered in the new technological world. I
don't think there is a university in this country that has a clear
vision of how technology is going to transform the process of education.
I would like to think that Princeton could be one of the places
where the solution to that question is constantly evolving. I don't
think there will be an answer obviously. But we have enormously
talented students, an enormously talented, dedicated faculty. And
I hope that one of the things that we will do in the next few years
is challenge ourselves to ask, Are we teaching as well as we should?
How effective are our large lecture classes? Are our precepts as
good as they should be? Do the scientific laboratories fulfill any
pedagogical purpose anymore? I think we are uniquely positioned
to ask those questions.
PAW: How about your immediate goals for the next year or so?
Tilghman: Two things that are clearly going to be under discussion
this coming year are the conclusions of the Task Force on the Hiring
and Retention of Women in Science and Engineering. This is a group
that has been meeting all year. They have conducted a very large
survey. Not just of current faculty, but faculty who have left over
the past 10 years. They now have the data and are analyzing it this
summer and will be preparing the report over the fall. And I'm very
much looking forward to that report and what I hope will be interesting
The other area where there have been a group of faculty thinking
about the future is a group, chaired by Sheldon Garon in history,
that has been thinking through how we structure the study of other
countries international relations broadly construed. This
group met all spring term and have now just given me a very preliminary
report of their conclusions. And we are going to spend some time
this fall reviewing those, probably bringing in an outside group
to help us think through. And then with the new dean of the Woodrow
Wilson School, who will obviously play a very important role in
this, ask whether we can in fact improve the study of international
issues more effectively at the university.
It will affect a lot of departments and programs. We have programs
in the Near East, in Russian studies, in Latin America, and each
one of these has in a way been struggling to encourage the study
of all of those areas within the curriculum. And then of course
we have a completely different set of faculty whose focus is not
on any individual region but on broad issues that would encompass
any region about how countries interact with each other,
how diplomacy works. And getting those groups more integrated with
one another I think is a large goal for the coming year.
PAW: Did the events of 9/11 change your thoughts about Princeton's
role in the 21st century?
Tilghman: September 11 had a really profound impact on everyone's
thinking about the general issue of globalization. The world after
9/11 felt both like a smaller place and a scarier place. But I suspect
this issue about how do you organize the study of the world would
have arisen in any case but 9/11 created a sense of urgency
that we do something about it this year and not next year or the
year after. One of the most telling things that I read immediately
after September 11 is that there was not a single university in
this country that taught the language spoken in Afghanistan. That's
a truly surprising, shocking fact. And we do better than most universities
in terms of the diversity of languages that we teach.
PAW: Is Princeton looking at trying to increase the number of
Muslim students and scholars or develop more relations with universities
in the Muslim world?
Tilghman: Not yet. No, we have a very large number of foreign
students overall in the university, and we think it's a very good
thing that we do. Nine to 10 percent of the undergraduate student
body comes from foreign countries. The percentage in the graduate
school is much higher, in the 40 to 50 percent range if I remember
right. So have we specifically targeted the Muslim world? No. And
it will be increasingly hard to do that because of restrictions
on student visas that have now been imposed by the INS.
PAW: You've said you see yourself sometime in the future speaking
out to influence public policy. How do you see yourself doing that?
Tilghman: David Baltimore, who's the president of Cal Tech, and
I have written an op-ed piece on stem cells. So certainly the way
I feel about this is that I think it's important that you choose
your issues to be things you are you are knowledgeable about and
also things you want to spend time on. Every hour that I am not
spending on Princeton business is precious time and it better be
something that's important, that I can make a contribution to, and
something that I care about it.
PAW: Last year you met with a lot of faculty members and departments.
Were there any issues raised during those meetings that you will
Tilghman: One of the most important issues that came out of those
discussions was my own appreciation for the chronic problem of how
students distribute across the curriculum. We get departments such
as English and history and politics and economics that get a grossly
disproportionate share of majors. And then we have absolutely extraordinary
departments in terms of faculty quality like astrophysics and Slavic
languages, Germanic languages, where they get fewer than we would
One of the things that the academic planning group has been doing
for this entire year is having small meetings with chairs, talking
about what challenges departments face on both sides of the ledger
in managing these very large numbers of students or trying to attract
more students. Broadly speaking when we look forward to 2006
when we begin the increase in the size of the student body
we should be thinking about how to do that in such a way that we
are more evenly taking advantage of the extraordinary talent of
the faculty. Can the economics department tolerate another 10 percent?
