When representatives of the shires and boroughs were first called to Parliament in England, they were not intended to be a check on the power of the King. They were prominent knights, there to give legitimacy to the acts of the King, not to challenge his authority. Over time, that system evolved and became the House of Commons, a genuinely representative body. Democracy grows like that: you get your foot in the door of power and then make your presence felt until you have a genuine voice.
We’re at that stage with the Young Alumni Trustee (YAT) election. We have the pretense of an election to choose a representative of Princeton students and recent alumni on the Board of Trustees. But it’s transparently undemocratic. The candidates for this position are not allowed to campaign on issues that they might face on the Board, making the election a superficial popularity contest. This is well-established, and ‘Prince’ Editorial Boards from 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2014 and 2021 have all complained to this effect.
But we have the opportunity to turn the sham representation into a genuine student voice on the Board. The responsibility and power to do that lies with the candidates. They need to hold a debate on the issues to defy the administration and insist on democracy.
The candidates are responsible for the election as it currently exists. The administration would not be able to perpetuate this sham if their call for students to run in an undemocratic election didn’t get enthusiastic responses from such qualified candidates. This year, candidates of incredible caliber signed up to run in a blatant farce of an election including the Undergraduate Student Government President, Vice-President, and runner-up to be President; both Pyne Prize winners; those in Eating Club, Residential College and extracurricular leadership; along with multiple senior members of the ‘Prince.’ The candidates are legitimizing the election not only by running in it, but following the administration’s rules and refusing to campaign.
The candidates can right this wrong by agreeing to hold just one debate — putting their positions on the investment of the endowment, campus expansion, and faculty selection upfront. Concerns that seniors don’t have much time are valid, but a single one-hour debate is not a huge commitment. We don’t know all the issues that the Board deals with, but we know they are the final word on many of the issues most important to students — those most common issues are exactly what the candidates need to clarify their positions on. If all three candidates sign up, what is the administration going to do? Disqualify all three? It’s precisely this type of civil disobedience that can change systems.
It’s not a mystery why candidates may want to muzzle themselves for the time being. They’re likely hoping if they go with the flow, they will get a seat and have a chance to actually make a difference. But surrendering democracy has never been a winning strategy. Young Alumni Trustees account for four members on a 40-member board that has been historically averse to change. The candidates have to recognize if they don’t fight for genuine representation, they’re just the token opposition used to legitimize the administration’s decisions.
It would take extraordinary courage for the candidates to challenge the administration when it comes to the election. But if candidates were to make a difference when they reach the Board, it would require that same courage. If they won’t defy the administration now, how can we trust they will in the future?
Students deserve a voice on the Board of Trustees. The full Board shouldn’t be elected by students, of course. Princeton isn’t an anarchic student commune; the school has lots of stakeholders including donors, faculty, and parents. But the students should have a voice. They can’t have that voice if their representatives aren’t even allowed to address the issues most important to students when they’re campaigning.
We shouldn’t abandon the YAT process; we need to make it work for us. If we actually want change, we need to put pressure on the administration. And we can only do that if the best minds of each year stop letting the allure of a powerful position lead them to short-change the rights of the people they’re supposed to want to represent.
So candidates, it’s on you now. I have reached out to all three candidates to set a time — and I invite the student body to join the candidates and me in a celebration of student democracy.
If all three of the candidates show up, the administration may have to surrender and allow our voices to be heard. If the administration disqualifies all three, the administration’s contempt for their purported ideals will be exposed to the world. If no candidates show up, we’ll hold the debate with three empty spots, letting their absence speak for itself.
Rohit Narayanan is a sophomore studying Electrical and Computer Engineering from McLean, Va. He serves as Community Opinion Editor despite no popular mandate and rules his one-person fiefdom with an iron hand. Dissidents who spam his inbox at email@example.com or ratio his Twitter @Rohit_Narayanan will be promptly executed.