Princeton Town Council holds first ever meeting on University campus| May 9, 2019
The Princeton Council held a meeting in the Whig Senate Chamber at 7 pm on May 8, the first town council meeting ever held on the University campus. Students and Council members discussed a number of issues facing the University and the town, as well as possibilities for collaboration between the two entities. All Princeton Council members were present, including Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert.
The meeting continued until 9:04 p.m., but by 8:20 p.m. only six students were present, with the seven Town Council members outnumbering the audience. Earlier in the meeting, there were 16 people in the audience.
Bradley Phelps ’22, a member of the Whig-Clio Community Outreach Committee who organized the event, said the Society could have advertised the event a little better, but also that the low attendance is somewhat reflective of a general apathy on campus in regards to political engagement.
“Everybody that was there was very engaged and insightful. I wish there were more people there, obviously, but I think that because the event was so small it was really convenient for us to have a dialogue,” he said.
Councilwoman Eve Niedergang GS ’85, who originally moved to Princeton as a graduate student, said that the student population had very little to do with the town during her time on campus and that she is excited to see students interested in getting more involved in the local community.
“The relationship between the University and the town is kind of a marriage, and I think it could use a little TLC to kind of bring it to the next level,” she said.
Lempert noted that, due to a “a lot of dysfunction” at the state and national level, she sees the present as a golden age in local government.
“When you think about the national issues, a lot of those issues are things that we’re actually working on locally,” she said. “We actually feel like we’re a great ‘living laboratory’ for dealing with issues like sustainability, creating a police force that serves the community, and immigration.”
The three central themes of discussion, as laid out by Phelps at the start of the event, were “Affordability and diversity in the community and on campus, breaking out of the ‘Orange Bubble,’ and opportunities for collaboration moving forward.”
On the topic of affordability, Councilwoman Leticia Fraga explained the idea of permitting students to use meal swipes at participating restaurants, which could benefit students who are unable to afford to eat on Nassau Street.
“For many, it’s a given that they can get to enjoy and experience the Princeton community outside of campus, but there are those that, because of their financial status, they don’t have the same opportunities,” she said. “So they don’t get to see and experience the entire community.”
For students who cannot afford to go home during breaks when dining facilities are closed, Fraga said a measure like the one she described could be extremely helpful.
Fraga noted that “other college campuses in University towns” have implemented similar measures and that she has talked to some local merchants who say they would be on board with the idea.
“Everybody on the town side is very enthusiastic about it, but the University is not, in part because of the impact on Dining Services,” explained Lempert.
Niedergang said she was told by a University “community relations person” that the University sees the idea as potentially harmful to students on financial aid, an idea that Lempert said “made no sense at all.”
In that same vein of affordability, students brought up a recent controversy surrounding University parking for faculty. Whig-Clio Vice President Chase Lovgren ’21 asked about a recent change in University policy that makes parking for employees more difficult “in the name of environmental sustainability,” something he said he worries may impose financial burdens on low-income University employees.
“I think that the University’s policy is correct,” said Councilwoman Jenny Crumiller. “We are trying to address climate issues also, and one of the big parts of our climate action plan is to address the environmental cost of everyone driving … I think parking policy is a big part of doing something about carbon emissions.”
Whig-Clio President Grace Collins ’21 said, though, that she feels the local government should be prioritizing low-income workers over dealing with the national issue of climate change.
“The person exacerbating climate change is not, you know, Judy the custodian on her way to work,” she said, laying the blame more so on large factories and systems not within the reach of the local government.
In relation to this issue, certain Town Council members also discussed the complexities of affordable housing and the idea of compelling the University to “hire local.”
Councilman David Cohen said he is a strong advocate for the University building more workforce housing.
“As an equity thing, I don’t see any reason why a professor should automatically get to live in Princeton, but a cafeteria worker or a groundskeeper should not at the same time,” he said. “They are all important to making the University work.”
