Power and Money at Princeton:
What we see and what we don’t


The following series is written by guest contributors and reflects their views alone. For information on how to submit an article to the Opinion section, click here.

This is a three part series by guest contributors from Divest Princeton about donations and power at Princeton. The first discusses the nomination and election procedures for the Princeton Board of Trustees, the second examines the nature of major donations to the University, and the third dives into links between major donors to Princeton and the dark money that fuels the climate denial movement.

Where is our Princeton Forward?

Toward a more democratic Board of Trustees

By Sofia Hiltner ’17 & Lynne Archibald ’87

Last year, three Harvard alumni who openly supported fossil fuel divestment were elected to Harvard University’s Board of Overseers. This happened because an organization called “Harvard Forward” petitioned to place them onto the ballot. Yale Forward has undertaken a similar effort in anticipation of the Yale Corporation’s 2021 election. This would not be possible at Princeton as there is no petition process or way to know what a Trustee candidate stands for. The opaqueness of the Trustee nomination process and absence of a petition option highlight the undemocratic and nontransparent nature of Princeton’s Board of Trustees.

The University Board of Trustees is the highest governing body at Princeton. The Board determines, among other things, tuition and fees, admission policy, endowment policy, and campus planning. The Board also decides on issues ranging from pandemic protocols to investment in fossil fuels. The Board’s decisions affect not only immediate members of the university community but also families who bear the cost of tuition and residents of the surrounding area.

The Board is currently made up of 37 Trustees: 13 Alumni Trustees (of which four are Young Alumni Trustees), 10 Term Trustees, and 14 Charter Trustees (President Eisgruber and N.J. Gov. Phil Murphy serve ex officio; see table above for more information on each kind of Trustee). Detailed Trustee biographies are not available on the Board’s webpage; you need to do a bit of digging. Research for this article series on governance and funding at Princeton included compiling information about current Trustees (all available online) as well as an analysis of donations to the University through Candid’s Foundation Directory Online (FDO). Notably, this research reveals that many past and current Trustees have made significant donations to the University. From 2007 to 2020, at least 12 former and current members of the Board gave large sums to Princeton (often through linked or family foundations) totalling more than $74.7 million. The second piece in this article series will discuss donations to Princeton in more depth.

Unlike Harvard and Yale alumni, Princeton alumni cannot petition to be Alumni Trustee candidates (seniors can petition to be Young Alumni Trustee candidates). Two-thirds of the Board — Term and Charter Trustees — are simply selected by current members of the Board. To our knowledge, faculty and staff cannot vote for any kind of Trustee. Alumni Trustees — the remaining third of the board — must be nominated by the Committee to Nominate Alumni Trustees (CTNAT). CTNAT receives nominations for the nine regular Alumni Trustee positions and, according to their webpage, researches “the pool of potential alumni trustee candidates'' to select candidates for the ballot. These candidates are then voted on by the alumni community. The nomination process is opaque, and the candidates are not permitted to campaign for votes or to voice their opinions on university policy. They must rely only on brief, biographical statements to suggest what kind of representatives they would be.

Candidates are discouraged from even mentioning their candidacies unless directly asked about them. Last year, the student, faculty, and alumni coalition Divest Princeton contacted all the 2020 Alumni Trustee candidates before their election to ask about their views on sustainability, climate change, and divestment from fossil fuels. Candidates who responded said something along these lines: "In accepting a spot on the ballot, I promised to refrain from campaigning. So, unfortunately, I cannot answer your questions."" According to a 2020 email detailing Young Alumni Trustee (YAT) election procedures, YAT candidates are also discouraged from “any organized solicitation of votes.” These regulations perhaps contribute to low voter engagement among Princetonians: less than 25 percent of the electorate voted in 2020’s Young Alumni Trustee election.

Candidates should be able to voice their opinions on issues related to the Board and the University and speak freely with Princetonians and those impacted by Board decisions. Princetonians have already raised this issue: The Daily Princetonian’s Editorial Board argued in 2014 that prohibitions against organized campaigning are problematic and pointed out that this enforced silence has not always been the norm. Princeton alumni have also spoken up — writing in the Princeton Alumni Weekly in 2016, Carlos Niderstrasser ’94 asked CTNAT to update its procedures:

I ask the Committee to Nominate Alumni Trustees to have future candidates describe their vision for the University. The trustees must decide many important questions. If the views of alumni are to be represented, as I believe is the goal in having alumni trustees, then alumni must be made aware of the views of their representatives. Carlos Niderstrasser ’94

Furthermore, once elected, Trustees should not be silenced. When Divest Princeton reached out to current and former Trustees in 2020 to simply learn more about how the Board works, a current Trustee declined, explaining they would have to “notify the Board chair due to protocol.”

