Grading Shirley: A Review of the Tilghman Administration

By Peter Kunze ’14

What will be the legacy of soon-to-be President Emeritus Shirley Tilghman? The assessment of a university president, like that of other public leaders, is inherently difficult, since news articles and press releases cannot always communicate the inner workings behind administration decisions or the constraints under which the president must operate. Depending on one’s political or moral leaning, a university president can be portrayed as occupying some extreme. Presidents who oversee great academic reform can either be praised as pioneers or be dismissed as fortunate overseers of a dynamic university. The distinction between good leadership and good institutions is unclear at times. All this is to say that President Tilghman’s legacy should not be judged solely off of the new buildings built or the trending of moral apathy and illiberal education.  We must judge the leader in the context of the institution. Otherwise we would risk giving President Tilghman either too much or too little credit. We should neither blame her for everything wrong with the University nor for everything right. Given the current university climate,  we should lower our expectations for what a university president can reasonably do as an individual. Leadership is important, but it cannot correct for everything dysfunctional in an institution. With that in mind, what follows is perhaps more a review of President Tilghman’s administration, than an assessment of her individual performance.


The Tilghman administration record on academics is very strong. It has overseen the development of new programs, such as the Center for African American Studies (established in the 1960s, but only recently given substantial support), and the Neuroscience program. The Tilghman administration also saw a tremendous increase in the school’s applicant pool, which has more than doubled since the beginning of Tilghman’s presidency. This reflects a concerted effort by President Tilghman and Dean Rapeyle, in particular, to increase diversity, whether ethnic, socio-economic, or cultural. The University does not seem to have increased intellectual diversity, but by other metrics of diversity it has done fine.  Although conservatives often call liberal efforts at “diversity” misguided, such efforts seem imperative on a campus with as much of a history of aristocracy as Princeton. Initiatives at increasing diversity can certainly be done poorly, but the University is best served when it makes an effort to prevent the formation of a homogenous campus. Different backgrounds bring different perspectives and thus force us to reassess our own beliefs.

Most importantly, the Tilghman administration has, for better or worse, introduced and implemented “grade deflation.” The infamous policy has frustrated most of the campus, and has sparked a near constant cycle of irate editorials in the Daily Princetonian. Students fear that the capping of A’s puts them at a severe post-graduation disadvantage with students at peer institutions such as Harvard or Yale, where the average GPA is much higher. Others argue that the policy unjustly forces professors to rank student work in academic subjects where quality is subjective and inherently difficult to assess. These points are well taken, but they betray both a misunderstanding of the system, and an immature sense of entitlement. First, “grade deflation” has long been practiced in the more quantitative departments, such as math and sciences, where determining the grade curve for a class is fairly easy. The extension of this policy to the social sciences and the humanities simply helps to rectify the imbalance between the so-called “hard” and “easy” majors. If these qualitative departments promise a higher GPA, then students fixated on going to some top-notch professional school will naturally gravitate toward these majors. By changing this incentive, the Tilghman administration has done something admirable: encouraging students to major in what they actually love. Secondly and most importantly, we as students are not entitled to an “A” for all of our coursework. Yes, our friends, professors, and the admissions department have all told us Princeton students that we are simply brilliant, but the pursuit of distinguished excellence should not stop once we are admitted. Some are more brilliant than others, and we should give just distinction to those that produce higher-quality work. Clearly some coursework is superior to others, and without the distinction between “A” and “B”, we have no feedback on the quality of our work. For this reason, grade deflation has provided us with a standard toward which to strive. We may complain about the policy and the seemingly arbitrary nature of it at times, but ultimately it has a very conservative principle, in that not all student work is created equal. So on the academic front, the Tilghman administration has succeeded. It has fostered a diverse, and competitive environment that pushes us students to strive for excellence even after we receive our acceptance letters.


On the social front, the Tilghman administration pursued a misguided strategy to change the community dynamics. They have unofficially waged a war on the eating clubs, a fight that lacks both prudence and an understanding of the social dynamics of campus life. The administration may pay lip service to a desire to coexist with  Prospect Street, but its intentions are clear. At every turn, the University has attempted to build the residential college system into a viable alternative to the eating clubs. It has prioritized the construction and renovation of new buildings in the residential colleges. By offering housing in Whitman and Butler with the condition that upperclassmen purchase a dining hall meal plan, the University has made the eating clubs comparatively more expensive for those who also want quality housing, thus disincentivizing participation in the Street. The administration has poured its resources into this system, in the hopes of developing an equivalent community outside the Street. The recent ban on freshman rush is yet another component of this campaign. The effect of this policy will not be clear for at least a couple of years, but its purpose seems clear. The administration seeks to channel the social energies of the students into something other the Street. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Efforts at building campus community should be praised and encouraged. However they must reflect reality.