Niedergang noted that she understands how abandoning cars without “much of a public transit system here in Princeton” could be seen as problematic, but that she hopes we can pursue both climate action and expanding the public transportation system. She said efforts are being made to improve that system, and the Council will be meeting with the University next week to discuss the possibility of merging Tiger Transit and the FreeB Bus Service.
Lempert said that, as opposed to states like California with much stronger regional governments, New Jersey has strong local control. “Things like transit are extremely difficult in terms of having an entity with authority to implement,” she said. Though she believes Princeton has a good internal public transportation system, she said that it is expensive to travel places beyond the town.
In line with this concept of transportation, the Council also discussed the possibility of having electric scooters on campus. Lempert said she brought up this matter with University administrators, who were not interested. Additionally, she entertained the possibility of bringing “the next hot thing,” electric bikes, to the town.
“I see that as actually being something that the University is probably going to need to have as it expands across the lake,” Lempert said. “Because it’s really easy to ride down the hill, and you have to have legs of steel to make it back up.”
Something else that came up was recycling both on campus and in the town. Niedergang said that recycling is somewhat of an illusion and that people should begin putting greater emphasis on reuse. Lempert noted a group in the community once encouraged a ban or fee on plastic bags, but there was pushback from the business community and somewhat of an equity issue, as a five-cent-per-bag fee would be substantially more significant to lower-income community members.
In regards to recycling specifically, Niedergang said that “such a tremendous educational effort has to go out,” and floated the idea of the Council employing an intern to help address the matter, saying, “we could really use someone to think through and work with us on an educational policy.”
Students also brought up the possibility of undergraduates engaging in internships in Princeton and asked the council how they could help get a program in place. Collins noted that the lack of opportunities to intern during the year is somewhat of “a hole in the Princeton experience.”
This idea of “needing an intern” came up again when discussing how to get undergraduates informed and excited about events on the other side of Nassau. One member of the community noted that “all the social media of the town is incredibly underused and underserviced in a lot of ways. Lovgren brought up the idea of the town paying to advertise to undergraduates via social media, but another community member suggested “the content would drive the subscribership,” and that the Town Council begin by populating their social media pages with content. It was noted that some sort of task force or the hiring of a social media intern could help with this problem.
“We should definitely plan for a follow-up to talk about internships,” Lempert said near the conclusion of the meeting.
Also present for a portion of the meeting were three students participating in the ongoing protest of the University’s Title IX Office outside of Nassau Hall. Aisha Tahir ’21 gave the Town Council background as to what has occurred over the past two days, from her perspective, and explained why the group is protesting.
Lempert said that the town feels responsible for the safety of all of its community members, University students included, making assault on campus an important issue in her mind that “comes up every year when we speak to President [Christopher] Eisgruber [’83].”
Rebecca Sobel ’19 added that “potentially, some sort of solidarity from the town could push the administration towards implementing really necessary changes.”
Lempert said she would be interesting in hearing what the leaders are hearing from other students on campus, what they would like to see happen, and what they feel the town could do to make the situation better. She promised to give the protesters her card and said she would be happy to meet with them about the matter. On the issue of Title IX, Lempert called it a “complex issue.”
“It’s probably complex at every single college town. Is there anybody who does it well, or who does it better, and how do they do it, and can we learn from them?” she asked.
In addition to suggesting the protesters attempt to engage the University as a partner on the matter, she also floated the idea of bringing in the police chief or distributing more “know your rights” information to provide education on the different ways to report sexual violence.
“The stuff with what classes are offered, who gets tenure, that sort of thing, that’s a little harder for us to get involved with,” she said. “But certainly the public safety piece of this is something that I think we’re all really interested in making sure that people feel like they have an avenue where they’re getting justice.”
Niedergang said that the issue of on-campus assault is “near and dear to [her] heart,” but that she still had no idea that protests were even occurring.
“As much as maybe students don’t know what’s going on in town … I had no idea this was going on,” she said. “We have to somehow improve our communications.”