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 firstname.lastname@example.org.