Shirley M. Tilghman

"Aim high and be bold!"  

Shirley M. Tilghman was elected Princeton University's 19th president on May 5, 2001, and assumed office on June 15, 2001. An exceptional teacher and a world-renowned scholar and leader in the field of molecular biology, she served on the Princeton faculty for 15 years before being named president. Tilghman, a native of Canada, received her Honors B.Sc. in chemistry from Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, in 1968. After two years of secondary school teaching in Sierra Leone, West Africa, she obtained her Ph.D. in biochemistry from Temple University in Philadelphia. During postdoctoral studies at the National Institutes of Health, she made a number of groundbreaking discoveries while participating in cloning the first mammalian gene, and then continued to make scientific breakthroughs as an independent investigator at the Institute for Cancer Research in Philadelphia and an adjunct associate professor of human genetics and biochemistry and biophysics at the University of Pennsylvania. Tilghman came to Princeton in 1986 as the Howard A. Prior Professor of the Life Sciences. Two years later, she also joined the Howard Hughes Medical Institute as an investigator. In 1998, she took on additional responsibilities as the founding director of Princeton's multi-disciplinary Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics. A member of the National Research Council's committee that set the blueprint for the U.S. effort in the Human Genome Project, Tilghman also was one of the founding members of the National Advisory Council of the Human Genome Project for the National Institutes of Health. She is renowned not only for her pioneering research, but for her national leadership on behalf of women in science and for promoting efforts to make the early careers of young scientists as meaningful and productive as possible. From 1993 through 2000, Tilghman chaired Princeton's Council on Science and Technology, which encourages the teaching of science and technology to students outside the sciences, and in 1996 she received Princeton's President's Award for Distinguished Teaching. She initiated the Princeton Postdoctoral Teaching Fellowship, a program across all the science and engineering disciplines that brings postdoctoral students to Princeton each year to gain experience in both research and teaching. In 2002, Tilghman was one of five winners of the L'Oréal-UNESCO Award for Women in Science. In the following year, she received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society for Developmental Biology, and in 2007, she was awarded the Genetics Society of America Medal for outstanding contributions to her field. Tilghman is a member of the American Philosophical Society, the National Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Medicine and the Royal Society of London. She serves as a trustee of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America, and the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, and as a director of Google Inc.

Read and watch to learn how Shirley "accidentally" became Princeton's 19th president, how she maintained resilience through challenges as a woman in science and as president, and why it's so important to find work that feeds your soul.  

1. Tell me about your path since graduation.

My name is Shirley Tilghman, and I've been at Princeton University as a faculty member and then as president of the University for almost 30 years. I grew up in Canada knowing that I wanted to be a scientist of one kind or another. I went to university thinking I wanted to be a chemist, and I left knowing I want to be a molecular biologist. After two years teaching in West Africa I went to graduate school to pursue a degree in molecular biology and had been thinking of myself as both a teacher and a molecular biologist for many years, until I suddenly discovered that I was a university administrator. That was a big career change; it was unexpected. I often call myself the accidental president, because I never intended to be a university administrator. It was never on my bucket list of things I wanted to do with my life. I became president because I had agreed to run as a member of the faculty on the search committee to identify the 19th president. I did that because I was starting a genomics institute and I was really concerned that we have a president who understands genomics and believes that it's an important part of the future. So I think without serving on that search committee I would never have been chosen, and I never would have thought that I would want to do it.

2. What made you want to ultimately serve as president?
I think the four or five months that I served on the committee was a very quick education on what it means to be a university leader. I learned that the issues that presidents have to contend with are really interesting. They’re hard. They're important. And that I was suddenly really interested in them in ways that I never would have predicted had I not steeped myself for those months in thinking about the university. I think the other thing is that when I was asked, I began to think about how to weigh the next 10 years of my career. I was having a wonderful time as a scientist starting the genomics institute, but I had a feeling, and I think it was a pretty accurate one, that I’d probably at that point done the best science I was ever going to do. So I had to weigh that against the chance to really make a difference in an institution that I've come to think of us home, and that I love very deeply.

