U. administration reportedly tried to close down unofficial search committee website
The University administration is reportedly trying to shut down a website, created by students as part of an American studies class, that intends to facilitate a conversation about choosing the next University president, according to sources within the course. But the University strongly denies this claim, asserting that it has no problem with other sources of feedback so long as unofficial sites are noted as such.
University president Shirley Tilghman announced in September that she would retire at the end of this academic year. On Oct. 17, Wilson School visiting professor Mark Alexander and his American studies class, AMS 313: The Law of Democracy, created Princetonpresident.com, which claims to give students the chance to voice their opinions on the presidential search.
A feature on the site allows users to nominate up to three candidates for president along with their reasons for supporting their nominations. Students in Alexander’s class will then tally the responses, and discuss and analyze the results. They said they ultimately hope to advocate the popular choice to the search committee.
In mid-October, just two days before Alexander’s class launched the website, the University announced the members of the search committee responsible for finding Tilghman’s replacement. One week later, the search committee unveiled its own official website that would allow for public comment on the presidential search.
Tension between the class and the University apparently arose shortly thereafter. University Vice President and Secretary Bob Durkee ’69, who is staffing the committee, said the committee had no problem with Alexander’s class doing its own research and information gathering. Nevertheless, he said he wanted any unofficial websites — and Princetonpresident.com specifically — to make it clear that they are not affiliated with the search process.
“It is important for any website other than the one that’s being supported by the search committee to be clear that it is not a website where submissions are going directly to the search committee,” Durkee said. “I didn’t see any indication on [Princetonpresident.com] that it was part of a class exercise … it shouldn’t look like it’s a site from the search committee itself.”
Alexander said he understood Durkee’s concerns, adding that he and his class were working hard to make it clear that their website is not affiliated with the University. The class has since added two disclaimers to the website indicating its unofficial status.
“We’re trying to make sure that we are not competing in any way, but also we want to make sure that the committee is open to what we have to say,” Alexander said.
But in addition to requesting the disclaimer, an individual who claimed to be speaking on behalf of the administration asked for the Princetonpresident.com website to be shut down permanently, according to a sources within the class who were granted anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the issue. The sources stated that the individual wanted to avoid confusion between the two efforts. It is not clear whether Durkee or the search committee had anything to do with the shutdown request, and the sources did not identify the individual.
Durkee denied the claim that the administration had asked the class to shut down the website. He did note, however, that a faculty member asked Alexander’s class to make it absolutely clear that their website was not affiliated with the search committee. Durkee said this faculty member was part of the Program in Law and Public Affairs who was concerned about the potential for confusion between the two websites. Durkee did not identify the faculty member.
Durkee reiterated that he and the search committee still do not have a problem with the Princetonpresident.com website, especially now that the website has disclaimers that make clear it is not official.
“We’re pretty relaxed about it — the only thing we were concerned with was the disclaimer, and now there is one,” Durkee said.
Alexander said the fact that Princetonpresident.com isn’t official doesn’t make its results any less valid or important. He asserts that there is enough room for two websites because different portions of the Princeton community might feel more comfortable sharing their thoughts and suggestions through a medium other than the formal, official one provided by the search committee.
“We may be hitting different audiences, and ultimately if that is the case, the University gains if the search committee gets to hear from multiple [groups],” Alexander said. “These two information gathering sources could be very complementary.”
As of now, the website has had over 400 unique visitors and has collected dozens of student responses.
“I hope those 400 unique visitors are … students who are now a little more engaged in the process which matters to their lives,” Alexander said. “If that’s the only thing we ever achieve, I think that’s a great teaching lesson for my class and is a great service to the University community.”
According to the website, students in the class have considered Wilson School professor and former dean Anne-Marie Slaughter ’80, former U.S. senator Bill Bradley ’65, University Provost Christopher Eisgruber ’83, CIA Director David Petraeus GS ’87 and English professor and Rockefeller College Master Jeff Nunokawa as potential candidates for the presidency.
Alexander’s course examines basic questions of how society selects leaders and how the rules of selection shape outcomes. The University’s presidential search, he said, is a prime opportunity to put the ideas learned in the classroom into tangible action.
“I could not imagine writing a problem set for the students in theory that would be better at engaging them and teaching than this is,” Alexander said. “The students are learning so much with this simple project trying to engage in the process.”
Alexander said he hopes to take the information gathered from their website and present it as a class in front of the search committee. The goal is to first determine the most popular candidates among students and alumni, and then to ultimately advocate for the most popular choice.
Alexander has reached out to numerous committee members, inviting them to come speak to the class. Most committee members declined his invitation, he said. Durkee said he didn’t think committee members were permitted to speak about the search process to Alexander’s class because this would potentially break confidentiality rules.
Durkee was also invited, and he has accepted the invitation and will visit the class in a few weeks, Alexander announced to the class.