Thursday, August 5, 2010

A Conversation With Princeton's President

Princeton University president Tilghman addresses the students.
By Jonathan Wigfall (Camden, NJ)

With a warm smile, Princeton University’s first female president, Shirley M. Tilghman, had a confession to tell us. “I didn’t have to go through the steps to become President,” Tilghman said humorously.

When former President Harold Tafler Shapiro stepped down, Princeton administrators began a search committee that Tilghman shortly joined. She always felt that the university needed a president who had prior experience in the science field. Though Tilghman was on the committee, she still had teaching responsibilities and missed a meeting to teach a class period. Ironically, when she came back, they had nominated her for candidacy.

Six weeks after Shapiro stepped down, Tilghman became Princeton’s first female president on May 5, 2001 and assumed office on June 15, 2001. In order to become a candidate for President at Princeton, candidates usually start as deans, or hold numerous administrative positions first, but she was able to bypass that. 

As President, “I had to learn about things I didn’t know much about,” Tilghman said.  

Born in Canada, Tilghman arrived at Princeton in 1986 and became the Howard A. Prior Professor of the Life Sciences. As a world-renowned scholar, Tilghman has become a pioneer in the molecular biology field. Tilghman was a part of the Princeton staff for 15 years before she was president. As President, she brings the experience of both a biologist and a teacher who also knows that her new position comes with tough decisions.

“No day is like any other day, I usually only get the big issues to handle,” Tilghman said.  

Tilghman has tackled many issues since she stepped in office, spending a fair amount of the time with students and advocating her own beliefs.  

“I can’t sit in the office and ask ‘Am I as good as [Woodrow] Wilson?’,” she said. 

Recognizing that there was no picture of a woman in the Nassau Hall of Presidents when she first visited the Hall, Tilghman has accomplished one major goal—being the first women president to be a success.  

“I want to leave a legacy,” Tilghman said.

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