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Make the Board of Trustees transparent

new-nassau-hall-at-night-louisa-gheorghita-jpg
Nassau Hall lit up in the nighttime.
Louisa Gheorghita / The Daily Princetonian

Princeton’s Board of Trustees rules the University. Trustees determine the University’s contested investment decisions, direct campus architecture and design, elect the president, and oversee faculty appointments. Through it all, these 39 individuals claim to wield impartial and apolitical judgment in their decision-making, having taken an oath to perform their duties “faithfully, impartially, and justly.” The University envisions trustees as unbiased, apolitical, and benevolent in their capacity to make decisions.

However, the Board sabotages this aspiration by blocking transparency and public participation during its deliberations. Furthermore, trustees employ the aura of impartiality to shut out voices of the school community by weakening Alumni and Young Alumni trustee elections and barring representation from the wider community. These factors make trustees unaccountable to the community they purport to serve and weaken their legitimacy.

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Students do not have an opportunity to weigh in on the Board’s decision making. While USG bylaws suggest that the Board will grant USG “opportunity”for “consultation” on undergraduate life decisions, according to USG president Stephen Daniels, “the only current formal interaction” between the two bodies is “a yearly presentation to a committee that deals with student life” — far too infrequent and shallow an interaction to fully accommodate student opinion. 

Princeton manages its Board members’ conflicts of interest (COI) principally through the above oath of impartiality and a Board committee that oversees COI cases. But unlike at other universities, the bylaws don’t specify what that COI policy actually looks like. We also don’t know whether or not the committee actually enforces it. When asked about the bylaws,  University Spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss directed me to the bylaws and declined to comment further. 

Given that the Board includes people who have alarming potential conflicts, such as senior members at JP Morgan Chase and Goldman Sachs or a recent former trustee who served on the Internal Advisory Board of British Petroleum (BP), this lack of procedural transparency is a grave risk. It leaves the University community in the dark about how effectively the Board manages its conflicts of interest. Although at Princeton we have no way of knowing about conflict of interest violations, they aren’t hypothetical: At Yale, a legal complaint recently accused four trustees connected with the fossil fuel industry of partiality in a divestment vote.

We also don’t have a good way of finding out whether trustees remain true to their oath because the Board seals their meeting minutes for 30 years. This renders the trustees completely unaccountable. They can drastically change the direction of the University and reshape its values without having to respond to scrutiny or criticism of their decisions until decades too late. 

As a result, the Board’s image of impartiality lies on shaky ground. But the University still uses it to deny democratic processes for selecting alumni trustees. In Alumni Trustee and Young Alumni Trustee elections, the Alumni Association bans candidates from campaigning on any political platform. The justification? Campaigning violates impartiality: They claim it invites “partisanship” that “detracts from this sense of shared responsibility, and thus is detrimental in both the election process and participation in the board.” Candidates who reveal their political platforms, according to the Alumni Association body which runs trustee elections, suddenly become “beholden” to these platforms and their voters in a way that makes them unable to fairly adjudicate University matters.

Without platforms, these elections are contests between candidates with vague biographies. The University’s concern that candidates might act in the interest of their constituents at the expense of the University as a whole is reasonable considering their goal of impartiality. But it doesn’t follow that the solution should necessarily be to ban any form of political discourse during elections. All this election process sets up is what Yale alumni trustee candidate Lauren Noble calls “a false choice between a political slugfest and no information.” Banning campaigning doesn’t make candidates impartial, it only means that voters lack an informed choice about candidates’ positions on critical university issues.

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To ensure a more accountable structure of governance that incorporates the interests of the wider Princeton community, the Board must make a number of policy changes around trustee selection and Board operation. The following proposals are reasonable first steps that are by no means unprecedented: They’ve been called for and established by many universities and advocacy groups.  

First, the Board must prioritize transparency. They need to require trustees to disclose financial and managerial conflicts of interest and to publicize its conflict of interest policies. In addition, the Board can make its meeting minutes accessible to the public with a drastically shorter seal time. Many public and private colleges, from University of Pennsylvania to the University of California system unseal minutes immediately. With this measure, if trustees aren’t acting in accordance with their oath of impartiality, they can be held to account before their time expires.

Secondly, the Board ought to open up representation. One strategy is to invite open campaigning in Alumni and Young Alumni Trustee elections. If Princeton is worried that trustee candidates that are permitted to campaign would indeed act partially because they’re beholden to their voters, the Board can adjust their bylaws to bar elected trustees from acting on campaign promises in a manner that interferes with their responsibilities as a caretaker of the University. Another method would be to create trustee positions for faculty, staff, and even current students — a model that Cornell has championed for decades. This change would allow these stakeholders to gain an equal seat at the table on decisions that affect them the most. 

Finally, instead of separating themselves from the school community, the Board must foster more accessible relations. Trustees could strengthen their connection through more frequent, public interaction with students, faculty, and staff. While the form of this access might vary, it could include more frequent Board town halls, office hours for stakeholders and trustees to discuss topics from free speech to fossil fuel divestment to Title IX reform. The Board could even allow stakeholders to propose agenda topics for trustee meetings that the Board can deliberate over and respond to.

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The opaque and antidemocratic structure of the Board of Trustees needs change on all fronts to restore its legitimacy in the eyes of the community. These changes are not radical; most have been implemented at other well-reputed institutions. Only when Princeton holds its Board to a higher standard of representation, transparency, and accountability can the community begin to place confidence in its decisions.

Contributing columnist Alex Norbrook (he/him) is a first-year from Baltimore, Md., intending to major in anthropology or politics. He can be reached at alexnorbrook@princeton.edu.

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