Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman said she worried she wasn’t qualified 11 years ago when the search committee urged her to apply for the post. A renowned molecular biologist, Tilghman sought the advice of then Princeton President Harold T. Shapiro, who was retiring.
She talked about how she’d never been a dean or a provost and lacked administrative experience. He told her, “university presidents aren’t hired for that, they’re hired for their vision and judgment.”
Then he asked what salary was being discussed. When he heard the figure, he said: “That isn’t enough. I told her, ‘It isn’t going to help you to be the lowest-paid president in the Ivies.’”
Tilghman got the job, after heeding Shapiro and negotiating a higher salary, and so have two other female Ivy League presidents he’s mentored: Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania and Ruth Simmons, the former president of Brown University who stepped down in July. Shapiro has also mentored Nancy Cantor, chancellor and president of Syracuse University, and S. Georgia Nugent, president of Kenyon College.
While just 4 percent of chief executive officers at Fortune 500 companies are women, half of the presidents of the eight Ivy League schools are, as well as 26 percent of the leaders at U.S. colleges and universities. Several of the most prominent credit Shapiro for their ascent.
‘No Boys’ Club’
“There’s no boy’s club with Harold,” said Gutmann. “He elevated so many women because he just gets it. If you could get things done, you were on the team.”
For more than two decades, as president of Princeton and before that the University of Michigan, Shapiro identified talented women and gave them high-visibility assignments that helped propel them to the top. He encouraged women who didn’t think they were accomplished enough to advance or ask for equitable pay to get what they deserved.
That’s precisely the backing female corporate managers say they aren’t offered enough. A recent Catalyst Inc. study of managers at 20 large companies found that women are much less likely than men to be sponsored by male executives for jobs that lead to the CEO’s office.
“Influential, highly placed sponsors can supercharge a woman’s or a man’s career, providing access to assignments that help propel a protege to the top of the list of promotions,” said Ilene Lang, president and CEO of Catalyst, a New York-based nonprofit that focuses on expanding opportunities for women in business.
Shapiro, 77, has taught and written about economics, bioethics and higher education and is chairman of DeVry Inc. and a former director of Dow Chemical Co. and HCA Healthcare Co. He said giving women chances isn’t just fair, it’s smart management.
“I did it to help me,” he said in an interview in his office at Princeton, where he still teaches. If you overlook women, whether you’re running a university or a corporation, “you’re overlooking half the available talent, and then you don’t get the best people to help you do your job.”
Instead of leapfrogging a few women into top positions, Shapiro gave many women assignments that broadened their skills and positioned them to advance. While, overall, the strategy has succeeded, it didn’t work all the time, Shapiro said.
“You never want to put someone in a job they’re not qualified for because then everyone loses, but you also can’t know how things will turn out until you try,” he said, adding that he took the same approach with men.
Gutmann, the current president of the University of Pennsylvania, was a Princeton professor of political science when in 1990 Shapiro asked her to head a new Center for Human Values, which Laurance S. Rockefeller, a Princeton alumnus, had expressed interest in funding. When the initial proposal session took place, Shapiro didn’t attend.
“Rockefeller had to trust her if he was going to go forward, since she’d be the one in charge,” Shapiro said. Gutmann was “an important faculty member and an expert in ethics, but I had no evidence she could build a center,” he said. As it turned out, “all I had to do was step back and let her do her thing.”
Rockefeller pledged about $20 million after meeting Gutmann. The assignment led to her subsequent promotion to dean of faculty and then provost under Tilghman.
“If not for Harold’s confidence in me, I wouldn’t have ever been on the 56th floor of Rockefeller Center with Laurance Rockefeller, and my life might have taken a different turn,” said Gutmann. “You need opportunity to have good luck, and Harold gave me that opportunity.” Rockefeller died in 2004.
S. Georgia Nugent was an associate professor of classics at Brown who had never had an administrative job when Shapiro convinced her to come to Princeton to become his special assistant in 1992. Nugent was reluctant to leave teaching and her scholarly work and said she agreed to meet Shapiro only because she wanted to revisit Princeton, where she’d been in the first coed undergraduate class.
“I said during the interview that if I was going to leave teaching, I’d want to be a college president, and he looked at me and said: ‘That could be possible.’”
