Op-ed: Governing Body to Be Applauded for Agreement with Princeton University

To the Editor:

In an era where public opinion polls show confidence in elected officials at or near all-time lows, it is refreshing to find situations where those who serve us deliver outstanding results. Our Princeton Council has done just that.

To the great long-term benefit of the Princeton municipality, the Princeton Council recently entered into a seven year agreement with Princeton University whereby the university will: (a) provide a secure and ever-increasing stream of revenues for the municipality through 2020; and (b) shoulder a significant share of the financial burden of specific projects of importance to both the municipality and Princeton University. Furthermore, the agreement contains a make-whole provision, should Princeton University ever decide to remove from the tax rolls certain properties that the university currently voluntarily keeps on the rolls.

I had the pleasure of serving as an unpaid advisor to the Princeton Council on these town-gown discussions, as the council developed its substantive positions, settled on negotiating strategy, and engaged in the give-and-take typical of such conversations.

Led by the negotiating team comprised of Council President Bernie Miller, Councilperson Patrick Simon and Princeton Administrator Bob Bruschi, the Princeton Council came away with a deal that is in the long term interest of the municipality. Of course the negotiators did not get everything the Princeton Council wanted (what negotiator does?), but all in all the negotiating team showed remarkably good judgment: they were creative, persistent and reasonable and came away with a very good deal for the citizens of Princeton.

Councilmembers Butler, Crumiller and Liverman each offered thoughtful comments throughout the process and threw their support behind the agreement, so that the council spoke as one on this important matter.

It was not a foregone conclusion that the negotiations would be so successful. Some of the recent history of town-gown relations in Princeton, under different leadership, has exposed significant rifts and bad blood. Other local governments, such as that in Providence, Rhode Island, have had acrimonious negotiations with local universities. Fortunately, in the case of Princeton, both the university and the municipality, at the very highest levels, made it clear from the start that this could and should be a series of discussions based on mutual respect and shared interests.

Finally, Mayor Liz Lempert and Councilperson Heather Howard are to be commended for voluntarily recusing themselves from the entire process leading to the town-gown agreement, so as to avoid any assertion that their actions were tainted by a conflict of interest. Such a recusal was a sign of good government practices that should serve as a model for future decision-making by the Princeton Council, as well as other jurisdictions throughout the state.

Frequently we read in both electronic and print media about differences in style and substance among our elected officials. But the town-gown negotiations and recent agreement showed a set of dedicated public officials who crafted an understanding with the university that should serve our town well for the next seven years.

Brad Middlekauff


  1. While I agree with Brad’s comments and applaud his engagement, I am unable to assess whether or not the agreement is equitable or not as we have not been provided key points of information.

    For example; What was basis or formula used to determine the amount of the voluntary contribution? Was it just last year’s amount plus a growth rate, or based upon a build up costs incurred by the community in providing services, or perhaps a proportion of theoretical maximum taxable amount (as if all of PU were taxable) or some other formula?

    What assumptions were made by PU for growth of tax exempt items for the life of the agreement? The amount of the agreement grows at 4% per annum. However, PU President Eisgruber has been reported in local press indicating that enrollment will grow due to increases in the number of student applications and consequently low and declining acceptance rate. What rate will Princeton University grow?

    What percent of foreign nationals students are assumed and how did the percent affect the determination of the contribution amount? The New York Times recently reported increases in the proportion of foreign nationals at elite US institutions, with Harvard currently at 27% and PU at 9%. The rationale behind the tax exemption of educational institutions is the positive benefit (externality) accrued to society (tax payers) through the increased education of the populace. As the proportion of foreign nationals enrolled increases the rationale for the US tax payers subsidy of educational institutions is undermined.

    I would be pleased to endorse the agreement if I had the facts that would allow me to conclude that it was in fact equitable. It may well be, but it may not.

  2. Henry Singer is asking all of the right questions — we hope that the Municipal negotiating team has the answers and the the University has the answers as well. Why is neither side sharing those answers with the public?

  3. While I applaud both sides for reaching an agreement, perhaps the Legislature should step in with specific legislation addressing this sort of issue.

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