3. Why do you think that genomics is an important part of our future?
I think it has really transformed the field of natural sciences. It certainly transformed the field of biology. It has given us opportunities to ask questions about organisms that were completely impossible prior to knowing all of the parts list that make up an organism. I think what we are just beginning to see the benefits of the Genome Project playing out for the benefit of human health, and I think that will continue for many years to come.

4. Why did you “know you wanted to be a scientist?”
Math. I loved mathematics. And I loved puzzles, puzzles of all kinds. So it was originally math, and then when I encountered chemistry I thought that was really wonderful. I loved chemistry. But by about the time I was a sophomore in college in Canada, I was pretty sure I was never going to be a great chemist. That’s what sent me looking for a different branch of science that I could pursue. Happily, I stumbled upon molecular biology and knew very soon afterward that it was what I really wanted to do.

5. What do you think still holds back women in scientific fields?
Deep cultural expectations for what a scientist looks like, and how a scientist goes about pursuing his or her work. And because these are deep cultural practices that go back to the very beginning of science as a profession, they are some of the hardest things to change. People close their eyes and think of a scientist, they think of a white male in a lab coat with a pocket protector. Those kind of deep cultural beliefs, women come up against them as they begin to study science, and recognize that the field is not designed with them in mind.

6. How did you maintain resilience through all those barriers?
To be honest, I think the way I proceeded was with blinkers. I just said I am going to ignore the signals, that were absolutely out there in retrospect I can see them, that are telling me that I should not pursue science as a career. And I am just going to storm ahead. I think it was the unwillingness to recognize the barriers and to let them dissuade me or turn me into a victim, that were really critical to continuing down the path. Frankly, many of the women of my generation who I've talked to about this question used exactly the same strategy. It may have been the only strategy that would have worked in the sixties, seventies, even into the eighties.

7. I heard that your dad was an amazing support for you.

I was the eldest daughter of three daughters. My father was a feminist before we knew that there were such things, before the word was invented. He fought for me. We moved a lot. So every time we moved, the school wanted to put me back a grade because “The system in Manitoba was better than Ontario,” or “Alberta's was better than Manitoba's.” He would march into the school and persuade the principal that I did not need to repeat a grade simply because I had moved from one province to another. One of the most famous moments when my father's feminism came to the fore, was after I took a test in eleventh grade that was supposed to help me think about what I wanted to do once I left high school. After the test, the guidance counselor quite happily told me that “not only was it clear that I could be a secretary, but that I could be an executive secretary!” When I went home and told my father that, and he knew by this point that I intended to be a scientist, he marched into that the principal's office the next day and just let them know what he thought of advising one of the top two or three students in the entire school that I should aspire to be an executive secretary. As opposed to what I wanted to do, which is to be a scientist.

He was a feminist. He believed, and made me believe, that I could do anything that I set my mind to do, and that I should not let anybody dissuade me from that. He was great.

8. What would surprise you most about your path?
There's no question that two things would really surprise me about my path. First, I was able to become a very successful scientist. I don't think I really believed that I could have had the kind of success that I had. And of course the biggest surprise was becoming the President of Princeton.

9. What advice would you give people about to start graduate school?
The first thing I would advise somebody going on to graduate school is to choose your mentors really, really, carefully. One of the reasons I became successful is that both as a graduate student and as a postdoctoral fellow-I had male mentors, there were no women mentors in those days- but I had two male mentors who could not have been more supportive. Like my father, they led me to believe that I could do whatever I set my mind to. Constantly having that kind of encouragement was absolutely critical.

Second, really find what it is that fascinates you and then pursue it with laser-like focus. It is very hard to be a scientist if you're a dilettante. You have to figure out what it is you want to do and then pursue it relentlessly. My ability to focus was really important in the early days.

