Time is right for Tilghman

Ruth Stevens


Shirley Tilghman said she looks forward to opportunities for continued interaction with students as she takes on the presidency.


Princeton NJ -- Shirley Tilghman had a difficult decision to make when she entered Queen's University as an undergraduate: an English major or a chemistry major?

She chose the latter, using it as a springboard for a distinguished career as a scientist. But her enduring interest in fields outside of science and her unflagging commitment to University-wide objectives were among the reasons the search committee named her Princeton's 19th president on May 5.

"She has a passion and enthusiasm for whatever she does," said Robert Rawson Jr., who chaired the committee, at a news conference following the special trustees meeting. "In particular, those passions extend to science, to the profession of teaching, to her students and to service -- service to the University and to broader public interests. You can see those passions align quite directly with the aspects of Princeton that those of us who are associated with it believe to be so distinctive about this University."

Tilghman said that her experiences serving on a range of University committees have given her a deep appreciation of all facets of Princeton, from the sciences to the humanities. She said that especially during her service on the committee that oversees all faculty promotions and appointments she "made a transition in my heart from being an employee of this institution to being a Princetonian. I feel I have this institution in my blood."

In an interview the week after her appointment was announced, Tilghman said her work as a member of the presidential search committee also gave her the breadth of knowledge she'll need for her new job.

"One of the most peculiar things about this whole process is that the search itself, in which I participated for four months, was an enormous education -- a unique opportunity to think about the University," she said. "Without those four months, it would be very hard for me to contemplate sitting here today. In a strange way, the process was absolutely instrumental in getting me to this place."

Tilghman originally was one of five faculty members elected to serve on the 18-member committee. "About six weeks ago," Rawson said, "Professor Tilghman had to leave a meeting early to teach. In her absence, the rest of the committee agreed that it wanted to ask her to become a candidate."

"I felt like I'd been hit by a Mack truck," said Tilghman, describing her reaction to the news. "There were thousands of thoughts going through my head."

Foremost, she was concerned about giving up a job that she thought was ideal. Her work as the Howard Prior Professor of the Life Sciences and as the director of the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics is so tailored to her interests that it "feels like leisure time," she said. "Giving up a job of that kind is not a simple thing to do." And, as a member of the search committee, she questioned whether she was the right person to take on the presidency.

"One of my faculty colleagues on the committee, Alan Krueger, convinced me that it wasn't my problem any more -- it was the committee's problem," said Tilghman, who withdrew from the committee when she became a candidate. "Once that clarity set in, then I could really think about the first question. I came to the conclusion that this was a job that I think I would love."

Skills that carry over

Tilghman said her experience as a teacher and researcher has prepared her well for what lies ahead.

"I genuinely enjoy interacting with Princeton students," she said. "I find them to be quite breathtaking in many respects. So that part of the job will be wonderful for me, and I think I'll be good at it."

When asked about her favorite moments at Princeton, Tilghman's eyes lit up as she told stories about her students. She described a class she co-taught with Rosemary Grant in ecology and evolutionary biology on "Origins of the Human Condition." The course was intended to enable non-science students to fulfill the general education requirement in science.

"So you begin the year with this group of students, some percentage of which would rather be almost anywhere but sitting where they are," she said.

During the course of the semester, the class was divided into groups of three students to conduct research projects. The groups were required to devise the problem, pose the question, design the experiment, conduct the experiment, interpret the results and write a paper. The grand finale was a scientific symposium organized by Tilghman and Grant in which the students presented their projects to the class.

"That for me was the most amazing event because you could not distinguish these students from scientists," Tilghman said. "They were so proud that they had discovered new knowledge. These experiments were not 'make work' projects, they weren't repeating some dusty old experiment. Some of the things the students did in this class were just amazing.

"I used to weep at that symposium because the students would get up, and they would be so excited," said Tilghman, who hopes to continue to teach but on a limited basis.

She said that her work as a researcher has provided her with some key skills for serving as president as well.

