September 12, 2001: Features

Global reach, information technology top Tilghman's priority list

By Maria LoBiondo

Although it's early for Shirley M. Tilghman to announce initiatives for her tenure as Princeton's new president, she's not a sideliner on issues affecting higher education today. She sees Princeton as a player in the global arena, but on its own terms.

"The goal is to recognize that no one university can be first in absolutely everything. You choose your shots and you try to build upon excellence," Tilghman says of the university's reputation internationally. Her immediate game plan is three-fold: Promote a more aggressive study-abroad program, admit more international students, and proceed with the Princeton-Oxford alliance, a collaboration announced this year between the two universities to create new research partnerships, increase faculty and student exchanges, and provide opportunities to share resources required for cutting-edge scientific ventures.

The alliance itself is evolving. Faculty collaborations have begun, student exchanges are in the works, and a scholarship program similar in stature to the Rhodes scholarships is under debate. If the Oxford partnership is successful, Tilghman foresees possible alliances with other universities beyond Europe.

Of course, Princeton's faculty have collaborated with colleagues worldwide for years via the Internet, giving new meaning to collegiality. "The idea of Princeton as a cloistered community, an old English version of what a university looks like, died years ago," Tilghman says. Still, she has repeatedly assured students and alumni that the hallmark of a Princeton education - one-on-one interactions between students and faculty - is not threatened by technology.

"I don't believe this technology is going to replace what goes on at Princeton today. Indeed, the goal is not to replace our educational practices, but rather to enhance them," she says.

For Tilghman, this means using information technology as a tool for learning, testing, and research, a stance formed from her years as a science educator. Instead of transmitting facts, say, the 24 things a student needs to know about momentum - material that can easily be presented coherently on a Web page - teachers can spend classroom time talking about ways of thinking about those facts, she says. Students can test themselves online to check if they understand class material. And Tilghman predicts that teachers will be able to expect more from their students due to their ability to search a myriad of sources online rather than hunting them down in the library stacks.

"Princeton will be less affected by information technology than large state universities that have no capacity today to provide students with one-on-one interaction with faculty. Those universities will change drastically because, in fact, they can't do what we do - provide one-on-one interaction," Tilghman says.

But while Tilghman is upbeat about using computers, she is more cautious about the shift in science funding from predominantly government sources to private companies. Just as Princeton's cloistered days have faded, so have the days when academic labs concentrated only on theoretical research while businesses looked for concrete applications. The molecular biology revolution, of which Tilghman was a part with her groundbreaking work in human genom-ics, and the birth of biotechnology companies, with their labs running similarly to those in academia, changed all that.

"There was a blurring of those distinctive communities, and what that has done is bring a lot of resources from the private sector into university laboratories, but it's also brought the potential for conflict of interest," Tilghman says. The blurring is "a wave of the future. You couldn't stop it, and if you tried, you would rapidly become a noncompetitive university," she adds. Princeton has rules in place to protect students from being exploited and guide faculty in handling financial benefit from their research, "but we have to keep monitoring practices and monitoring the implications for education," Tilghman says.


Look also for Tilghman to keep watch on the proliferation of interdisciplinary programs sprouting all over campus. While lauding new fields at the "interface" (a favorite Tilghman word) of core disciplines, she is mindful that some of these institutes may have a limited life span, although she's not ready to identify which ones those might be.

"If you look across the university today and say, 'What's really different than, say, in Bob Goheen's time,' you'll see the primary growth has been in the areas where one field collides with another and suddenly something quite exciting is happening," Tilghman says. "That's going to be one of our big educational and research challenges - to anticipate, as we did with genomics, where the interesting work will be done and get ahead of the pack in creating opportunities for faculty.

"At the same time we have to recognize and be prepared to discontinue programs that were started 20 years ago when something was very exciting and is now mature. We can't just proliferate programs indefinitely. We have to define those programs doing things we want, enriching the curriculum and research agenda, and fold the old ones that have already done their jobs back into home departments. There is a risk of dissipating energy instead of collecting it. You just have to keep your eye on it and do regular review."

That said, what excites the new president most is Princeton's commitment to creating new knowledge and making scholars of students. She looks forward to a day when freshman seminars are available to all incoming students, so convinced is she that watching a scholar at work during the first college year reaps benefits in later independent work. All the easier, then, to bring others closer to what Tilghman sees as a scholar's peak experience: that moment when something new is discovered.

"I have always felt that there is no experience so intoxicating as the moment you realize you have discovered something that no one has ever known before. You're lucky in your career if you have one of these moments, but if you have it, it's unlike anything except the birth of a child. If it's a truly important insight, it often has a domino effect, and 10 things that have been puzzling you fall into place.

"I think this is why scholars of all stripes - from someone working on classical texts to someone working on theoretical physics - dedicate themselves to the life of the mind. And at Princeton, we give our students a chance to feel that sense of discovery."

By Maria LoBiondo


Maria LoBiondo is a frequent contributor to PAW.


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