Princetonians are not alone in the search for more transparent alternatives to governing boards. A slew of recent articles and op-eds document calls for greater transparency and representation on university boards at NYU, Tufts, University of Toledo, and the University of Southern California. Some universities, like Duke, have already taken steps to increase transparency. These events prompt us to consider initiatives to improve the Board beyond greater transparency in Trustee nomination and election processes. For example, as of 2018, Duke’s Board will now post summaries of meetings, hold open forums, and brief student groups. If it does not already have one, the University may consider a conflict of interest policy for its Trustees. The University may also consider expanding access to Board records — according to the University Library, all Trustee minutes and records are closed for 30 years from the date of their creation).

A more democratic governance structure will benefit the Board and the Princeton community at large. Transparency should not be a tall order. The will is there: Princetonians have already called for a more democratic and transparent board. The first step toward a more democratic process is to allow Princetonians to directly petition to become Trustee candidates, as Yale and Harvard do. The second step is to allow candidates to speak to fellow alumni about their visions for Princeton and its future. Only then can we move Princeton Forward.

This is the first piece in a three-part series about donations and power at Princeton. The first discusses the nomination and election procedures for the Princeton Board of Trustees, the second examines the nature of major donations to the University, and the third dives into links between major donors to Princeton and the dark money that fuels the climate denial movement.

Lynne Archibald ’87 P’16 majored in SPIA. Both Archibald and Sofia Hiltner ’17 are members of Divest Princeton and can be reached at ffdivestprinceton@gmail.com.


What do you get for a donation to Princeton?

A Closer Look at Big Dollar Donations to Princeton

This past summer, news broke of a groundbreaking $20 million gift from Kwanza Jones ’93 and Jose Feliciano ’94, the largest gift from Black and Latinx alumni in Princeton’s history. Earlier in the year, Jones penned an open letter calling on President Eisgruber to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA). Five days after that letter, Eisgruber announced that the School would be renamed.

Then in October 2020, Mellody Hobson ’91 made the lead gift to establish a new residential college that is set to replace the previously named Wilson College. It will be named after her — the first residential college to be named after a Black woman. In a statement, Hobson said, “my hope is that my name will remind future generations of students — especially those who are Black and Brown and the ‘firsts’ in their families — that they too belong. Renaming Wilson College is my very personal way of letting them know that our past does not have to be our future.”

As Maisie McPherson ’23 wrote in a ‘Prince’ op-ed, “Hobson’s donation, and its celebration by the student body, should also push alumni to give back to their alma mater in ways that challenge and change the narrative.” Princeton’s campus is full of monuments to other wealthy alumni: Whitman College, Frist Campus Center, Icahn Laboratory. Professorships, too, are frequently endowed.

There are two things that are clear here: the first is that money talks. SPIA's name change was long overdue, and we owe a debt of gratitude to Jones and Feliciano for making that happen. The second is that there is no such thing as a free lunch.

There are two things that are clear here: the first is that money talks. SPIA's name change was long overdue, and we owe a debt of gratitude to Jones and Feliciano for making that happen. The second is that there is no such thing as a free lunch. In the case of Jones or Hobson, these donations seem to facilitate a more inclusive campus. In other cases, though, the return on the donation is much less clear or much less positive. So what else might a donor receive for their generosity?

Donations data suggests the reward (or incentive) may be a seat on the Board of Trustees. Between 2007 and 2020, at least twelve trustees donated major gifts to the University, often through linked or family foundations, that totalled $74.7 million. That is approximately $6.2 million for each seat on the Board.

Other donors to Princeton may contribute solely for the chance to associate themselves with the University’s reputation and brand. Fossil fuel companies that are awash with bad press use donations to “greenwash” their images and give themselves a veil of sustainability. Take the Andlinger Center’s partnership with ExxonMobil. Despite the fact that from 2010-2018 Exxon committed a meager 0.22% of their budget towards low carbon investments and continues their decades-long campaign to spread climate disinformation and block climate change legislation, they recently posted an article on their website boasting:

ExxonMobil renews collaboration with Princeton Energy Center to advance low-emissions research and energy solutions.
Exxon uses the Andlinger Center, and thereby Princeton, to launder their reputation — as Anand Giridharadas, author of Winners Take All, might argue — after decades of scandal and obstruction on climate change.