"Science trains you to have a very analytical way of looking at the world," she said. "I like to solve puzzles. I enjoy having a complex problem in front of me and working my way through the problem to a plausible solution.

"I think a lot of what goes on at a university is going to be problem-solving," she continued. "You're going to be faced with hard decisions, and you're going to have to think your way through those decisions. Science is as good a training as any to help you have very good clear ways of moving from a problem to a solution."

But, Tilghman said, she won't be making those decisions alone.

"I'm not someone who comes to a decision or thinks through a problem by going for a walk in the woods by myself," she said. "In the laboratory when I'm trying to understand a problem, when I'm struggling with something, my instincts are to get a group of students and fellows together and we'll all sit down and spend two hours thrashing through the problem. I think that fits well with the tradition of this university, which is consultation. There is a tradition of consulting with the students, among the faculty and with trustees and alumni."

Besides following a "management by consultation" philosophy, Tilghman said she is a "positive reinforcer" and that she tries "to encourage and promote team playing."

"I try to lead by example, to set a tone that is a positive, enthusiastic, 'we're going to get through this' style," she said. "That's the way I've run the laboratory and the institute -- by being aggressively positive and enthusiastic."

Tilghman has supervised 15 to 20 postdoctoral fellows, graduate students and undergraduates in her molecular biology laboratory. At the genomics institute, she has been responsible for defining the scientific agenda of the new unit in consultation with other leading scientists at the University, setting in motion a recruiting plan for the 120 to 150 people who eventually will be part of the institute, raising funds and overseeing plans for construction of the new building going up on the north edge of Pardee Field (see related story on page 10).

In 'sponge mode'

Although she doesn't officially start her new job until June 15, Tilghman said she unofficially began working at 8 a.m. the Monday following the announcement.

"I cleared my calendar for the next six weeks, essentially cancelled everything in my old life I was going to do," she said. "I set up a series of appointments with as many of the senior administration as possible. But a great deal of the time in the next weeks is going to be spent with Harold Shapiro. I am in 'sponge mode' -- I am trying to learn as much as I can as quickly as possible."

Although she knows she still has much to learn as president, Tilghman mentioned a few key issues during the interview that are important to her as a member of the University community.

Preserving the close interaction between the faculty and students and maximizing the kinds of teaching activities that inspire students to become scholars are two of them.

"It tends to be the case that the more you can have one-on-one interaction with students as a teaching experience, the more memorable it is," she said. "I think that our holding to the line on precepts, on the size of precepts, on the fact that all classes have precepts, has served us well. That every student is in a precept allows them to have the one-on-one interaction even in large enrollment classes."

Tilghman believes in reducing the amount of what she calls "information exchange" when it comes to teaching. She described it as the "here is what I know -- you learn it" approach.

"The exploration of ideas, the process of scholarship is what makes this place unusual," she said. "One thing I would like to do on the teaching side is to look for all the ways we can maximize those two kinds of teaching activities and minimize as much as possible the teaching experiences that could be done as efficiently on the computer or reading a book.

"One of the issues that came up during the search is that everyone is thinking about information technology and how it is going to change higher education," she continued. "I see its primary role at Princeton as reducing the information transfer mode of teaching and optimizing what can't be communicated on the computer, which is how a great scholar approaches an important problem. That can't be communicated in any way but in person."

Tilghman also is a strong proponent of cultivating talent at an early age. She cited the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts and a teaching program she initiated in the Council on Science and Technology, both designed to bring promising postdoctoral scholars to campus for opportunities they might not otherwise have.

"These are the brightest young people in academia who are contributing as much to our community as they are receiving from the time in residence at Princeton," she said.

Tilghman was part of a team that created a similar program for the genomics institute. "The Lewis-Sigler Fellows will be a special class of laboratory head. They will be young Ph.D.'s, and we will give them lots of opportunities to be very creative with a fair amount of financial freedom," she said. "The program came out of the conviction that the institute has to be a young and dynamic place."