10. And how can a student be a good mentee?
I don't think it's the role of students to be good to their mentors. I think it's our responsibility as mentors to understand where students are in their lives, and to help to the greatest extent possible. Not to tell them what to do by any stretch of the imagination, but at least to lay out for them how to think about what their choices are. There are students who are just a joy to mentor, and not because they always do what I think they should be doing, but because they are thoughtful, they’re self reflective, they're thinking through their futures, and it's always wonderful to watch students go through that process. There are some students who clearly are not interested in taking that kind of a path. Then you have to let them make their own mistakes and hopefully come to the right decisions ultimately- the right decision being whatever’s best for them.

11. What would you say to those students?

Don't be afraid to take risks. Don't be afraid to take the path less taken. One of the saddest things I heard from a wonderful student from a few years ago was when he said he was taking a job because it was the one everybody else wanted. Not the one he wanted, but the one that everybody else wanted. That just struck me as so sad and wrong. Bravery is a really important trait. And a willingness to take a risk. Because America's very forgiving. One of the things that I love about America is that it is a place where you can you can make a mistake. You can take the wrong path and you can get back on the path again. That's something that I often feel your generation is less convinced of. Often I feel your generation, and partly because your parents feel this way, you know that there's a path and you have to go down the path and the path is clear and check boxes as you go along the path. I worry that people are not taking enough risks and doing things that that are not admired by their peers necessarily.

12. Tell me about a risk that you took.
Well I think going to Sierra Leone was an example of a risk. It was certainly one that my parents were furious about. They, like parents, saw me going through college and then going to graduate school, and getting my Ph.D., and being a scientist, and it was all so safe and clear-cut. When I announced to them that I had applied to Cuso and then that I was going to Sierra Leone, which at that time had the lowest WHO health-rating of any country in the world- which my mother discovered-they were furious. But I knew that I was not ready for graduate school. I knew that I was burned out and that I had to do something different. I wanted to have an adventure. At that time in the sixties going to Sierra Leone was an adventure. I think going to Guinea today is an adventure. But it was such a good thing for me- both psychologically and experientially - for me, it was a wonderful experience. And I don’t regret a single moment of it. But it was a risk.

13. What stage in your career did you have kids?
I waited quite late before starting the family. I was at this point the equivalent of an assistant professor at a research institute in Philadelphia. I had a lab, it was already established. I was in my thirties. For me that was the right decision. I don't think there is a right decision. It depends tremendously on who you are, what you're doing, and what kind of support you have. I divorced when they were very young so for all intents and purposes I raised them from the ages of two and six months. I don't recommend it as the ideal way to raise children. It’s much better if you can do it with two parents. In fact it’s probably better if you can do it with five parents. It’s a lot of work raising children. I think it was also one of those things where I just said, “Ok. I am not going to acknowledge that this is difficult. I'm just going to carry on.” The key was building really great support systems, so having really good after school programs, having really good babysitters, having people I could call on a minute's notice if something came up that I couldn't deal with by myself. In the end they both are fantastic human beings. My daughter is an art historian and my son is a sound engineer. They both went into the arts. It all worked out in the end, but I don't pretend it was easy. There is no good time or bad time. I think it's going to be an individual decision.

14. What's the most important thing you learned balancing work and family?
I think the most important thing I learned is to suppress guilt. I think what is often most difficult, particularly for women/mothers is that they have a sense of chronic guilt. When they’re at work they're guilty they're not at home with their children, when they're at home with their children they're guilty that they're not at work. If you let that take hold and be the guiding feelings about work and family, you'll just be a chronically unhappy person. So one of the things that I did early is basically say, “When I am home I am at home, because I adore my children and I want to be with them and I want to be focused on them. Work is going to take care of itself.” Likewise when I was at work. “My children are in safe places, they are being well taken care of, and what I need to do is really focus on my work.” Refusing to allow guilt to become an overriding emotion was the most important thing I learned. Plus a great support network.

15. Tell me about what it was like adjusting to the presidency from being a scientist.
The hardest thing in the first year of the presidency was changing from a strategy of focus, which had worked and was essential to being a scientist, to being able to be a dilettante. The issues that come across the desk of a president are so broad and so varied and so different from one another that you have to recognize that you will not end up being the world's expert in any one of them. I was used to thinking, “I've got to be the world's expert in this field.” So it took me awhile to adjust to the notion that I could actually make a decision without knowing absolutely everything.

