July 4, 2001 On the Campus

The Real Princeton

by Emily Johnson '01

"Fundraiser. Check. Schmoozer. Check. Genial host. Check.
Academic. Check. Traditionalist. Check. Student rapport.

Real Princeton. Check.
10 . . . 9 . . . 8 . . . 7 . . . 6 . . . 5 . . . 4 . . . 3 . . . .2 . . . 1 . . . and we have lift-off!"

(Illustration by Henry Martin '48)

What exactly does a university president have to know?

Harold Shapiro is off the hook. Students will now barrage Shirley Tilghman with requests for funds. But it's not as if students see the office of the president simply as a source for funding for special events, academic pursuits, or pet projects. In that office they also want a person who understands the real Princeton.

Student reaction to Dr. Tilghman's appointment is largely positive, since many have heard her speak about the human genome project or bioethics or have taken one of her courses on developmental biology or the origins of the human condition, a class for non-science majors. They see her as intelligent, approachable, and involved in student life.

Some students, however, are concerned that Tilghman is not an alumnus, that she hasn't shared something of their own undergraduate experience. I've heard students say: She didn't go here; she doesn't understand the things we appreciate - the eating clubs, the residential colleges. Changes that look good to an administrator may not look good to students.

Let's hope the lack of a Princeton degree will be irrelevant next to 15 years as a professor and her own daughter Rebecca's experience as a member of the Class of 2002. My guess is that Rebecca's participation in an Outdoor Action frosh trip resulted in Tilghman's having a greater appreciation of and a personal interest in the program, one of my own favorites.

Other students call her a female Hal in reference to her Canadian roots and interest in bioethics. A few staunch conservatives complain about her politically liberal views. Two articles in the Daily Princetonian highlighted her past outspoken views on abolishing tenure, which she called a "dirty trick" on women, and on the inclusion of women in academic research groups and conferences - interesting at a school like Princeton that embraces women but keeps some of its good-old-boy camaraderie. But recently Tilghman became more guarded and began using more careful language. She told the Prince she would like to "reexamine" tenure and "study the issue." There was no immediate call for change. It's too early to see if the taming of her views is good or bad, but she seems to have careful political language under control.

Another concern raised by some students is that by assuming the presidency Tilghman has to cut back her work on genetics, and academia is losing an innovative brain and a rarity: a prominent, eloquent woman at the forefront of research. Additionally, students worry that the academically trained Tilghman isn't suited to a job that requires schmoozing, hobnobbing, and polite solicitation of donations. As one student says, "I'm sure she'll do a good job, but I don't know if it's the spot she could fill best." Of course, Tilghman has had experience fundraising. In 1998 she was appointed director of the new Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics, where her duties included raising money, hiring, financial organization, and physical and intellectual planning literally from the ground up.

I think Tilghman's focus on both the pedagogical and administrative infrastructure of academics is just the thing needed in a new president. The freshman writing program is already getting a much-needed facelift, but the precept and advising systems, with their grab bag of experiences, should also be revamped. With her extensive experience in directing student research, Tilghman can also evaluate the objectives of the sometimes haphazard thesis program. Perhaps Shapiro's mammoth fundraising success will allow Tilghman to concentrate on initiatives and not force her into fund-raising mode immediately.

In any case, all of these reservations and approvals illustrate how students view the complicated role of university president. She must be an academic, but also a practical administrator. She must be good at fundraising and making contacts. She must like chatting with students, have a vision for the university that totters between traditional and forward-thinking, and make impressive and giddy appearances at sporting events. She must be a genial host, a hard-hitting decision-maker, a person of principle with an open mind, someone with the judgment to distribute funds for community projects, travel, venture capital, and the arts. With this in mind, students are eager to learn what are her plans for new buildings, the campus landscape, athletics, Princeton's role in the Ivy League, the Graduate School, and perhaps most importantly, dining options. But the biggest demand is that she, as Princeton's president, must know and appreciate the real Princeton, whatever that may be.


Emily Johnson is working at Geotimes magazine in Washington, D.C., this summer, and in the fall she will work for Project 55 in Chicago.

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