Revisiting tenure

In 1993, Tilghman wrote two op-ed pieces for The New York Times on tenure and the pressures it puts on women of childbearing age. While she is committed to the value of tenure, she is interested in taking a hard look at Princeton's system.

"Tenure is important for two things," she explained. "It protects academic freedom and that is essential. The second thing it does is provide the University with an absolutely necessary peer review system because, once granted, it is essentially a lifetime appointment for faculty. The University has to have a time when it makes that critical decision. There is no way around that."

However, Tilghman pointed out that the process was devised when very few women were in the faculty ranks. In light of changes over the last 30 years, she believes the process should be reviewed with the goal of optimizing its effectiveness for both genders.

"We have a pretty rigid tenure clock," she said. "It's essentially six years. That is short relative to our competitors -- we probably have the shortest tenure clock among our peers."

In some fields, that schedule is not a problem. But in others, such as economics -- where it can take three years to get a paper published -- the time frame presents unrealistic expectations.

"I don't know what the best system is," Tilghman said. "But it occurs to me that it would be wise for us -- because we are always looking for ways to do something better -- that at some point we should revisit the question and ask, 'Is there a process that is better?'"

Expanding horizons

Tilghman said she is most looking forward to the opportunities to expand her horizons as president.

"When you are a scholar -- and it doesn't matter what field -- you tend to be a burrower," she said. "You delve deep into a subject. You almost have to have blinders on because you are trying to get as deep as possible into an idea or problem. You devote your life to it. If I have one regret about a life as a scientist, it is that I've had to forego a lot of other things that I know I would love."

Harkening back to her days as a possible English major, Tilghman mentioned her lifelong love of reading -- especially English literature and biographies on just about anyone. She describes herself as "a passionate theater goer and dance enthusiast," but said she hasn't had much time for those activities.

"One thing I told the search committee is that when the Princeton Weekly Bulletin comes every week, it feels like torture," she said. "I open it up to the events pages and I'm just sick because I would like to go to this colloquium and that evening lecture, and I can't do any of that because I'm a burrower.

"One of the things that I think is going to be just liberating in this job is now I am out of burrowing mode," she continued. "I'm going to try to go to one thing a week that I never would have been able to go to otherwise and just use that as a way to participate in the rest of the life of the University that I have had to largely forego.

"It's a chance to diversify -- it'll be my job."

*President Shapiro described President-elect Tilghman's appointment as "a distinctive and wonderful moment in Princeton's history." He said, "Princeton is fortunate indeed to have attracted a person with such broad-based commitments to the welfare of all parts of the Princeton community and to the broader world of scholarship, education and public service."

See related articles
Professor named 19th president
Reaction enthusiastic for new leader
Family comes first for new president
Shirley Tilghman bio  


May 21, 2001
Vol. 90, No. 28
previous   archives   next


New president
Professor named 19th president
Time is right for Tilghman
Reaction enthusiastic for new leader
Family comes first for new president
Shirley Tilghman bio

Life sciences
Search is on for genomics institute head
Silver: Doubling not necessarily troubling
Landweber tracks changes in genetic code
Virus leaves trail in brain for researchers

Students and alumni
Thesis sparks thriving teacher corps
Recent grad's first novel attracts attention
Student teaching builds bridges
New program preps local students for success

Other news
Merck funds professorship to honor alumnus
Hair colors literary, artistic representations
Class size makes a difference

Remaining discretionary funds to increase staff salaries
Doig announces retirement
Barron is new women's hoops coach
Thirteen faculty members transfer to emeritus status

By the numbers: Reunions
Nassau Notes
Calendar of events

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Editor: Ruth Stevens
Calendar editor: Carolyn Geller
Contributing writers: Jennifer Greenstein, Pam Hersh, Marilyn Marks, Steven Schultz, Regina Tan
Photographer: Denise Applewhite
Design: Mahlon Lovett, Laurel Masten Cantor
Web edition: Mahlon Lovett