It can't. There aren't enough people as it is.
PAW: So how are the departments thinking about better distributing
students across the curriculum? Do you start at admissions?
Tilghman: I think there is some progress you can make in admissions.
We have a number of initiatives that have been going on over the
last couple of years that have already shown real progress. But
you can also make progress in the freshman year. You don't
actually decide [on your major] until the end of your sophomore
year. But if you haven't taken any physics in your first year, the
likelihood that you're going to be a physics major is pretty slim.
So getting better freshman advising, getting the feeder classes
in those departments where we really want to increase enrollment
to be more sensitive to the student on the fence, getting your best
teachers into your freshman classes, for example, [will help].
PAW: You've mentioned that one concern you have is that junior
faculty be allowed to blossom. Why haven't they been able to blossom
in some departments?
Tilghman: I think it's a couple of things. I think being very
conscious of the work load of the junior faculty member, being very
conscious of their having time to establish their scholarly reputation.
We don't allow much time, only five years. And if someone as a junior
faculty member is taking on a disproportionate share of teaching
and advising, it's a recipe that that person will not flourish.
But I think it is things like mentoring, giving faculty good advice
on how to organize your scholarly work.
Mentoring can be things such as making sure that the junior faculty
are being invited to other universities to give colloquia, are attending
the right meetings, are meeting the right people, so that their
work is really well known by the time they are being considered
We had a chairs meeting this year where we asked some of the chairs
who have very good records with junior faculty to just talk about
what they do and how they go about it. And I think it stimulated
other departments to think about new ways of thinking about the
PAW: Are any departments or programs at the end of their life
Tilghman: It's almost a truism in academia that it's much easier
to initiate something that it is to terminate it. Joe Taylor [dean
of the faculty] and Amy Gutmann [provost] and I are going to devote
an entire day in August to reviewing all programs and to look for
ones that are clearly moribund, whose continued existence is only
on paper. And to do a review to see if there are places where we
could trim down, because things do have natural lives and we should
PAW: Are you looking to expand any departments?
Tilghman: One of the institutes that we have been examining this
past year is the Princeton Materials Institute. The notion that
we really needed to give it some thought was brought about when
[director] Tony Evans resigned last fall. And it was an opportunity
for us to think through the future of PMI, and to think about it's
relationship to several other large research programs in the engineering
school such as the Center for Photonics and Optoelectronic Materials
[POEM]. So in true academic tradition, we formed a group cochaired
by Stephen Forrest and Bob Cava, who met for most of the spring
semester and produced a report that makes recommendations for how
to reinvigorate PMI and to begin to merge the interests of POEM
and PMI. And that will be something in the fall that we will be
working on hopefully with Jim Sturm, who is acting dean of engineering,
and with Dean Klawe as well.
PAW: You also spent lots of time last year meeting with students.
Have you learned anything that you didn't know already about their
Tilghman: I spent a lot of time this past year with students.
And it was conscious. I did it on purpose I had office hours
as Harold [Shapiro] did. I had lunch in the residential colleges
and dinners in the eating clubs, and I had students over to Lowrie
House as well as met them at various events when a group
of students would ask to see me I would almost always agree unless
there was a conflict. And I learned a lot from all of those conversations.
I came away reinforced in my view that we have an extraordinary
student body. Their energy level is almost frightening. And their
enthusiasm for both the things they care about as well as other
people [is astounding]. It's really heart warming.
PAW: Do you think any adjustments are needed to make student life
Tilghman: We are about to embark on a rather dramatic change to
student life, which is the introduction of the four-year college
option. That is something that we spent an enormous amount of time
thinking about this past year and that was one of the prime topics
of conversations with students. Not so much because I raised it
but because they raised it. It's clearly of intense interest to
students how we imagine the four-year option will play out.
PAW: A couple people have told me that you return their emails
within 15 minutes? How do you manage to do that?
Tilghman: Late at night. And I don't let a day go by without checking
my email. If I don't do that, I'll never catch up. I still have
400 emails that I received after I was appointed president that
I have never answered. Last summer when I went to Spain with my
family, the first thing I did was find a cafÈ that had Internet
hookup. As soon as we did that then I felt calm that I had
a place I could go to in the late afternoon when everyone was having
their siestas so that I could do email.