This big money matters to Princeton. Annual Giving currently raises more than $60 million a year, and by some counts, Princeton has the highest rate of alumni giving in the country. Meanwhile, in 2019, the sum of money received from big donors was more than triple the amount raised through Annual Giving. Like Annual Giving, major donations are often given repeatedly, and Princeton relies on these substantial gifts as a steady source of income. Given how important these donors are to Princeton, the unsaid part of the deal is that the University feels implicit incentive to accommodate their needs.

The University is currently considering a proposal to divest its endowment from fossil fuel companies. Though the official criteria for divestment does not include financial considerations, is there an unspoken pressure influencing the decision-making process? For example, donations like those from the Querrey Simpson Charitable Foundation?

Louis Simpson and Kimberly Querrey (for whom the Foundation is named) donated $10 million in 2015 and $20 million in 2016 to fund the Louis A. Simpson Center for the Study of Macroeconomics and the Louis A. Simpson International building, respectively. Since 2008, their Foundation has also given at least $500,000 to Princeton including $400,000 while Simpson served on the Board of the Princeton Investment Company (PRINCO) from 2007-2013.

Simpson also served as a director of Chesapeake Energy from 2011-2013, and his wife Kimberly Querrey served as a director from 2015-2016. Chesapeake Energy is one of the largest fossil fuel companies in the U.S., specializing in oil and gas assets.

In late 2014 and again in 2016, as the Querrey-Simpson family was in the process of donating $30 million to the University, the Princeton Sustainable Investment Initiative (PSII) developed proposals to divest the University’s endowment from fossil fuels with the backing of more than 1600 Princetonians. The University did not divest.

A timeline of the Querrey-Simpson Foundation's Contributions

Princeton received vast sums of money from the Querrey-Simpson family during their tenure at Chesapeake Energy. While only a fraction of the Querrey-Simpson wealth may have been derived from their positions there, they had a vested interest in the perpetuity of the fossil fuel industry — an industry whose major actors have systematically undermined public trust in climate science and neglected to evolve to mitigate catastrophic climate change.

As donations data to the University lays out, many high value donors have also donated large amounts to organizations that propagate climate denial. What does Princeton owe those donors? How much does it think about keeping those wealthy donors happy, even if it conflicts with the consensus position on campus? On issues where there has been significant student interest and support for reform, how much has administrative opposition come from fear of wealthy donors pulling money from the University and donating it elsewhere? The third piece in this article series will discuss this in more depth.

As we strive to understand systems of power at Princeton and beyond, it is crucial to know how the University is funded and the power of big donors at Princeton — whether explicitly stated or implicitly understood. As they pour millions into the University, we should encourage greater scrutiny of what they may get in return — better reputations, greater consideration in important university decisions, seats on the Board. As we continue to follow the money, we become wiser to the administration's decision making process and why Princeton so often falls short of its stated mission.

Donations data comes from the Foundation Directory Online, which is part of Candid - an information service that specializes in reporting on nonprofit U.S. companies. While the database is proprietary, all the individual records come from public IRS filings.

Please note: the dataset is incomplete as not all donations are discoverable or traceable. This is the second piece in a three part series about donations and power at Princeton. The first discusses the nomination and election procedures for the Princeton Board of Trustees, the second examines the nature of major donations to the University, and the third dives into links between major donors to Princeton and the dark money that fuels the climate denial movement.


Princeton’s Donors Fund Climate Denial

How Princeton’s Money Trail Undermines Its Own Research

Climate change wasn't always the divisive issue it is today. In the early 2000s, public opinion was unified: Republicans and Democrats stood closer together on climate change and environmentalism. It seemed there was ample time to control the steady increase in global temperature. In 2007, Newt Gingrich and Nancy Pelosi appeared in an advertisement together urging Americans to demand more of their elected officials on climate change. According to Harris polls, in 2007 an astounding 71 percent of Americans believed that the continued burning of fossil fuels would alter the climate. But two years later, it was down to 51 percent. By 2011, only 44 percent of Americans believed that the continued burning of fossil fuels would lead to global warming. What happened? 

Robert Brulle, Visiting Professor of Environment and Society at Brown University, suggests that a large part of the answer is the methodical effort to delegitimize climate science. Brulle’s research identifies the ways in which big donors and oil companies have for decades supported a network of climate denial. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been poured into this effort by several supposedly unbiased think tanks, slowly undermining confidence in scientific evidence and leading us away from collective climate action. 