She spent three years as Shapiro’s assistant -- writing many of his speeches, overseeing the growing use of technology by students and faculty and co-teaching with him. Shapiro then promoted her to associate provost and subsequently dean of the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning, jobs that put her on the radar of colleges seeking a new president. Nugent became Kenyon’s first female president in 2003.
Shapiro was more of an outsider as Princeton’s president than his predecessors, many of whom had been longtime Princeton faculty. He was also the university’s first Jewish president, and he’d spent five years, after graduating from McGill University, running his family’s restaurant, Ruby Foo’s, with his twin brother Bernard. He decided an academic career suited him more than business. After earning a Ph.D. in economics from Princeton, he spent the next 24 years at the University of Michigan as a professor, provost and then president from 1980 until 1988.
Shapiro’s biggest motivation was to make Princeton better reflect the more global and diverse world, he said.
The Princeton campus he returned to in 1988 wasn’t the all-male school he had attended as a graduate student. The 266-year-old Ivy League university began admitting female undergraduates in 1969. By the time Shapiro took charge, about 40 percent of undergraduates were female.
“That statistic didn’t impress me,” said Shapiro, who thought Princeton wasn’t diverse enough.
“I wanted to get to 50 percent” female students, he said, and increase the number of students from low-income families and from overseas -- a goal he thought required changing Princeton’s predominantly white male administration and faculty.
“I needed people who represented the students I wanted to have here, who knew firsthand what it’s like to be a woman or an African American,” he said.
When openings arose at Princeton for administrators or deans and he was handed a list of candidates that didn’t include women, he urged staff to “do more work and find some,” he said. “I didn’t order anyone to do this, but I kept bringing it up and pressing my point.”
When Princeton needed a new head of information technology and a vice president of facilities, Shapiro’s staff told him there weren’t any women qualified for these jobs -- and wouldn’t be for at least a decade. He said he didn’t believe them.
“I said, ‘just find one woman candidate for each job, the best one you can find -- and you don’t have to hire her,’” he said. The women his staff eventually found were more experienced than the male candidates, and got the jobs.
The father of four daughters, who all have advanced degrees and work in careers ranging from hospital administration to real estate development and academia, Shapiro had a personal interest in making Princeton more female friendly, he said. His wife Vivian, whom Shapiro met as a teenager, is a Ph.D. in psychology.
“My wife was a professional from the beginning, which was unusual then,” he said. “She didn’t lecture me” about women, “but when you have a wife with a career, that has an effect.”
As in corporations, college presidents typically move up through the ranks, amassing experience by serving as deans and provosts. Shapiro encouraged female faculty who weren’t on this administrative track and whom he thought were strong leaders to take on special projects to fill the gaps in their resumes.
Tilghman oversaw Princeton’s Council on Science and Technology, which encouraged the teaching of science to non-science majors and, with Shapiro’s backing, was founding director of the school’s Institute for Integrative Genomics. The assignments gave her visibility with many professors on campus and taught her how to fundraise and broker deals.
“Without that experience, I wouldn’t have been considered for president,” said Tilghman, who announced earlier this month that she’ll retire next year.
After she was named his successor and before taking charge, Tilghman spent five weeks following Shapiro to every meeting and campus event he attended to familiarize herself with the job. Once she settled into the president’s office, Shapiro told Tilghman he wouldn’t call her “but would be there in a heartbeat if I needed him,” she said. “He never hovered or second-guessed me.”
Shapiro wasn’t always liked for all his decisions or leadership style. He was considered remote by many students.
“Few of us had the chance to meet him -- let alone see him” in between opening ceremonies and commencement, editors of the Daily Princetonian wrote in an editorial after Shapiro announced his retirement as president. “He left us the potential for great change, but never directly shaped our college experience.”
Shapiro lobbied for his female administrators and deans when they were wooed elsewhere. Simmons was a Princeton associate provost who had worked mostly in administration when Smith College recruited her in 1995 to become the first African-American female president of a major college. When Shapiro received a call from a member of the search committee, asking about her credentials, Shapiro talked about how Simmons had helped build Princeton’s African-American studies department and wooed Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison to campus as a writing professor.
“Ruth was in a job which didn’t normally lead to a college presidency but her very unusual talents were quite clear,” said Shapiro. “I said if they wanted someone who could build a community, she’s outstanding doing that.”
After leading Smith for six years, Simmons was recruited to Brown where she was president for more than a decade.
“You can’t get possessive of people,” Shapiro said. “You have a moral obligation, whether it’s a woman or a man, to support their advance.”