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September 11, 2002:

A 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 their problem.

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 is which.

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 that.

PAW: What is your vision of where Princeton will be in five to 10 years?

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 recommendations.

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 be addressing?

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 like.

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 for tenure.

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 junior faculty.

PAW: Are any departments or programs at the end of their life spans?

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 acknowledge that.

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 lives?

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 better?

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 press.

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.