Despite tensions, no movement to include mayor in University Board of Trustees
During the recent campaign for Princeton mayor, both candidates argued for better communication between the University and the local municipality to ease tensions between the two.
At some other universities — such as Temple and Carnegie Mellon — the mayor sits on the board of top university officials. But despite the tense town-gown relations in Princeton, there seems to be no movement in that direction.
Liz Lempert, mayor-elect of the consolidated Princeton, said she is not interested in lobbying for a board position, and the trustees themselves have no interest in expanding the board.
“We think that the community is obviously extremely important to Princeton, and we are working on ways to expand open lines of communication, but we are not planning on expanding the size of the board,” Chair of the Board Kathryn Hall ’80 said.
Lempert said she would not actively lobby for the creation of a position on the board for the mayor.
“Certainly communication is something I’d support. I don’t know if the mayor needs to actually be a member of the board in order for that to happen,” she explained.
The University regularly invites local elected officials to meet with the board’s public affairs committee of the board, including the mayors of the Borough, Township, West Windsor and Plainsboro. Lempert said she felt the discussions held earlier this year had been quite productive and that she hoped they would continue in the future year.
As the largest private landholder in the town of Princeton, the University often comes before the town to have building projects approved and to negotiate other issues. Lempert has wondered if having the mayor serve as a trustee of the University — thus creating a personal interest in the University — would constitute a conflict of interest under New Jersey law.
An ex officio mayoral position on the board would not automatically constitute a conflict of interest, according Matthew Weng, a lawyer for the New Jersey League of Municipalities. State laws treat all potential conflicts of interest on a case-by-case basis, and require only that government officials whose interests are conflicted recuse themselves from individual votes in which their opinions may be compromised.
“In a situation where she would have to make a decision as mayor that would affect her position at Princeton, assuming she took the position, she would have to recuse herself [from the vote],” Weng explained. He added that the recusal would be necessary only when the town government’s decision would have an effect on Lempert’s personal position on the board. “It’s probably not unreasonable to have someone be both mayor and serve on the board of directors.”
Currently, the Board has two ex officio trustees: Gov. Chris Christie and University President Shirley Tilghman.
As an ex officio trustee, Christie attends board meetings when he can and votes on the board's decisions as any other member would, University Vice President and Secretary Robert Durkee ’69 explained. The governor of New Jersey has held an ex officio position on the board since 1748, as stipulated in the University’s state-issued charter. Until 1939, the governor chaired the board.
At some schools where local officials are given positions on the board, their trustee status is purely honorific. For instance, at Temple University in Philadelphia, the city’s mayor, Michael Nutter, is listed as an ex officio trustee of the board. Nutter is not a voting member but has attended a meeting of the board, Temple’s Assistant Vice President for University Communications Ray Betzner explained.
In October, Nutter appointed himself and several aides to the board of the Community College of Philadelphia, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. Nutter and his appointees filled seats that were vacant on a board that was then in protracted contract negotiations with a union.
While Nutter’s move to seize control of the CCP board was unprecedented, the college’s presence as a publicly-owned city institution of postsecondary education justified the takeover, which has not faced legal challenge. The CCP’s situation is not analogous to the situation of a private institution like the University.