At an open forum this past Monday evening that focused on the search for Princeton University’s next president, members of the local governing bodies and a handful of community residents made clear their hopes for a leader with a heightened sensitivity to town/gown relations.
While all who spoke to eight representatives of the 17-member search committee expressed gratitude for the opportunity, few minced words when describing outgoing president Shirley Tilghman’s interactions with the local community. Ms. Tilghman, president of the University since 2001, announced her intention to step down at the end of the current academic year.
“Fear and intimidation has become a common theme on and off campus with the present administration,” said resident Joseph McGeady. “Tilghman apparently views the community only as an obstacle to the University’s plans.” Mr. McGeady was among the speakers who referred to a contentious Borough Council meeting in January, 2011, when Ms. Tilghman requested approval of the University’s plans for its Arts and Transit neighborhood. David Goldfarb, a former member of Borough Council, urged the committee to view a videotape of the meeting.
Led by University trustees Laura Forese ’83 and Kathryn Hall ’80, the forum was designed to hear input from local residents rather than to answer questions. Earlier in the day, the search was the topic at a gathering of the Council of the Princeton Community. Further meetings on the search are scheduled with members of the University faculty, staff, and students this week.
Resident Linda Sipprelle suggested that the new president come from the business world rather than academia. “An ideal candidate could be found among the many accomplished alumni of Princeton who have contributed to the success of business or finance,” she said. “A president with experience in the real world can best lead the University successfully into the 21st century both locally and nationally.”
Borough Council member Kevin Wilkes, who entered Princeton University in 1975, described the town of that time as very different from today. “The equilibrium has changed,” he said, referring to its metamorphosis from quiet college town to an “extraordinarily hyper” destination. “The new president should be aware and open to issues of growth,” he said. “Friction has developed as the University has grown. I would hope the new president would be open to mutual planning strategies.”
Borough resident Chip Crider, also a graduate of the University, said, “We need a new president who is the kind of guy who you’d invite over to your house if you were grilling. And we don’t have that.” He added, “The case can be made to get a president who didn’t come from an academic background. It should be someone who can get respect.”
Princeton mayor-elect Liz Lempert said she hoped the new president would be someone “interested in working on this relationship in earnest.” Princeton “could be a model for town/gown relations,” she added. “To have someone interested in engaging in that partnership is something I’d like to see.”
Borough Mayor and Princeton graduate Yina Moore described Ms. Tilghman’s attitude toward the community as “nothing but destructive” and said she “has expressed only a disdain for elected officials and the democratic process.” Ms. Moore was referring not only to the struggles over Arts and Transit, but also to a pending Assembly bill that would allow private universities and colleges to expand without municipal approval. A president who is “not dictating to the town, but in a relationship, a partnership, is much more what the community needs,” she said.
About 25 people attended the forum, which was held in a room in Robertson Hall. Bob Durkee, University vice-president and secretary, said the committee was prepared to move to a larger room if an overflow crowd had attended. While future forums are a possibility, the University is urging the public to express their views on the selection of a new president by logging onto the website princeton.edu/presidentialsearch.
“We’ve already had members of the community who have found their way to that website, and we hope more will,” he said Tuesday. “If we don’t see comments coming through, one option would be to have another conversation of this kind, or a more general one where community members and others will participate. Yesterday’s were the first. We’re just getting started and we’ll see how things go.”
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