These efforts ramped up in the 1990s, as Naomi Klein explains in her book “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate”. During this time, a number of think tanks and institutions began to finance and publish books denying the idea of global warming, alleging that efforts to combat climate change were actually attacks on American freedoms. The Cato Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute were leaders among those who set out to discredit legitimate climate science. Oil and gas organizations like the American Petroleum Institute were more than happy to develop misinformation strategies and help finance denial activities to further the industry's mission to secure investment well into the 21st century.

This counter-narrative soon began to permeate mainstream discourse. In 2007, three major television networks ran a total of 147 stories on climate change. By 2011, that number was down to 14 and there was a similar decline in print media coverage. The growth of the climate denial movement paralleled the rise of the internet as a widespread source of information. Websites like JunkScience.com and Climate Depot were places where good science could be trashed without consequence. Now, the creator of JunkScience.com sits on the Board of the Heartland Institute. Crucial time was lost to achieving net-zero emissions because of the climate denial and delay movement.

Princeton’s climate history is one of cognitive dissonance. The University has simultaneously affiliated itself with climate action and climate denial. In 2002, Princeton hired Michael Oppenheimer, a key member of the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), whose research has emphasized the need for immediate, deep, and widespread action. Princeton has contributed to significant climate policy and engineering research, partnering with the High Meadows Environmental Institute and founding the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment. However, Princeton continues to invest in fossil fuel companies and has received money from big names in climate denial. The Andlinger Center is funded in part by ExxonMobil, Princeton’s Carbon Mitigation Initiative is funded by BP, and the University continues to welcome donations from foundations with a stake in the denial industry. Brulle’s research calls out several organizations that have propped up climate denial and delay. We highlight three that have donated significant sums to Princeton.

Sarah Scaife Foundation

Sarah Mellon Scaife inherited her fortune from her grandfather, who made his money from Gulf Oil and other investments. The Sarah Scaife Foundation is the largest of the family’s foundations (including the Allegheny Foundation, and the Scaife Family Foundation) and has donated at least $895,000 to Princeton since 2007. Over the same period, the Scaife Foundation has been much more generous in its support of the climate denial and delay network, giving more than $66.1 million in traceable donations. In Jane Mayer’s Dark Money, Richard Scaife — who managed the largest Scaife foundations — is described as “the most important single figure in building the modern conservative movement and spreading its ideas into the political realm.” 

Scaife foundations channeled some of their ideas and money into climate denial organizations. For instance, the Scaife Foundation gave $450,000 to the Environmental Literacy Council (since disbanded), which was formed to foment climate denial by producing misleading educational materials for schools. The Scaife Foundation also gave $4.4 million to FreedomWorks Foundation, an organization also funded by Phillip Morris and Exxon. Originally called “Citizens for a Sound Economy,” Mother Jones listed FreedomWorks as one of the country’s foremost climate deniers. 

Since 2007, the Scaife Foundation has given $2.28 million to the George C. Marshall Institute (now the CO2 Coalition). In Merchants of Doubt, Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway write about how the Marshall Institute willfully misrepresented the science of climate change, driving the first Bush administration away from climate action. In Dark Money, Jane Mayer writes that the Institute got a reputation as a “think tank specialized in providing contrarian scientific defenses for dubious clients,” and a Newsweek article called it a “central cog in the denial machine.”

Since 1985, the Scaife Family has given more than $45 million to the Heartland Institute — its most favored beneficiary. The Heartland Institute has spent years attempting to prop up an alternative facts version of climate science. This year they will host the deceptively named “14th International Conference on Climate Change”. The program reads, “for decades, so-called academic elites — with help from the mainstream media — have made a living peddling the delusion that human activity is causing an impending global catastrophe.” By platforming fringe academics, the Heartland Institute has successfully stoked both-sides-ism on climate science, accelerating climate partisanship in the process. 

Shelby Cullom Davis Charitable Fund

Shelby Cullom Davis ’30 began making significant donations to Princeton in 1964. His son, Shelby Davis ’58, was a Princeton Trustee from 2006 to 2010 and the Davis Charitable Fund has contributed at least $15 million to Princeton since 2013.

Shelby Cullom Davis ’30 served as the Heritage Foundation’s Board Chair, and in 2013, the Davis Charitable Fund gave a $26 million gift to the Heritage Foundation. The Heritage Foundation has continued to block action on climate change, spread misinformation and doubt about climate science, and advocated that the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge be opened up for oil and gas drilling. The Heritage Foundation has also interfered with science-based climate policy, supporting a recently struck down “transparency rule”. The rule would have prevented the EPA from considering studies that use confidential medical records, thereby limiting its ability to classify air pollution and climate change as public health issues.