The residential college system has severe limits. At its best, it can certainly provide freshmen with a comforting introduction to Princeton. Being a member of Whitman or Mathey certainly gives students an immediate campus identity and community, but it is seldom a lasting one. Ultimately, the socially engineered placement of the residential college system cannot compete with the organic formation of community on the Street and other parts of campus. This is not to say that the eating clubs are always positive models of community. The eleven clubs on Prospect have substantial problems with elitism and encourage unhealthy lifestyles. That said, they are ultimately the product of the free choices of the student body. As conservatives sympathetic to Tocqueville and Nisbet know, part of the value in community is derived from the fact that we choose it freely. The administration does not seem to understand this though. Under President Tilghman, it has acted with the assumption that an engineered residential college can replicate the community of an eating club. Any of the 70% of upperclassmen involved in the Prospect scene can tell you this is absurd.

The Tilghman administration has fought the eating clubs in part because they supposedly give the University a poor reputation in the view of outsiders. To those not immersed in the Princeton community, the clubs represent the height of WASP elitism and snobbery. For prospective students, Prospect Street is by no means a draw. Many incoming freshmen view the eating club scene in a negative light and claim to be disinterested, only to bicker a year later. The clubs likely deter a fair number of prospective students. So I understand why the administration views the Street negatively. The media’s representation of the eating clubs as bastions of elitism has made Princeton seem snobbish and uninviting.  Campus tour guides often skirt question regarding the eating clubs, or try to compare them to residential colleges.That said, the eating clubs are likely the biggest contributor to the lasting community that forms on campus. The Tilghman administration has not only fought something that cannot be defeated, but it has also fought one of the sources of vitality on this campus.


The Tilghman administration has successfully managed its political and financial affairs, though not without some difficulty. The Aspire campaign raised an astounding $1.88 billion, the biggest haul by far in Princeton history. Because of this, 145 new scholarships and 28 new professorships were created. This fundraising effort will keep the university at the top for decades to come. If nothing else, this solidifies President Tilghman’s legacy. Town-gown relations, however, have been less than smooth. The university has substantially increased its voluntary contribution to the borough of Princeton and the township, going from $104,000 in 2001 to $2.5 million. In spite of this, the relationship has frayed somewhat. The recently consolidated town of Princeton has expressed serious qualms about the university’s proposed Arts and Transit Neighborhood and the move of the Dinky that it would require. The town of Princeton recently approved the move, but not without major opposition and tension. Judging the Tilghman administration’s performance is difficult. On the one hand, the planned Arts and Transit Neighborhood will bring numerous benefits to both the university and the town; it will transform the current Dinky station into a restaurant as well as expand university facilities. Yes, the move of the Dinky will be inconvenient for town residents, but it’s hard to see how this outweighs the transformation of the McCarter/Wawa area. With this in mind, one must wonder why the university encountered so much resistance to the plan. While the Tilghman administration succeeded in getting the plan approved, it could have more effectively communicated to the borough the upside of the planned move. With legal action being pursued, the planned neighborhood may be held in the courts much longer than originally anticipated. Overall, the Tilghman administration accomplished what it set out to do with the Arts Transit Neighborhood, but not without some strain to the town-gown relationship .


President Tilghman and her administration have had moderate success in leading Princeton University, although not without some major mistakes. The academic reforms have raised the bar for students and are a principled stand against entitlement in higher education. President Tilghman’s efforts at changing the social climate have been less than stellar, wasting university resources to try to construct an arbitrary and shallow community. As for financial and political issues, she orchestrated the biggest fundraising effort in the University’s history, and, in addition, she pushed through the proposed Arts Transit neighborhood, albeit with much difficulty. Conservatives may criticize President Tilghman for a number of trends in the University, from the neglect of character formation to the shift in focus from the liberal arts to technical disciplines, but in reality she has worked under a number of institutional constraints. Whether you bemoan the hook-up culture or the shift away from the liberal arts, these negative trends result largely from the individual choices of Princeton students and professors.  Any administrative effort to combat these trends would likely face stiff opposition and backfire. Blame our classmates, blame our professors, blame our institution as a whole, but don’t blame Shirley Tilghman for trends that have been developing for years before her time. As we look back on her twelve years as president of Princeton, it is clear that President Tilghman was a competent leader who put Princeton on a solid footing, although severely misguided at times. Hopefully President Eisgruber will be equally skillful, but with an improved sense of the University’s direction and purpose.

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