16. Tell me about a time you failed.
One of my first huge failures as president of Princeton, was imposing on the campus a seven-week moratorium for all varsity athletes. This came about as a result of a discussion among the Ivy presidents. I was the newest of them so I was participating in this discussion as a brand new president. We were concerned as a group about the intensification of athletics. That we were asking too much of our varsity athletes in terms of time commitment and they were not having an opportunity to really have a full university experience. We cooked up this seven week moratorium and we all went back to our campuses and announced that this was the new policy. There was just an eruption from the student-athletes. Ultimately it was clear that that this was a very poorly thought out policy. This was not going to work. There was huge resistance, and we had to basically backtrack. It was a real learning experience.

I think the flaw in the way in which the Ivy presidents went about making that decision is that we made it in isolation, the eight of us sitting around a table. We really did not consult with students, we didn't consult with coaches, and we didn't consult with athletic directors. We thought we knew better. It turns out we didn't.

17. What are some other challenges you faced as President of Princeton?
One of the things I had to learn was how to work with the Board of Trustees. That is something I had never had to do. If I was going to start the job today knowing what I now know, I would have done a much better job of it from the very beginning. It took a while for me to realize that I had forty individuals, all of whom cared deeply about the university, but each of whom had slightly different expectations for what they wanted out of their experience as a trustee. It took me a while to learn how to do that and to do it well.

The hardest time being president was during the recession, when the endowment dropped 23% within a period of about six months. Princeton is so endowment-dependent for its operating budget that we had to really do things that had never been done before in the University in terms of cutting budgets and cutting projects. It broke my heart to have to cut a childcare center that was being designed as the endowment disappeared. I really had to learn what was happening and figure out how to protect the University. That was a really hard thing. The third thing I would say is the Robertson lawsuit, which went on for six years and just was unrelenting in terms of pressures to defend the University from a plaintiff who I think had nothing but ill will toward the University.

18. How did you maintain perspective through all these challenges?

President Shapiro gave me one of the best pieces of advice in the five weeks that we went through our transition period together. He said, “Look. There are going to be days when you feel as though you have singlehandedly brought down a 275 year-old institution. That it is about to crumble at your feet and you are responsible. And when that moment hits,” and believe me it hit, “Just remember, in a week no one will be able to remember what it was all about.”

Although I would say that during the recession it took more than a week for us to believe that we had actually gotten through the storm, it was really helpful knowing that Harold had such thoughts and that it was going to take more than me to bring Princeton down.

19. If you think of Shirley 1.0 at work and Shirley 5.0 at work, what are some key leadership lessons you learned along the way?
I learned a tremendous number of leadership lessons in the presidency. It's not that you're not a leader when you're running a laboratory or trying to start a research institute, but the scale is just fundamentally different. The first and most important lesson is hire people smarter than you. One of the things I'm most proud of in my presidency is the people I attracted to the senior administration. Extraordinary people who have gone on as we know to be the President of Princeton, for example. And the president of Penn and the president of Brown- these were all people I appointed at Princeton. Don't be afraid to have people around you who are smarter than you. It’s a great leadership strategy.

I think another thing I learned is how important it is to communicate a single message to all of your constituencies. One of the things that makes being a university president so challenging is that you have so many different constituencies. You have faculty, you have staff, you have alumni, you have students, and each one of them is looking to you for something different. If you're saying different things to each one, it will come back and bite you eventually. Deciding what your priorities are and talking about them in the same way to all of your constituencies was an absolutely critical part of leading.

And the final thing is, always ask, “What is the right thing to do?” There are versions of this. “Would you want to see this on the front page of the New York Times?” is a very famous one. But I think at the end of the day you want to ask, “What is the right thing to do?” And usually that is both right and strategic.

