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Twenty-five years at the top: USG presidents

Instead of studying for exams, he spent “every waking hour” trying to mediate the situation. “For better or for worse, the demands of that position come first. I won’t say I did great on finals that year, but we did save the Honor Code,” he said.

The title of USG president is one that few students seek and that few regard with great respect. When current USG president Michael Yaroshefksy ’12 ran for his first term in 2009, a fellow candidate ran on a platform of two-ply toilet paper — an election issue that, though less than serious, has frequently recurred over the past 25 years.

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However, for most of the 20 men and three women that held the office over this period, leading the USG offered an unparalleled set of responsibilities, as well as privileges. Though driven by different motivations and priorities, these students had the opportunity to significantly shape the future of the University, working to effect change in areas ranging from academic policy to student life. The job ended up shaping them as well.

“I can tell you that being a USG president completely changes your Princeton experience for better and worse,” Ascher said. “You have an amazing opportunity to work with a broad set of people to get things done, to learn,” he added. “But it does put you on a different path than everyone else. You don’t feel like a real student anymore.”

‘Working with a broad set of people’

Ascher decided to run for USG president because there were a few issues that he was “steamed about,” like making it easier for students to rescind the pass/D/fail grading option. This stance put him in direct opposition with Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel. “She had told us she would make sure this [revision] would not pass,” he said. Malkiel ended up being the only “no” vote among members of the Committee on the Course of Study, and the policy was changed. In exchange for more flexibility in rescinding the P/D/F option, the total number of classes that a student could P/D/F while at Princeton was reduced to four.

Ascher’s successor, P.J. Kim ’01, remembered having a more friendly relationship with administrators when he pushed the University to construct Stephens Fitness Center. “When I first walked into [then-Vice President and Secretary] Thomas Wright ’62’s office to ask him to find funding to build a new gym, I threatened him with a story I had heard that Dartmouth students had stacked pennies and nickels and dimes in the driveway of the President’s house because they wanted a refurbished gym,” he recalled in an e-mail.

“Thankfully, Tom didn’t throw me out of his office, and we spent the next year working together with lots of people across the University to make it happen,” he added. Some of these people included Matt Brzycki and Gary Walters ’67 of the athletics department, members of the development office and the Stephens family, which provided funding.

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For some USG presidents, another distinction was membership on University advisory boards and task forces. Don Lu ’88 said he was especially proud of the opportunity he had to serve on the search committee that recommended the appointment of Harold Shapiro GS ’64 as University president, a position Shapiro held from 1987 to 2001.

USG presidents also reach out beyond Nassau Hall. Pettus Randall ’04 said his proudest moment as president was “creating the first student-led forum with Princeton’s mayor to serve as a direct student voice in the Borough Council.” And Cece Hallisey ’88 remembered traveling to Washington to lobby for student financial aid.

For many USG presidents, however, their most lasting interactions were the friendships forged with fellow USG members. But during their tenures, trying to balance the varied voices of fellow students was one of the biggest challenges.

Dave Calone ’96 said that his experience as USG president taught him “how to deal with people with all different kinds of backgrounds and viewpoints,” adding that the job meant “dealing with people in positions of authority, but also speaking to those folks about the people impacted” by policies.

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‘Getting things done’

Joe Kochan ’02 said he ran for USG president knowing that he wanted to represent more than the undergraduate student body. He took up a cause that was then reverberating around the Ivy League: campus workers’ low salaries.  “I thought I might be able to help out in resolving the issue a little more proactively than some of our peer institutions,” he said.

Kochan said he that sought to come up with a “middle ground” solution with the administration, since “standing around with a sign isn’t getting you what you want.”

In search of this middle ground, Kochan and other administrators “sat down almost immediately after the election and had a serious meeting,” he said. As a result, the president used discretionary funds to add millions of dollars to the workers’ salary pool. This short-term solution bought Kochan and the administrators time to address the problem on “a larger, year-by-year basis.”

During the two terms served by Dave Calone ’96 — the most recent USG president to serve back-to-back terms before Yaroshefsky — a new campus center to replace Chancellor Green was in the works. He put together a student group to advise the University about what features should be included in the building, now known as Frist Campus Center. Details such as whether students should get their mail at the center was one of many issues, large and small, that the group considered.

And while nearly every president focuses on at least a few larger issues that influence the long-term campus dialogue, the smaller changes are often those that exert the greatest direct impact on students’ lives. Though he spent most of his time on broader concerns, such as the grade deflation policy, Alex Lenahan ’07 said that pushing for larger e-mail quotas was one of his moves that garnered the most positive feedback.

Through their presidencies imbued them with confidence in working with people in powerful positions, leading by example and bringing conflicting interest groups together, few have used their position as a stepping stone to political positions after graduation.

Only a handful of the 22 USG presidents who have graduated have dabbled in political careers, all of which happened to be Democratic positions in New York. Matt Margolin ’05 advised Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., on economic issues. Last year, Kim made an unsuccessful bid for a spot on the New York City Council. Jeff Siegel ’98 serves as legislative director for Rep. Michael McMahon, D-N.Y.

Former New York governor Eliot Spitzer ’81 is the last USG president to have served in a major elected office.

A different path

But Patricia Garcia-Monet ’92 stands out from other previous USG presidents in a different way. She is one of the three women who successfully ran for president over the last 25 years, all of whom said they were acutely aware of how this made them stand out on the campaign trail and in office.

Concerns about the lack of female leadership in campus organizations have existed long before the current task force on women’s leadership was established.  

“I was concerned that women were not involved in enough leadership positions on campus and that there hadn’t been a female USG president for over 10 years,” Nina Langsam Blachman ’03 said of her motivation for running for USG president. “It seemed that women were not even running for the office, and I felt it was important to do so,” she added.

When Hallisey served her term, one of the items she pushed for was to have the lyrics of “Old Nassau” changed so that they were not gendered. “I think the male-female ratio was still pretty severe,” she said. “There was always a dialogue. In ’84, we felt like we had been decades since the first woman.”

“The proudest part was ... being among a small cadre of females in leadership,” Hallissey added.

Garcia-Monet remembered the same pride. “I got to do a lot of things, like speak to the wives of the Class of ’40 — a particularly proud moment,” she said. “They were so surprised to see a Hispanic female in particular. They were so surprised by that.”

And for many, the presidency offers insight into paths beyond politics.

Garcia-Monet said her experience as USG president applies to her current career in business. “I still find myself on committees and focus groups and things where we are trying to make a diverse workplace work,” she said.

“It made me be able to speak about many different things and speak about diversity and identity with confidence,” she added.

“I lean on those experiences more often than you might think,” Kochan said.

Correction: Several USG presidents' class years have been corrected in the online version of this story. Also, the spelling of Alex Lenahan ’07's name has been corrected.

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