Beyond the Bubble | Dec. 12

As ex-officio trustee, Gov. Christie's role in Princeton affairs unclear

While New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has made several high-profile appearances on campus in recent months, his involvement in University affairs as an ex-officio trustee, relative to those who have held his position in the past, is less clear.

As ex-officio trustee, Christie serves on the Board of Trustees by virtue of his role as governor rather than by being elected to the position. University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 is also an ex-officio trustee, while the other 37 members of the board are elected for four- or eight-year terms.

Attendance records for the Board meetings are not on the public record. However, Vice President and Secretary Robert Durkee ’69 said in September and December interviews with The Daily Princetonian that Christie is “actively involved” as a trustee.

“His schedule is such that he certainly can’t make every meeting, but he makes meetings when he can,” Durkee told the ‘Prince.’

Among Christie’s numerous ties to the University is his son Andrew Christie ’16, a sophomore at the University and a member of the baseball team. But Durkee said that Christie’s activity level as a trustee was high before his son’s matriculation.

“I think he appears to be interested in how the University is governed and seems to enjoy being part of the process,” Durkee explained. “I think governors also appreciate the role we play as a cultural institution, as an intellectual institution and the role that we play in bringing people from around the world into New Jersey, many of whom end up staying in New Jersey.”

Christie has attended both official and unofficial University functions in recent years. In addition to having attended an April baseball game and November’s homecoming football game against Yale, Christie also attended the April 21 trustees’ meeting for the election of Eisgruber to the presidency, Durkee said.

As a trustee, Christie has also supported the University’s efforts on the Arts & Transit Neighborhood, according to Durkee.

“When we presented [the Arts & Transit] project to the community, we had a very strong statement of endorsement from him,” he explained. “[He] appreciated the importance of that project for the state and particularly for this region.”

Governor as ex-officio trustee in historical perspective

Despite Christie’s national profile and ties to the University, James Axtell, author of “The Making of Princeton University: Woodrow Wilson to the Present” and history professor at the College of William of Mary, noted that governors serving as University ex-officio trustees often have limited influence.

Axtell said that Princeton’s Board of Trustees is much bigger than most colleges’ boards. The Board has 39 members in total, as opposed to Yale’s board, which has 19 members who can “sit around at an ordinary seminar table and still have room for a couple of secretaries.”

Christie might have less influence on the bigger group, Axtell said.

Axtell added that the members of the Board of Trustees are not likely to be awed by a governor, even one who just easily won his reelection challenge and is the recipient of media attention as a potential contender for the 2016 Republican Presidential Nomination.

“[The Trustees are] all leaders in a sense in their own either professions or their own businesses,” Axtell explained. “They’re as equal in their fields as he is in politics.”

Current trustees include Ruth Simmons, president emerita of Brown University; Heidi G. Miller ’74, former president of J.P. Morgan Chase International and Charles D. Gibson ’65, a former ABC news anchor.

Axtell also noted that the committees on the Board of Trustees make the agendas, so the Governor would have to go through them first if he wanted to propose any items to be discussed at the Trustees meeting.

“The committees that make up the agenda and do the homework are the ones that get voted on,” Axtell said. “The governor can’t just sit there and say, ‘Well, I’d like to do X, Y and Z’ without [...] any consideration in a major committee.”

Politics professor Nolan McCarty explained that the Governor’s role in partisan politics could prevent him from being particularly influential on the Board of Trustees.

“Governors are elected officials, and are therefore engaged extensively in politics and in partisan politics. I think that there’s a real need to keep partisan political considerations out of decision-making [about] a University,” McCarty said. “Not to say that the Governor couldn’t set those things aside and participate in an appropriate way [...] but it’s not good for this University or any University, I think, to have unnecessary interference from partisan politicians.”

The Governor’s attendance at meetings is perhaps the best indicator of the influence he wields on the Board of Trustees, Axtell said.

“The question is how often do [Governors] show up for the meetings,” Axtell explained. “If they’re going to have influence, they really have to show up and do their homework with everybody else.”

“[Christie] is an active and attentive participant,” Durkee said while citing confidentiality rules that prevented him from being more specific. “We have seen him more than some [other governors].”

Durkee added that governors need not necessarily attend meetings frequently to play a role in the University’s governance.

“When Christine Whitman was governor, she didn’t make many board meetings, but she would host the board at events at Drumthwacket [the official residence of the governor],” Durkee said. “When Governor McGreevy was in office, he attended some board meetings, but he also showed up to a number of other events on campus, because he was particularly interested in the role that Princeton could play in encouraging economic development in the state.”

A trustee as president?

Observers have been scrutinizing Christie’s actions as speculation mounts that he may run for president in 2016. A Dec. 11 Quinnipiac poll showed him leading Hillary Clinton in a hypothetical matchup by one point.

In a Nov. 10 interview with Fox News, Christie declined to say whether he would run.

“I think the [chance that Christie runs] is reasonably high, but it wouldn’t be the first time that somebody has done a lot of preparatory work and then decided not to run, so I wouldn’t say that it’s a done deal,” McCarty said. “He seems to have every indication of at least preparing to run.”

McCarty mentioned Christie’s handling of the special election to select a New Jersey senator, an election which he scheduled in October despite the fact that his own re-election was scheduled for just a few weeks later, as an indication that Christie “[was] very concerned about not just winning reelection but by winning reelection in a large fashion.”

McCarty also added that Christie has been spending time in Iowa and New Hampshire, the states which have the first presidential primaries, “despite the fact that it’s very cold there.”

However, McCarty said that Christie isn’t doing anything “particularly novel or surprising.”

When asked whether he thought Christie could win the presidency if he did decide to run, McCarty explained that it was hard to say.

“One expects that he comes in at a disadvantage in that he’s going to be one of the more moderate candidates in a very conservative Republican primary,” he explained. “But he’s probably also the candidate with the highest name recognition. So how those things play off against each other, nobody knows.”

Chair of the Board of Trustees Kathryn Hall ’80 and Clerk of the Board Robert Murley ’72 did not respond to request for comment. Vice Chair of the Board Brent Henry ’69 declined to comment for this article.

Christie’s staff did not respond to request for comment for this article.

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