Leadership & Governance

With Tilghman's Resignation, Another Pioneer Female President Moves On

Princeton U., Office of Communications, Denise Applewhite

Shirley M. Tilghman will leave the presidency of Princeton U. at the end of the academic year. A molecular biologist, she plans to return to the faculty.
September 23, 2012

Shirley M. Tilghman's announcement on Saturday that she will resign at the end of the academic year as Princeton University's president signals the departure of yet another pioneering woman from one of higher education's most elite institutions.

Ms. Tilghman, who was named Princeton's first female president in 2001, is among a cohort of women who broke through academe's glass ceiling in the past 15 years and are now moving on. Other departures in the last three months include Ruth J. Simmons, the first female president of Brown University and the first black leader of any Ivy League institution, and Susan Hockfield, the first female president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The first woman to lead an Ivy League institution on a permanent basis was Judith Rodin, who became the University of Pennsylvania's president in 1994. Amy Gutmann, a former provost at Princeton, was chosen as her successor in 2004.

Since Ms. Rodin's appointment 18 years ago, half of the Ivy League's eight members have named female presidents.

"The fact that so many of the Ivy League colleges have had women presidents has to a large extent broken the glass ceiling," said Susan Resneck Pierce, president of SRP Consulting LLC and author of On Being Presidential: A Guide for College and University Leaders (Jossey-Bass, 2011). "The biggest sign of that was that the University of Pennsylvania did not just a hire a woman; they hired as their president a second woman, and they've both done exceedingly well."

Dartmouth College and Yale University, which have never had female presidents, are both looking for new leaders.

Ms. Tilghman, a 66-year-old native of Canada, was the first Princeton president to come to the job with a science background. A scholar of molecular biology, Ms. Tilghman participated in cloning the first mammalian gene. She came to Princeton in 1986 as a professor of life sciences.

Before she was tapped as Princeton's president, Ms. Tilghman had already made news on the topic of women in academe. In a 1993 New York Times column, she argued that the tenure-review process puts women at a disadvantage because it often happens during their childbearing years.

She later appeared to walk back those views.

"I really just intended to broadly talk about the challenges to increasing the participation of women in the sciences," she told The Chronicle in 2001. "What I learned from the reactions I got from that is that there's a way to be deliberately provocative that contributes to the message, and there are ways that hurt the message."

Ms. Tilghman, who is divorced, had a daughter attending Princeton and an 18-year-old son when she was named president.

The departing president plans to take a year of leave, after which she will return to the faculty.

Ms. Tilghman was not made available for an interview on Sunday.

String of Accomplishments

During her tenure at Princeton, Ms. Tilghman increased spending to hire more female faculty members and oversaw a historic fund-raising effort that concluded in July with a total of $1.88-billion.

"I believe that together we have made Princeton a stronger and more vibrant university," Ms. Tilghman said in an e-mail Saturday to Princeton students, faculty, staff, and alumni.

Ms. Tilghman made African-American studies a priority, creating a center for the discipline in 2006.

"Of all the challenges that confront America, none is more profound than the struggle to achieve racial equality and understand the impact of race on the life and institutions of the United States," Ms. Tilghman said at the time.

Ms. Tilghman also shepherded through a plan to create a "four-year college system" at Princeton, which established common residencies and academic-advising opportunities for all students. The plan was designed to deal with what had become something of a segregated college experience between students in their first two years and those in their junior and senior years.

Princeton's undergraduate enrollment grew by design during Ms. Tilghman's presidency. The enrollment, which increased by 500 students over seven years, reached a steady state of 5,200 this year.

The university is more selective than ever, admitting fewer than 8 percent of applicants this year.

'Rhythm' of a Presidency

Explaining her decision to resign, Ms. Tilghman cited the "natural rhythm to university presidencies," which dictates when it is appropriate for a leader to step aside.

"It is time for Princeton to turn to its 20th president to chart the path for the next decade and beyond," she wrote in her e-mail to students, faculty, staff, and alumni.

In an interview with The Daily Princetonian, the university's student newspaper, Ms. Tilghman expanded on her rationale. Now that the university has completed its capital campaign, Ms. Tilghman surmised that any major new initiative would have a five-year time horizon. Rather than chart a new course, Ms. Tilghman said "it would be better for Princeton" if she stepped down.

"We are not a command-and-control climate or environment, and that means that you need time to build support, to build consensus, to build resources, to get a major new project under way," she told the newspaper.

Asked about her historic legacy as Princeton's first female president, Ms. Tilghman said the gender of the university's next leader will be a nonissue.

"I don't think this is going to be the real discussion as the next president is chosen, and I think that's terrific," she told the Princetonian. "We had to break the barrier, but it's broken, and I don't think there's anybody who will be remotely interested in whether the next president is male or female. I think they're going to be interested in who that person is and what qualities that they bring with them."