When Shirley Tilghman became the first female president of Princeton University in 2001, many marveled that the alma mater of F. Scott Fitzgerald, that tradition-steeped bastion of male clubbiness, would be led by a woman—and a woman scientist, at that.
As dramatic a statement of diversity as Tilghman's appointment may have seemed, Princeton had outgrown its caricature even then. Today, its undergraduate student body is half female, and 50 percent of students receive financial aid. At the same time, Princeton employees benefit from family-friendly policies that Tilghman, a single mother, helped institute.
A molecular biologist and former director of the university's genomics center, Tilghman had served on Princeton's presidential search committee in 2000. But the committee members were so impressed with her they asked her to become a candidate herself. Welcoming and unpretentious, Tilghman is known also for being candid and intellectually tough. "Her leadership at Princeton, as her leadership in science," says Maxine Singer, president emeritus of the Carnegie Institution, "shows that not only will she ask the hard questions but she is ready to deal forthrightly with the [issues] they reveal."
That comes from her training, Tilghman suggests. "Scientists like ripping problems apart," she says, "collecting as much data as possible and then assembling the parts back together to make a decision." They are experimenters, adherents to the scientific method. "You don't take reckless chances," Tilghman says, "but it may be even more important that a university like Princeton be constantly testing itself and trying to become better."
This fall, Tilghman unveiled a bold new experiment that tries to do just that: a new undergraduate college funded by alumna and eBay CEO Meg Whitman. Housing both upper- and lower-classmen, Whitman College is designed for a fuller intellectual and social mix. As significant, it serves as an alternative to Princeton's private eating clubs—a cherished fraternity-style system that Tilghman's critics say she is trying to erode. Tilghman insists she is doing no such thing. She has also had to answer critics who charged her with "gender-based affirmative action" when she appointed four women to high-level jobs previously held by men.
Such issues add to the myriad other responsibilities Tilghman shoulders, from fundraising to setting academic goals. And they have her musing about the vast differences between directing a laboratory and running a world-class university. As a scientist, she says, "you dig very deep into a particular field, and you gain full command of every fact." As a university president, by contrast, "it is virtually impossible to become the master of everything." She recalls the first time she met with Princeton's chief investment officer. "I didn't understand a word he said," she confesses. But instead of delving into finance, she asked him to tutor her in the basics so she would know enough to ask key questions and delegate.
Tilghman has had to let go in another way, as well. She recently closed her lab after the last of her students had completed their projects. "From the moment I accepted the job, I knew that this was a career-changing decision, that I would eventually close down the lab," she says. "And there's no going back." Nevertheless, she still helps teach an introductory course in molecular biology.
This month, Tilghman launches a $1.75 billion fundraising campaign. Among other goals, she wants to raise the profile of the arts, expand the university's neuroscience institute, increase support for the engineering school, and boost international outreach.
And then? "For years, I had said that when I retired, I would start a company that hired retired people to sit for working mothers when the Maytag repairman comes. . . . or when Johnny is sick," says Tilghman, 60. That idea, stemming from her own juggling of career and child raising, took the form of a backup day-care option for Princeton employees introduced last year.
"It's thrilling to have founded this," she says. "The downside is I have to find something else to do when I retire." That is something she isn't planning anytime soon.