While the Tilghman administration greatly increased the University’s financial contribution to the community early in her term, relations turned rocky in recent years as controversy erupted over the University’s plans to develop the Arts and Transit Neighborhood. But though many in the Borough have accused Tilghman of being openly hostile to community needs, many community members said they now look positively on the legacy of town-gown relations during her term.
Tilghman greatly increased the size of the annual voluntary contribution that the University makes to the Borough and Township each year. These payments in lieu of taxes are a recognition of the financial strain that the largely tax-exempt University places on the community’s municipal services. In the year before Tilghman’s presidency began, the University made a contribution of $104,000 to the local community. In 2012, the University’s contributions to the Borough and Township budgets totaled $2.5 million. This increase was after a multi-year commitment that Tilghman’s administration made to increase its contributions to the local budgets.
University Vice President and Secretary Robert Durkee ’69 said this increase — a 24-fold increase in the size of the University’s contribution — is “illustrative of Tilghman’s commitment to the University playing a positive and supportive role in the community.”
Chad Goerner, mayor of the Township since 2007, said that the collegial rapport his government maintained with the University was key in reaching an agreement on the contribution. “From my perspective, we were always able to have a professional, constructive dialogue,” he explained.
Town-gown relations during Tilghman’s term were markedly less sanguine in the Borough, where the University’s development plans were extremely unpopular with some government leaders.
As the University moved forward on its planned Arts and Transit Neighborhood in the Alexander Corridor, it requested a zoning change from the Borough Council in 2008. Many in the Borough opposed the University’s construction plans because they included moving the Dinky station 460 feet southward, away from most of the Borough population. After years of contentious debate, the Council finally granted the zoning at the end of last year.
The president’s relationship with the local government became publicly controversial when Tilghman personally appeared at a Borough Council meeting in January 2011. At that meeting, Tilghman asked the Council to pass the requested zoning, citing the annual contribution as an effort by the University to meet the community’s needs. Tilghman said, “In my 10 years as president of the University, we have dramatically increased our contributions to the community and our engagement with the community, and my fervent hope is that this can continue. But as the community looks to us for our support, we need the community’s support in meeting our highest priorities.”
Many in the community interpreted Tilghman’s comments as a threat to revoke the University’s annual voluntary contribution if the Council would not grant the University’s requested zoning. One of the most vocal critics of Tilghman’s remarks was Councilwoman Jo Butler, who said at a March 2011 Council meeting that the Council was being threatened with “the sword of Damocles over our heads.”
“That was a low point in relationships between the University and the community,” Durkee said, while noting that the administration does not regret its comments. “If you go back to that statement, I think she would stand fully behind what she said,” added Durkee, who maintains that the comments were “entirely appropriate” and were misinterpreted by Butler and others.
Many community members who found Tilghman’s comments hostile said they see her overall relationship with the community in a more positive light. Despite their disagreement over the zoning and her initial resistance to Tilghman’s dealings with the municipal government, Butler said she admires the overall legacy of Tilghman’s term.
“As a feminist before I was a public official, I admire what she’s done,” Butler explained, pointing out that Tilghman’s term coincided with a tumultuous period of history, including a time of economic calamity. “We don’t have to agree on everything to appreciate what a job she’s done.”
Others who opposed Tilghman’s position on moving the Dinky have echoed Butler’s conciliatory statements, notably Save the Dinky, a citizens activist organization that advocated against the relocation of the station. The organization’s leader, Anita Garoniak, submitted a statement applauding President Tilghman’s leadership in spite of contention over the move.
“Obviously, Borough Council and President Tilghman’s office have traded various potshots with one another over the years,” Goerner said. “I think both sides — both Borough Council and President Tilghman’s office — are both responsible for that behavior.”
Durkee explained that while the administration made it a policy to embrace the needs of the community, he didn’t always feel that community members in the Borough mirrored its efforts by appreciating the University’s needs.
“It’s disappointing that we’ve had the experiences we had in recent years over the [Arts and Transit] project,” Durkee said, pointing out that some members of Borough Council have continued their hostile opposition to the Dinky relocation over the past year by making various unsuccessful legal efforts to impede the move of the station.
Tilghman’s administration comes to an end at a time when the legal framework for the University’s relationship with the community may undergo a major change. At the moment, state legislation is pending that would relieve private universities of the requirement to seek local government approval for development projects. The bill has been passed in the New Jersey state senate but is still under consideration by the state house of representatives.
While the Tilghman administration has publicly endorsed the bill, it maintains that the University will not fundamentally change its process of consulting closely with the community on its plans. Despite not being required to complete the formal review process, Durkee said, the University intends to continue keeping local government involved in the University’s plans.
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2012/09/24/31226/