Princeton University, Office of Communications, Maddy Pryor

Phenomenal cosmic power, itty-bitty living space. — The Genie of the Lamp, Aladdin, 1992

At some juncture while this elucidation is posted for your viewing and harmonizing enjoyment, the mists will part in the recesses of Nassau Hall and the University will announce as many as nine new Princeton trustees, picking up the baton from those whose terms end this year, none of whom can succeed themselves without at least a year away from the board. You will have voted for two of these exemplary folks — if you didn’t vote, you should have, if only to read the intimidating bios — while the classes of 2021, 2022, 2023, and 2024 will have voted for another, and the rest will be chosen by the board itself as either term trustees (four-year tenure) or charter trustees (six years, renewable for two more, like your driver’s license). The important thing, I suppose, is that the details don’t make a material difference in the overall focus of the board or the results of its efforts. Those, over the last 277 years, have been: 1) arguably the best undergraduate-level education on the planet, and 2) a research faculty that leads the globe in a number of strategically critical fields of study.  

I would add that, compared to other boards you might know, the Princeton trustees are a pretty approachable bunch who operate in a strikingly egalitarian way. The variable terms of service aside, each of them (40 is the maximum number) has precisely the same power, i.e. one vote on anything. Anybody can be elected board chair, vice chair, whatever; anybody can chair one of the 10 standing committees or (I guess) spend their time across the street at Winberie’s. Besides this objective sense that the board can work out its immediate needs for itself without too much red tape involved, there’s a subjective sense of approachability that’s not easy to define. Perhaps it’s that, with 38 alums currently on the board, your class or your generation is very likely to be represented. (OK, trivialists, the only non-alum now on the board is member ex officio Phil Murphy, the Harvard/Wharton governor of New Jersey.) So you can always pick up the phone and text the guy two years younger than you who always sang flat above middle C a cappella, who now owns half of Oregon, and ask what the board is up to. Not that he’ll tell you, but he’ll tell you why if he won’t. It may also be an indicator that, for the moment, the board has elected as its chair the dynamic Weezie Sams ’79, who emphatically prefers that to her given name of Louise. Just saying.

It was not always thus. Although the first trustees of the College of New Jersey, in 1746, were not all clergymen, for a century they composed a majority, should the threat of irreverence appear on the horizon. Under the first brief charter there were nine Holy Guys, a merchant, a philanthropist (duh), and a lawyer (to write the charter, of course). The second charter two years later, shepherded through by Royal Governor Jonathan Belcher, incorporated lessons learned (as we consultants say) by expanding the board to 23 while holding the required clergy to 12 slots, thereby allowing room for legislators, judges, and ex officio the royal governor (duh redux) and the president, plus the rich folks. Those with degrees had received them at Yale, the Log College (William Tennant’s groundbreaking school in Neshaminy, Pennsylvania, and Princeton’s most direct forerunner), and even Harvard, I guess in case Gov. Murphy were to show up later. The first College of New Jersey alum to be named a trustee was townie and ceaseless booster Richard Stockton 1748 in 1757 — he would eventually sign the Declaration of Independence — followed by four others by the time John Witherspoon arrived from Scotland to revolutionize the place in 1768. In the next century, the alums became a decided majority. 

Did I mention all the trustees were appointed for life? Obviously coloring all sorts of subsequent decision-making, this pretty much ensured that a large portion of the board would grow remote even from their own student experiences, and the ever-aging body would act increasingly conservatively/traditionally as a whole. The first, and in many ways the worst, major example of this was the trustees’ intrusion into student discipline following the Riot of 1807, when they undercut the educationally progressive, behaviorally moderate president Samuel Stanhope Smith 1769, eventually replacing him with one of their own and bringing the College close to its demise in the 1820s. It was only rescued by John Maclean Jr. 1816, a second-generation faculty member, whose salvage job began with the formation from thin air of the Alumni Association of Nassau Hall in 1826 and ended with his exhausted resignation from the presidency in 1868. salvage job began with the formation from thin air of the Alumni Association of Nassau Hall in 1826, and ended with his exhausted resignation from the presidency in 1868.

James McCosh’s efforts to then further energize the alums (including the founding of the first regional Princeton Clubs), along with improvements in transportation and communication, almost inevitably triggered a broad-based alumni demand to be more involved in the decision-making of the now Princeton University. In 1900, this resulted in two momentous changes. You’re reading one of them. The other was the addition of five new Alumni Trustee positions, elected directly by the alumni for five-year terms. Eventually modified to four years, these were quickly expanded to eight positions in 1917, then to nine with the first codified representative of the graduate alums in 1963. Meanwhile, the Alumni Trustee candidates also supplied a fresh potential source for Life Trustees. The board then took a modest step which foreshadowed momentous change: In 1942, an internal study resulted in the change from “life” trustees to “charter” trustees, with a mandatory retirement age of 70. This opened the way in 1956 to the first addition of four “term” trustees appointed by the board with four-year terms similar to alumni trustees. And then to 1968.

In 1968, Bob Goheen ’40 *48 had been at Princeton for 32 years as student, teacher, and president. He was managing the blowback from Vietnam, the first vestiges of meaningful integration on campus, calls against apartheid, an imminent wholesale change in the structure of University governance initiated by the faculty and, oh by the way, growing demand for coeducation. So in his 1968 president’s report, he took time out to comment on the shortcomings of — wait for it — the trustees. His main point: Nobody knew who they were or what they did, and in fraught times that was a problem. With the publication of trustees’ deliberations then limited to a 50-year embargo, he had a point. He felt they were dedicated to being of service and doing a great job for the University, but nobody else was aware. This prompted another self-analysis, which had a transformative effect on the board and its relations with the outside world. The 1969 reboot of the board included:

  • The limit of all new Charter Trustee terms to 10 years, ensuring the board would grow younger
  • The elimination of the requirement that a trustee must be more than 10 years beyond graduation
  • The simultaneous creation of four new Young Alumni Trustees, one from each of the most recent four undergraduate classes, elected by the four classes who best know the candidates
  • Perhaps most far-reaching, a new written Appendix to the By-Laws, a “Resolution on the Delegation of Authority,” which in three pages details how the trustees intend to run the place

Essentially, the Resolution (Appendix B here), which in slightly modified form is in force today, separates the operation of the University into three buckets. The trustees directly oversee macrofinancial and property matters. They expect prior consultation and approval on major strategic decisions, like adding and dropping departments, relations with the government or revision of tuition and admissions policies. Just about everything else, they delegate to the president, the faculty, the students, or some other party, and have them report back to the board periodically. This explicit statement is noteworthy on two levels: It makes a great deal of sense, so should generally assuage far more concern than it causes; and it raises the intriguing issue of where it was for the first 222 years prior to Goheen’s report. 

For me, this is the kind of simple question that makes history fresh and baffling at the same time, thus constantly worth reexamination and debate. You, the Ardent Historian, should take a look at the trustees’ minutes up to 1992 (the embargo is now 30 years) online, courtesy of our good friends at the archives, and consider: As responsible stakeholders, how should we and the trustees now best incorporate lessons learned?