PAW: Anther student remarked about how good it made him feel to
see you around campus as a participant in community events. I know
you did that before you become president. Did you make a point of
not letting that go?
Tilghman: In fact, I did more of it this past year. It's one of
the pleasures of the jobs going to student performances,
going to athletic events going to lectures. It's very easy
when you are in an academic department to have the world become
that department. And it's been a terrific thing as president that
I can now consider the whole intellectual and extracurricular swath
of the university as mine.
PAW: I imagine your being president and your appointment of a
number of women to top posts at Princeton would help encourage young
women and students to understand that they can get to these top
places. Do you agree? And do you have any thoughts on the impact
of these appointments?
Tilghman: I must confess that I have been taken by surprise at
how surprised people have been, including the articles in the New
York Times and Newsweek, about this. I did not set out to appoint
women. What I certainly did was put very good women on search committees
with the expectations that they would have their eyes wide open
for good women candidates. But I didn't set out with a number in
my head to appoint. And I was just delighted that so many strong
women ended up coming to the top of the list.
My goal in this is and [president] Judy Rodin at Penn and
I were talking about this, we talked about it all year in fact
no one notices the gender of a new appointment. Our goal in all
of this is to reach a place where it's not noteworthy. And if I
thought we could get there and if I thought some of the appointments
I've made at Princeton have helped us down that path, I'm very happy.
But mainly I'm happy that I've hired really terrific people who
are going to do wonderful jobs.
PAW: What would you say to alumni who think you've appointed some
of these people because they are women?
Tilghman: I've received a few letters from alumni who have complained.
And I guess my response would be to politely suggest that the university
has 250 years or so where there were few women so there's a lot
of ground to be made up here. I think the most important issue is
to look at the student body. Here we have a student body that is
in essence 50 percent women. What kind of message do you send to
those young women if all of their faculty and all of their senior
administrators are men? What are you saying to them about the value
of their education and what they can aspire to? If that's what we
want, we should go back to being a single-sex institution.
PAW: Do you agree with what Amy Gutmann said in the New York Times
about making sure that Princeton doesn't discriminate against women
because of the recent appointments of women?
Tilghman: What she's reflecting is a little bit of reality. One
of the emails that I got from a male faculty member in engineering
as we were getting closer to the choice for the dean of engineering
was, "I hope you won't be afraid to appoint a woman,
because you have a woman provost and you'll be nervous about appointing
a woman." His advice was don't be afraid. I just read it and
thought it's extraordinary where we are.
PAW: Were you surprised by the blowup in the press over Cornel
West's leaving Harvard to return to Princeton?
Tilghman: No, I wasn't surprised. I was surprised that it made
front-page news three or four times. But I think Cornel was treated
very shabbily by the press, and was very dramatically misrepresented
by the press. And Princeton on purpose stayed out of the fray because
it struck us all as unseemly. And we did not want to contribute
in any way to a fracas that we had no role in creating. But I was
saddened to see the ways in which a very distinguished scholar and
an absolutely magnificent teacher was so mischaracterized by the
PAW: Have you been able to take off as much time as you and your
family would like?
Tilghman: I do feel that. I feel it in part because I have a week
at the end of August where the kids and I are going to Hawaii. So
I feel very upbeat about that. I've actually been very careful.
We took a week in January to go skiing together. And we're taking
this week at the end of August. I took days off over Christmas and
so on. So I'm very conscious that the worst thing I can do for this
university is burn out. It doesn't serve me, it doesn't serve the
university. When I'm working, I work very very hard, but I'm also
conscious of the fact that I have to take down time.
PAW: I understand that downtime is walking your beagle in the
evening and reserving a half-hour of pleasure reading a day. Do
you still play tennis?
Tilghman: Yes. I have a regular tennis game every Sunday. And
if the schedule allows, and it very often does, I take both Saturday
and Sunday mornings to be very leisurely and read the paper from
cover to cover which I rarely don't do during the week, and to take
long walks with the dog, and to run errands like a normal person.
PAW: What's most annoying to you as president?
Tilghman: There are occasions when I find myself in a meeting
where I get impatient, where I feel as though it's been poorly organized
or we're not getting to the point and I think I'm so conscious of
the value of my time that I find myself getting irritated if I know
that basically I'm going to be sitting there for another hour and
it's a total waste of my time. I'm not patient about having my time
wasted. That's the only thing, but I was like that before I became
I became president. It's just that now every minute counts.