Power Issue: Shirley Tilghman

Nassau Hall has housed its share of independent thinkers. For a few tumultuous months in 1783, Princeton University’s oldest building was home to the entire U.S. government, and the Continental Congress once convened in its second-floor library.

Photo by Joan Marcus.

Educator, Scientist

Nassau Hall has housed its share of independent thinkers. For a few tumultuous months in 1783, Princeton University’s oldest building was home to the entire U.S. government, and the Continental Congress once convened in its second-floor library.

While the agenda of Princeton president Shirley Tilghman may be less revolutionary than those of previous tenants, she is not averse to shaking things up when she deems it necessary. And, like the building that contains her offices, she has dodged a cannonball or two in her time.

Tilghman has had the opportunity to shepherd Princeton into the 21st century, literally and figuratively. As the university’s first female president, she has made it a mission to keep gender bias out of the hiring process.  As a scientist—Tilghman is an eminent molecular geneticist who was part of the team that cloned the first mammalian gene—she is in a unique position to change the way science is taught at the undergraduate level. 

As an administrator, she has supported investment in fields such as neuroscience and climatology that are likely to prove critical to the school, the state, and the world in this century. With the Princeton presidency as her platform, she has promoted important scientific and educational issues, from embryonic stem cell research to what she describes as “the public good provided by universities.” 

Supporters and critics agree that Tilghman’s tenure is likely to leave a significant mark on the august institution. Since taking the reins in May 2001, she has appointed a number of women to high-profile positions, provoking accusations of gender bias. (In 2005, the university’s conservative student magazine, the Princeton Tory, published an article titled “The Modern Mommy University.”) Tilghman has insisted that her hiring policies are gender neutral: “Our goal is to find the very best person for the job and to be completely open in mind as to the question of whether this will be a man or a woman,” she says. 

Tilghman has attracted criticism for other policies as well.  In a 2001 interview, she expressed a wish that Princeton could “attract students with green hair”—a statement that inflamed some of the school’s more conservative students and contributed to accusations that she was trying to reshape campus life. In fact, she says, that’s precisely what she wants to do. She has taken to heart the statistic that roughly a quarter of the undergraduate student body has been unhappy with life outside the classroom, many of them expressing dissatisfaction with Princeton’s traditional upper-class eating clubs.

In an effort to remedy that, Tilghman has supported the expansion of the school’s residential colleges—clusters of living, dining, and recreational facilities traditionally serving freshmen and sophomores only—to include juniors and seniors.

She dismisses suggestions that change is bad for the campus culture. “The notion that the culture will be frozen in place at a university, which should always be pressing forward into the future, is, I think, just wrong,” she says. In an increasingly internationalized world, she is determined to focus the university’s attention outward, an orientation reflected in a series of new global seminars offered in foreign capitals like Hanoi, Istanbul, and Cracow, and in efforts to make it easier to share research and resources with other educational institutions.

Tilghman also is a force in broadly reshaping the school’s curriculum. The planned Lewis Center for the Arts will be the centerpiece of her initiative to make Princeton, for the first time, a global player in the arts. She is particularly interested in revamping the curriculum as it applies to the teaching of undergraduate science—a change she hopes will translate into a greater number of students entering the sciences.  Most students who drop out of the sciences, she says, do so in the freshman year, “when they encounter courses that seem intimidating or difficult or, in some cases, boring.”

As a result of Tilghman’s influence, Princeton freshmen studying the natural sciences no longer take a series of courses (in chemistry, physics, computer science, and biology), but a single course that focuses on, in Tilghman’s words, “the really important questions that scientists are trying to understand today.” Nancy Weiss Malkiel, Dean of the College, calls the new natural-science curriculum and a similar one in engineering “important experiments in effective delivery of science teaching in a way that engages, stimulates, and stretches undergraduate students.”

That Tilghman herself is a scientist puts her in a unique position to advance the cause of science, on campus and off. She understands that the new century “is going to be considerably different from the last century in science,” observes Lynn Enquist, chair of Princeton’s department of molecular biology. But, Enquist adds, “she’s not just a science geek; she’s one of the more well-rounded people I know”—a quality that helps her communicate her message beyond the scientific community.

Tilghman’s influence goes far beyond the leafy confines of the Nassau Street campus.  She has been an outspoken advocate for the use of embryonic stem cells and an especially vocal critic of creationism, which she sees as an example of the public’s growing distrust of science.

 And it’s in science that her visions for the university and for the world at large converge. Explaining Princeton’s recent investments in neuroscience and climatology, energy, and the environment, Tilghman might also be describing her professional mission: “I think it’s extraordinarily important that we push the frontiers of knowledge.”

To read about the rest of our power players, click on the links below:





Bill Baroni

Reginald T. Jackson

Woody Johnson

Will and Jack Morey

Clement Price and Mary Sue Sweeney Price

Loretta Weinberg

Ted and Nina Wells

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