20. Were there any decisions you made that you thought were right that others did not?
There were two decisions I made that were controversial, but I believed they were the right thing to do. The first was to eliminate early decision. To this day I believe that early decision warps the college admission process in ways that are harmful to students. I don’t think it benefits universities. It certainly creates a situation where the advantaged are more advantaged. It is an admissions process that is used by students of means much more than low income students. I believed it was the right thing to do at the time, and to this day believe it was the right thing to do.

The other was our grading policy, which was very controversial for the whole time it existed. To this day I believe it was the right policy. We needed some kind of guidelines for the faculty so that we were appropriately rewarding good work and we were not rewarding mediocre work. Those are two examples of policies that I knew were not going to be popular, but I believed were the right thing for the university to do and to stand for.

21. What was the biggest strength you brought to the presidency?

I think one of the qualities that was beneficial in leading Princeton was actually my empathy. On the campus in general, and many people have said this to me so I do believe that it's true, they felt good about working at Princeton, because they felt that the leadership appreciated what they did, understood the challenges that they were facing, were thanked from time to time. I think that’s a quality of leadership that is missing, certainly from the national scene, but is really critical. When I saw the impact of the way people perceived both me personally, but also the style of leadership that I tried to inculcate in Nassau Hall, it was a very positive thing that people resonated to very much. I would always address the parents and the students at the hosting weekend and they would often come up to me at the reception and say. “Ok, I feel better now.” Or, “I feel that this is a place that will care about my child.” I think the faculty and the staff felt that there was a group in Nassau Hall who were listening to them. I don't think students felt that as often, but I do think the faculty and the staff definitely felt that way. And felt that they were going to get a respectful hearing. One of Princeton's most beloved professors who is no longer with us, Marvin Bressler, once said to me, “You know the key to being a really good leader is telling someone no and having them leave your office feeling as though they're ok with that decision.” That comes out of a sense that you listened, you considered, you deliberated, and then you explained why the answer was no. It's a lot easier to say yes, but sometimes you have to say no.

22. What projects are you working on now?
I'm working on a research organization that I helped to found in the last several years called “Rescuing Biomedical Research.” It was founded with three other people who I had been spending time with over the last two or three years really talking hard about the problems that are currently facing, particularly young people, who are coming into biomedical research. And the structure of the enterprise that is making it much more difficult for them to get careers underway. So we started this organization, we raised some money, we now have an executive director, and we're really trying to be an advocacy group to institute reforms into the system.

23. What career & life advice would you give to recent college graduates?
Other than aim high and be bold, which is what I would say at the end of every commencement address (all those commencement addresses!). I’d point out that you are what you do every day. If that is something that is feeding your soul then you're going to live a rich life. If it is something you were doing just because the money is so good or you're doing because everybody else thinks that it’s a really cool thing to do, but you don't, then I think you will not be a happy individual. So I think thinking hard about your work as something that is going to be feeding your soul, because you spend the majority of your waking hours doing it for a good part of the rest of your life.

24. What if someone doesn’t know what “feeds their soul?”
Then experiment. Test out some things. You know I think one of the great things that has happened in the last 25 or 30 years is that no one believes that they are going to be doing what they're doing today five years from now or 10 years from now. I think that the whole landscape of how you design a career has completely changed. The benefit of that is it gives you much more time to explore. If in job one you come home every night and dread the thought of getting up in the morning, boy, get out of that one quick. And find something where you just can't wait to go back the next day.

25. How do you define success?

I don't know how to define success, because it's so different for different circumstances. When I think about the contributions that Princeton graduates make in the world, when I say that we are preparing students to be leaders, I think it's just as important that a kindergarten teacher inspire a lifelong love of learning in his or her five-year-olds as it is to be president of the United States. I value both of those equally and I consider both of those successes.

I think success is you've injected meaning into your life. That famous deathbed moment where you look back and you say, “Did I leave the world a better place? Did I love deeply? Did I leave the world better in some way?” Without being at all specific about what that has to be. But did I make a difference?

This interview was conducted and condensed by Lisa Einstein '13