President enjoys making things happen whether big or small
Jennifer Greenstein Altmann
Princeton NJ -- In a recent interview, President Tilghman looked back over her first year in office and discussed her plans for the future.
Well, I spent most of the summer interviewing people about what they do at the University, and that included chairs of the academic departments and the senior administrators. And I met with larger groups of people from various departments. The whole purpose of the summer was to find out the breadth of what was going on in the University, and to think about how I wanted to relate to the community.
That was extremely useful, and it was incredibly important that I have the summer to do that. When Harold Shapiro told me he was leaving June 15, I nearly had a heart attack! But in fact he did the right thing, because having that summer to be president, and yet to have it be a very quiet time, was just terrifically useful.
What has given you the greatest satisfaction in the job?
The greatest satisfaction is being able to make things happen for others. I'll give you an example. A few weeks ago, three students came to see me in office hours to say that they were on the rowing team, and they wanted to try out for the Canadian National Team. Normally the Canadian team pays for your travel to the tryouts, but the team is short on money this year and the only way you can do it is if you pay for the whole thing yourself. And they asked me, "Do you have any ideas about what we could do?" I put them in touch with the right person, who I just heard today is going to be able to get them the funds they need.
So it's a very small thing, but it happens to me every day. And sometimes it's a thing that will be extremely important to the University, like attracting Anthony Appiah and Cornel West (to the faculty). That is something that we worked on very hard all year, and I think will be a lasting legacy for the University. But some of the things you can do are these little things that can make the difference in someone's life. You connect people who don't know about each other, and something wonderful can happen.
What are your plans for the next few months?
Well, I am really looking forward to the summer, which will be a time where I do a lot of thinking in the most future-looking and strategic way about what we should be trying to do in the next five to 10 years. We are going to have a trustee retreat in November, which hasn't happened in many years, in which we lay out for the trustees the things that we hope we will lead in, the things where we think we can make a difference, both nationally and internationally.
What role do you think university presidents should play in setting public policy, and have you decided on the role you want to play in the public arena?
There has been a sense, and I think to a certain extent it is accurate, that university presidents have withdrawn over the last 30 years from being public figures to being very private individuals. I think an exception was Harold (Shapiro) who, because of his role on NBAC (President Clinton's National Bioethics Advisory Commission), was very much a public figure, and had a very large and positive effect on the field of bioethics. If I could see some time in the future -- I don't think it's going to be next year, because I have a lot of work to do here at home -- when we've identified where we want to go and we're on our way there, and if there were an opportunity for me to play a role like the one Harold played, I would welcome it.
Two issues in higher education are getting a lot of attention these days: financial aid and early decision. Are those issues that you want to address?
If you look at financial aid, clearly Princeton is in a position of leadership already. We have made it clear that we want to invest our resources in making sure there is no student out there saying, "I can't go to Princeton because I can't afford it." I think that's a case where we have a true leadership position, and we should always make sure that that is true.
I think early decision is being blamed for something that is a much more serious issue, which is the hysteria that surrounds college admissions in general. It's an illusion to think that if you do away with early decision, that will go away.
I have asked Jed Marsh, who is the new associate provost, to take a thorough look at how we at Princeton practice early decision.... If there's one thing that I am concerned about, it is the degree to which early decision benefits the well-to-do and disadvantages the less well-off students. If I saw that, it would be a reason for me to reconsider early decision.
You seem to have a special interest in the staff, having spent a lot of time selecting your new senior vice president for administration, Charles Kalmbach, and suggesting a self-evaluation for the human resources department. Will that area of the University be one of your priorities?
It's a very high priority.... It's terribly important that people see Princeton as a terrific place to work, that they see it as a place where you can have a career -- you can come in at 24 years old and end up being in a very different place with more responsibility in 10 years.
I'm very eager to set in place a process where we can take people who joined the University in one department and move them around, so that they become more knowledgeable about the rest of the University, because lots of people have transferable skills. There are some incredibly talented people in development or in facilities or in HR or in admissions or in an academic manager's job who we should be sending all over the University so that someday they'll be vice presidents.
I think that's what good management practice is really about. And one of the things Charles (Kalmbach) and I are already talking about is how to do that. The value of having somebody sitting at the table who has worked in two or three different departments is huge.
You have said you're interested in attracting the student who doesn't apply to Princeton. Have you thought about how you are going to address that?
Well, I think we're already starting to do that. One of my favorite projects is the Humanities Symposium, led by (professors) Mike Jennings and Tony Grafton. They have identified high school seniors in their fall semester who are interested in the humanities and who might not have thought of applying to Princeton, and, if they had applied, might not come. And they bring those students to campus for a weekend to work with our most distinguished humanities faculty members, who are second to none in the world.
I think that's a great thing to do, and I would love to see more projects of that kind. It's a lot of work, and the people who participate deserve an enormous amount of credit for being willing to put in that work. But what they've told me is that it pays off -- they are getting kids who are applying and coming who otherwise probably wouldn't have.
You have talked about reviewing tenure. Is that something you've made any plans about?
Not formal plans in terms of identifying a committee. But I would say that what we need to do is not look exclusively at tenure. I think we need to look at how all levels of the professoriate are currently handled -- everything from lecturers to emeriti faculty. Is the system we have the best system? And is it the most effective at getting the teaching done?
The most important thing is attracting the best faculty and making sure that young scholars are allowed to blossom and helped to blossom here. I think the best strategy for a university is to hire junior people and then be able to promote them. That creates loyalty; it creates connectedness and cohesiveness. And there are some departments right now that do it beautifully, and others that I think need to learn how to do it better. Mentoring young faculty is a very high priority for me.
After hearing you speak with such excitement about so many facets of Princeton, I feel like I know the answer, but I'll ask anyway: Are you having fun?
Yes, that goes without saying.
President Tilghman's first year
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Editor: Ruth Stevens