As a think tank, the Heritage Foundation has the power to influence climate policy on a national scale. The Heritage Foundation regularly sends representatives to testify in front of Congress. In front of lawmakers, they cast doubt on the validity of climate models, emphasize the negligible effects of banning oil and gas production, and lobby intensely against carbon taxes, even though economists agree such taxes are some of the most efficient and effective ways to curb climate change. The Heritage Foundation’s 2020 policy platform included recommendations to roll back the minimal existing government climate regulations and abandon climate interventions. Among other things, the Heritage Foundation urges the U.S. to “withdraw from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC),” “end the use of social cost of carbon in government cost-benefit analyses,” and “stop the regulation of greenhouse gases.” 

Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation

Between 2007 and 2017, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation donated at least $1.5 million to Princeton. The name may be unfamiliar to many; as a 2011 article notes, “outside conservative circles, the foundation has kept a low profile… But the Bradley Foundation is in a different league: From 2001 to 2009, it doled out nearly as much money as the seven Koch and Scaife foundations combined.”

The Bradley Foundation has funded numerous climate denial and delay organizations. A 2016 exposé by the Center for Media and Democracy named the PR firm Berman and Co. as a key beneficiary of the Bradley Foundation. Berman and Co. founded the Environmental Policy Alliance, an anti-environmentalist organization and sponsor of Big Green Radicals, a project which attacks environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Food & Water Watch. The Bradley Foundation helped launch Big Green Radicals with a $150,000 donation to Berman in 2014. The project’s self-described purpose is to “educate the public about the real agenda of well-funded environmental activist groups.” Their method? Spreading disinformation about well-respected environmental advocacy organizations and launching campaigns opposing anti-fracking initiatives. 

The Bradley Foundation has given $200,000 to the Competitive Enterprise Institute in 2013, which is home to the Center for Energy and Environment. The Center is run by Myron Ebell who led the Trump Presidential Transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency. Myron Ebell played a critical role in Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement. 

The links between the Bradley Foundation, climate denial and Princeton don’t stop there: the Bradley Foundation has donated more than $1.2 million to the Heartland Institute between 1994 and 2014. The Bradley Foundation has also donated $4 million to the CO2 Coalition (formerly the George C. Marshall Institute). The Coalition was founded by Princeton Professor Emeritus William Happer, notorious climate change denier, and President Trump’s consultant on climate change. In 2019, Happer re-asserted that “more CO2 will be a major benefit to the Earth.”

Further, the Bradley Foundation has funded the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, the MacIver Institute, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and the Koch-founded-and-funded Americans for Prosperity, all of which have supported the fossil fuel industry and the repeal of renewable energy standards.

To be blunt: Princeton has accepted $1.5 million dollars from an organization that spends far more discrediting the work of Princeton’s own scientists.


Disinformation propagated by the climate denial and delay movement is antithetical to Princeton’s mission. Efforts to undermine science inherently undermine the legitimacy of higher education and allow ideology to supplant truth. Accepting donations from those who fund climate denial grants legitimacy to those who should have none. 

This network of disinformation, and the big money behind it, is a threat to all universities. It is a strategic and debilitating attack on science and the urgent actions needed to mitigate climate change. According to research by Robert Brulle, this may only be the tip of the iceberg: about 75 percent of the money that funds the climate denial and delay movement is currently untraceable.

In the aftermath of the attack on the Capitol, businesses and philanthropists are reconsidering the impact of their giving and the role that it has played in fomenting anti-democratic movements and leaders. In the same way, Princeton needs to face the ways in which its donors have funded and enabled climate denial. 

Donations data comes from the Foundation Directory Online, which is part of Candid — an information service that specializes in reporting on nonprofit U.S. companies. While the database is proprietary, all the individual records come from public IRS filings. Please note: the dataset is incomplete as not all donations are discoverable or traceable.

This is the third piece in a three part series about donations and power at Princeton. The first discusses the nomination and election procedures for the Princeton Board of Trustees, the second examines the nature of major donations to the University, and the third dives into links between major donors to Princeton and the dark money that fuels the climate denial movement.

Archibald '87 P'16 majored in SPIA. Cohen-Shields ’20 majored in CEE with certificates in VPL and ENV. Giguere ’21 is majoring in CEE. Nguyen GS is a first year PhD student at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute. Taylor GS is an MPA student at SPIA. All contributors can be reached at ffdivestprinceton@gmail.com