Since 1969, one senior from each year’s graduating class has been elected as a Young Alumni Trustee— a position conferring the same rights and responsibilities as a fully installed member of the University’s Board of Trustees. In that capacity, they sit on Board committees, aid in setting the University’s annual operating budget and contribute to the development of Princeton’s long-term strategic vision.
Their role is an important one. As current undergraduates are largely removed from the affairs of University governance, the Young Alumni Trustees represent the Board’s principal means of engaging with the pragmatic realities of student life. Informed by an intimate and contemporaneous familiarity with the campus experience, they provide a critical and necessary source of advice. The majority of our peer schools offer no parallel initiatives, leaving their high-level governance to a board of trustees lacking insight into the unique needs and interests of undergraduate students. The Editorial Board commends the University for this institutionalized and substantive means of engaging Princeton’s youngest constituency in important decision making processes.
What is problematic, however, is the set of policies prohibiting both issue-based and “organized” campaigning in the Young Alumni Trustee elections.
Presently, election policy dictates that “trustees who arrive on the board having already staked out positions on issues without access to full information can undermine both the workings of the board and their own effectiveness.” As such, candidates are prohibited from running campaigns that focus on particular issues. While the Editorial Board is sensitive to this risk, it is also reminded of times when Young Alumni Trustees ran on platforms of especially pressing concern— for example, their positions concerning the controversial policy of University divestment from apartheid South Africa. Where such polarizing and significant matters exist, it is important that potential trustees can publicly declare their stance. Even without such salient examples, however, it is the position of this Board that issue-based campaigning will not necessarily compromise the integrity of a trustee’s participation in governance deliberations. We are convinced that the adoption of a particular campaign issue does not in any way inhibit a trustee’s ability to offer fair and sober considerations of Board matters during their tenure.
Indeed, though Young Alumni Trustees do not represent constituencies, their very value to the Board lies in the consistency and representativeness of their beliefs vis-à-vis those of the undergraduate body. By permitting issue-based campaigning, the electorate will democratically and naturally select the candidate best suited to this role.
The second element of the electoral restrictions prohibits “organized” campaigning, recognizing the rigors of senior year independent work. The Editorial Board, however, believes that a reasonable balance can be struck. By providing each candidate with a nominal budget to prepare and publicly disseminate a single statement (as has historically been the case), the University can allow the electorate to familiarize itself with the ballot without placing undue additional stress on the candidates. Such a policy would maintain the level playing field of these elections, while also furnishing voters with a more robust means of evaluating potential trustees.
Reconsidering both of these present restrictions on campaigning will permit an election process that is more open, better-informed and ultimately, most conducive to electing the best qualified candidates.