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Princeton’s Tilghman on Residential Colleges

— Yesterday’s edition of the official Princeton Weekly Bulletin carried an interview with Princeton University president Shirley Tilghman, in which she outlines the importance of the four-year residential college system currently under development.

A vision for Princeton: Five years into her presidency, Tilghman charts path for the University’s future

From the Sept. 25, 2006, Princeton Weekly Bulletin

During her first year as Princeton’s president, Shirley M. Tilghman was constantly asked to detail her vision for the University. Her answer was always at the ready: “Ask me later.”

Tilghman set out to identify areas where the University needed to make progress and could enhance its time-honored strengths in teaching and research. Five years later, her vision has taken shape.

Tilghman is overseeing a number of major advances, including an 11 percent increase in the undergraduate student body by 2012, the introduction of a four-year residential college system in 2007 and the planning and building of new facilities for engineering, neuroscience, chemistry and the arts. She also has led efforts ranging from strengthening key academic disciplines and increasing students’ social options to improving health and well-being resources and making the University a more diverse and family-friendly workplace.

A renowned molecular biologist and award-winning teacher, Tilghman served on Princeton’s faculty for 15 years before moving to Nassau Hall. In the following interview, she addresses the progress of significant initiatives undertaken by her administration as well as key issues facing the University and her goals for Princeton over the next several years. Tilghman also discusses her experiences—both professional and personal—since being installed as the University’s 19th president in September 2001.

What do you consider the most significant changes at Princeton since you became president?

I think from the perspective of the University it is the creation of the four-year college system, which was conceived before I became president but needed flesh on the bones. We have been putting flesh on those bones for the last five years, including the building of Whitman College, which is going to be a simply stunning addition to the campus. That has been the single most important issue that we have tackled in the last five years.

What are the advantages of revamping the residential college system?

The big advantage is the creation of more options for students, so that students will have different ways of experiencing their junior and senior years than the two options that are currently available to them.

We had heard pretty consistently over the years that you could roughly divide the undergraduate student body into quadrants: 25 percent were deeply satisfied with the choice they made as a junior and senior, whether it was to join an eating club or to become independent; 25 percent were deeply unhappy with their options; and 50 percent—the two middle quadrants—were someplace in between those extremes. To have such a significant percentage of the student body polarized in that way seemed unacceptable to us.

When we conceived of a four-year college, it was an extraordinary opportunity to think of the college as more than a place where people sleep and eat, but as a place that is an integral part of the educational milieu of the University. We want to create a community in these colleges that represents everyone—from the master and visiting faculty (there will be apartments for visiting faculty in the colleges); to graduate students, who will see the college both as their home and a place where they are actually participating in the life of the college; to the undergraduates.

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