To see one of our own at the helm of a major university is unquestionably inspirational. And for those of us with two X chromosomes, perhaps even more so. I tried to imagine myself in the role of laboratory Cinderella: plucked from the work-a-day world of robocyclers and biohazard waste to a realm of literati, artists, and trustees, gliding into, if not glass slippers, pantyhose and pumps and a far spiffier wardrobe, my voice transformed from the constrained format of a journal article to one that can carry sway in every aspect of our culture.
This transition must have been second nature to Shirley Tilghman, President of Princeton University (see ). She is the model of grace, intellect, perseverance, womanhood, and tact. Just 24 hours before my interview with her was scheduled, Lawrence Summers (President of Harvard) had resigned, and I half anticipated that I might be bumped for a sound bite. Indeed, her phone was ringing off the hook, but our interview held fast.
I had driven to New Jersey from my father''s house in Pennsylvania the night before. As I turned north on Highway 206, I took in the Lawrenceville playing fields on the right and the stately old homes on the left, recalling a day 36 years ago when I followed the Orange Key Tour, the last time I had visited Princeton. I recognized Nassau Hall, the pair of bronze tigers protecting a set of massive, deep-blue doors embedded in ivy-covered stone walls. I approached the old building, walked across the marble foyer to an unmarked door, and fell into a cozy warren, made even more inviting by soft green colors and a bowl of chocolates.
Shirley met me and led me down a little set of steps to her office. Journal covers prominently displayed near her desk remind her of her former life, as does a bronzed Rainin pipetman with a plaque that reads I''m a genius!, given to her by her lab when she became president. I told her the topics I wanted to cover in our interview.
Jane Gitschier: and third, I want to talk about Princeton!
Shirley Tilghman: Yeah!
JG: So why don''t we start with that? I have read a couple of interviews with you, and I was so impressed by your comments about how you just love the institution. You''ve been here for almost 20 years and president for almost five. Tell me, why do you love it here?
ST: There are really two answers. First, it''s a place that is always striving for excellence, and excellence with integrity. I''ve loved that since the day I arrived.
The second is that it is a place that is run by the faculty. Here I am, as testimony to that! In fact, if you look at the history of the university, there has been only one president in recent history that did not come from the faculty. It is a place that respects scholarship, respects intellectuals, and believes that a university is best run by people who grew up caring about the life of the mind.
JG: That''s wonderful!
ST: Yes, and the third thing I love about Princeton is that the students are just spectacular. They challenge you and make you better. Interacting with them in my old life in the lab and in my new life in Nassau Hall, every day is just fun.
JG: How many students are there?
ST: There are now about 4,700 undergraduates and we''re going up to 5,100. We''re in a process of expansion, as a matter of fact.
JG: Why do you feel the need to increase the undergraduate population?
ST: There were a number of reasons, but probably the most important was that during the last 30 years, we had kept the population of the undergraduate student body relatively constant, while we were growing the faculty at a rate of about 1 per year. And we had reached a point where the student-faculty ratio was under six, which is extraordinary for a university, particularly a research university.
Second, we have the largest endowment per student in the country. I think that is a joy, to a president, but it also creates a responsibility