Saturday, May 31, 2008

Shirley Tilghman and Princeton's evolution

Richardson has that luxurious atmosphere that is simultaneously off-putting (the stone murals, the stained-glass ceilings, the dark polished woodwork) and cozy (the plush seats, the small capacity, the round surroundings, the acoustics). Music from an a cappella group wafted over softly.

But President Tilghman’s “Saturday Morning Conversation” was one of those situations that makes a college reporter feel quite out of place. Few out of the rather large gathering in Richardson Auditorium this morning were under the age of 50. The average attendee was probably about three times older than I am. You can judge by the dearth of non-grayed hair.

But Tilghman, dressed in an orange blazer gradating from light to dark orange, black slacks and what she called her “lucky orange shoes,” didn’t treat the crowd of older alums any differently from how she treats fresh-faced freshmen. She is poised, as always, conversational but not too casual. She never speaks from notes but seems to know where she’s going. There is an internal logic and structure to her remarks, however extemporaneous. I can’t say she has ever moved me to tears or made me laugh aloud, but never in my three years in watching her various addresses has she disappointed, either.

The point of the event was mainly to update alumni on the progress of the University. It was a very substantive year, and Tilghman capitalized on that. She listed several “firsts”: first year with the new four-year residential colleges, first year without Early Decision, first year the 10-year campus plan was released, first year the graduating class is debt-free, etc. From time to time, some of the audience would nod. I didn’t see any head-shaking or visible disapproval.

Former University trustee Hal Saunders ’52 asked Tilghman about the small schools with small endowments that cannot compete with the extremely generous financial aid packages from schools like Princeton. To this, Tilghman did not try to give an answer, because the problem as of yet, she said, has no answer. “We’re concerned about it,” she said, “But we’re not quite sure what the answer is,” adding that it would certainly not be right for schools like Princeton to stop offering good financial aid packages.

“It’s a thorny problem,” she admitted.

When another alumnus asked her about the proposals going through Congress to mandate endowment spending rules, Tilghman was firm. The motivation behind these rules is “deeply misleading,” she said. The net cost of going to Princeton in real dollars, she said, has declined by 25 percent in the last 10 years.

“We have no reason not to spend at the rate that promotes intergenerational equity,” she said. “I think that this notion that universities are hoarding their endowments … could not be more wrong.”

Other questions ranged from Thomas Wolf ’48, who asked that Tilghman please send reading material with bigger font to older alums in the future, to Adrian Woodhouse ’59, who was concerned that the University was not admitting enough students from his home state of Nevada. Others alums asked Tilghman to detail what the new living and dining options were, and what the new bridge-year program – which will be available for the Class of 2013 – entailed. She complied and described them patiently, though she has probably done so scores of times before.

I chatted with the alum who sat next to me after Tilghman’s address, until the Richardson ushers quietly told us we had to leave. He asked about study abroad programs, about whether any schools other than Harvard and U.Va. have joined in on eliminating early admissions and about where the “junior slums” were. He got me thinking. For all these alums, many of whom had not even attended college in the presence of female peers, how does it feel to return to a Princeton so different in composition and leadership? Indeed, as the alum said, the leadership of the majority of the Ivy League is female. He suggested that The Daily Princetonian do a piece on the “quartet.” Perhaps we shall.