Tilghman awarded Du Bois Medal from Harvard

President Tilghman

Watch a video of the Du Bois Medal ceremony on Dec. 4 at Harvard. The introduction of Princeton President Shirley M. Tilghman begins at the 1:26 mark.

Princeton President Shirley M. Tilghman has been awarded the W.E.B. Du Bois Medal, the highest honor bestowed by Harvard University's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, for her leadership in strengthening Princeton's commitment to African American studies.

Princeton's Center for African American Studies was established in 2006 after existing as an academic certificate program for 37 years. An advisory committee appointed by Tilghman recommended an expanded curriculum after determining that reflections on race and the experiences of black people should be diffused throughout a liberal arts education as an "indispensable element in a preparation for life in this country."

Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of the Du Bois Institute and Harvard's Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, presented the medal to Tilghman at a Dec. 4 ceremony "for her real support of African American studies, of scholarship across the disciplines and of the next generation of scholars."

Valerie Smith, Princeton's Woodrow Wilson Professor of Literature and the first director of the Center for African American Studies, introduced Tilghman at the ceremony, saying, "She has been a powerful spokesperson for the central role of the study of race to a liberal arts education."

"Her commitment not only to the expansion, but, more importantly, to the institutionalization of African American studies has been and continues to be unwavering," Smith said. "The rapid and impressive growth of African American studies at Princeton in just a few short years has had everything to do with her leadership and the climate she has cultivated."

Smith added, "Her ability to speak frankly, courageously and without defensiveness about complex and vexed issues of race, justice and inequality has transformed our campus and modeled the intelligence and feeling, the self-awareness and empathy that ought to inform any national or, for that matter, global conversation on race."

Since 2006, the number of core faculty positions allocated to the Center for African American Studies has grown from two members to today's 17. Associated and affiliated faculty members in other departments now contribute an additional 18 faculty. The center has increased courses by more than 40 percent, offering 36 courses this year, compared to the estimated 25 courses typically offered a few years ago.

In accepting the medal, Tilghman gave credit for the success of Princeton's efforts to Kwame Anthony Appiah, the Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy and the University Center for Human Values, for chairing the advisory committee that recommended the establishment of the Center for African American Studies, and to Smith for overseeing the launch of the center as its first director.

While some other institutions providing African American studies focus either on the specific experiences of black people in America or research of the African diaspora, Princeton encourages students of varying backgrounds to encounter and reflect on the history of race in the nation through a unique interdisciplinary approach.

Tilghman said that Princeton's expanded, multidisciplinary exploration of the role of race in society "is critically important for training the next generation of scholars who are going to take us past the past and past the present and into a future ... that is better than what we have now. But it is also equally important that every single student who passes through the gates of Princeton University ... encounters issues surrounding race in general and the African American experience in particular, because that is the only way that the future indeed is going to be better."

Tilghman was one of eight recipients of the Du Bois Medal this year, joining New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, storytelling legend Hugh "Brother Blue" Hill, journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault, lawyer and political adviser Vernon Jordan Jr., Perseus Books founder Frank Pearl and philanthropists Daniel and Joanna Rose.