Off the Deep End: The University’s Irrational Appointments

by Will Herlands and Sam Norton

Princeton prides itself on hosting a faculty whose members possess varied experiences and viewpoints. In pursuit of intellectual diversity, the University often hires professors with provocative ideas – Peter Singer, among others, comes to mind. However, two nominations made this spring stretch the bounds of credulity. On February 24, 2010, the University announced its appointment of former White House advisor Van Jones to a distinguished fellowship in the African American Studies department, as well the Program in Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy at the Woodrow Wilson School. A month later, the University celebrated the appointment of former New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine as the John L. Weinberg-Goldman Sachs visiting professor in the Woodrow Wilson School. Both of these figures lack the temperament and background that ought to accompany a Princeton professor, and thus should be received warily by the Princeton community.

Van Jones: Rules for a Radical

Following the announcement of Jones’ appointment, students and alumni flooded the Internet with blog posts and comments on news articles expressing their disappointment or even revulsion that the University would see fit to honor Van Jones with such an appointment. They cite that his incendiary remarks about Republicans and alleged association with conspiracy groups as indicative of an anti-intellectual attitude that would detract from respectful political discourse on campus. While the extreme rhetoric exercised by some of Jones’ most ardent critics vehemently demonize him and his public advocacy, serious consideration of his past activities and current agenda should inform our evaluation of the University’s and the African American Studies Department’s decision to award such a divisive political figure a distinguished fellowship.

For most Americans, Van Jones entered the public sphere in March 2009, when President Obama appointed Jones as his administration’s Special Advisor for Green Jobs, Enterprise, and Innovation. However, even before joining the Obama administration, Mr. Jones pursued a prolific career as a liberal political advocate, environmental leader, and popular author. Jones’ political activism began in the mid-1990s as an employee of a communist organization called Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement (STORM), which claimed Mao Zedong as its political inspiration. During Jones’ tenure at STORM he was particularly active in protesting police violence in the San Francisco Bay Area, eventually founding two organizations dedicated to this cause–Bay Area Police Watch and the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.

Jones’ first foray into the environmentalist movement began only as recently as 2005, when he expanded the mission of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights to advocate for governmental mandates for alternative energy and green job development. As Jones expanded his advocacy of environmentalist causes, he began to associate the perennial struggle of the poor and racial minorities with the effort to deepen America’s commitment to substantial environmental reform. Indeed, Jones eventually founded an organization, Green for All, which collaborates with cities and municipalities to create jobs for the urban poor in the alternative energy industry. Additionally, Jones regularly speaks of “environmental justice,” “environmental racism,” and “green collar” jobs which explicitly link the modern burgeoning environmentalist movement to the urban poor.

As part of President Obama’s broad ambition to concentrate investment and political capital on environmentally conscientious economic innovation, Jones was appointed by presidential order to a newly created position dubbed “Green Czar.” However, soon after his appointment, Jones’ ability to serve the American people was challenged by media personalities, national politicians, and political commentators. Jones’ critics claimed his extensive and unabated activity as an advocate for the far left made him unfit to fill a position which requires nuanced decision-making and bipartisan cooperation to establish sustainable and effective policy. In addition to highlighting Jones’ position at the communist organization STORM, his detractors also published a speech Jones delivered shortly before joining the Obama administration in which he called Republicans “assholes,” hardly the rhetoric expected of White House advisors. Yet most damaging for Jones was his relationship with the “9/11 truther” movement, which implicates the United States government in the devastating terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001.

While Jones apologized for some of his past activates and attempted to repudiate his connection with the “truther” movement, the breadth, depth, and ferocity of accusations against Jones forced him to resign. In doing so, Jones avoided further scandal both to the fledgling Obama administration and to his personal reputation, which had already endured intense scathing. After his resignation, Jones left the public spotlight for a number of months, returning only a short time ago at the announcement of his appointment at Princeton, as well as of a position at a liberal think tank called the Center for American Progress.

Since the University’s announcement of Jones’ distinguished award, hundreds of commentators have posted on the websites of the Daily Princetonian and the Princeton Alumni Weekly, as well as on dozens of unofficial student and alumni blogs. However, regardless of the apparent interest of students and alumni, University administrators have refused to recognize any of the controversial activities in which Jones was implicated during his humiliating stint in the White House. The University’s reticent statements concerning Jones’ past are disturbing given the prospect of such a politically divisive and controversial figure being accorded such prestige by Princeton. Indeed, the justice of Jones’ fellowship is a question that merits serious discussion.

Central to this issue is the impact we expect Professor Jones to have on the university political discourse. As a distinguished visiting fellow in the African American Studies department, Jones is expected to engage in scholarly research for the Fall semester of next year, and teach during the Spring semester. Since Jones is not required to engage with student life in any other manner, both the nature and the extent of Jones’ future relationship with the university community remains unknown. Indeed, until his arrival on campus, it is impossible to speculative as to whether Jones will be a polarizing force on campus or a source of inspiration for substantive debate on pressing issues of environmental and economic concern.

Although Jones’ impact on campus politics is yet unknown, the passivity of the University and the African American Studies department in addressing Jones’ tenebrous past is distressing. If Jones desires to enrich campus understanding and debate on serious political issues, he must first allay pervasive suspicions of himself as a divisive and dismissive partisan. Only with such reconciliation may he hope to engage a diverse range of students in levelheaded, constructive, and truthful discussion.

Jon Corzine: Mediocre People Need Representation, Too

The furor over Jones’ appointment has largely obscured that of Jon Corzine. Although the former New Jersey governor lacks Jones’ record of controversial remarks, the merits of his visiting fellowship with the Woodrow Wilson School seem equally dubious. It remains unclear on what grounds the University has decided that this remarkably undistinguished individual is worthy of such an honorable appointment.

Corzine’s rise from humble beginnings to the position of Goldman Sachs CEO, and his deft stewardship of the financial powerhouse, are certainly impressive. However, these grounds alone do not merit a position in an institution focused on public policy. It seems, then, that Corzine’s record as a politician served as the catalyst for his appointment.

Jon Corzine first became personally involved with politics in 2000, when he ran for a seat in the United States Senate as a Democrat, eking out a narrow victory largely through his expenditure of an unprecedented sum of $62 million from his personal bank account. Once in the Senate, Corzine appeared to grow restless, displaying a lack of interest in the legislative process. During his tenure, he sponsored only a single minor bill that became enacted into law.

To be fair, since the Republican Party controlled the Senate for most of Corzine’s time in Washington, he had limited opportunities to advance his agenda. He might have been able to accomplish more, however, if he had been more proactive in reaching across the aisle. Corzine’s capacity to engage in bipartisan compromise could have been restricted by his stances on the issues, which consisted largely of left-wing boilerplate. After his election, Time magazine noted that he “ran on one of the most liberal platforms in the nation,” advocating programs such as public preschool and universal health care.

Itching for a promotion, Corzine jumped into the race of Governor of New Jersey in 2005 – before the expiration of his term. Continuing a familiar pattern, Corzine invested $38 million of his own money in order to achieve victory. According to the New York Times, he campaigned on reform, “pledging to use his business expertise to bring economic prosperity and higher ethical standards to New Jersey.”

This new version of Corzine’s views, more moderate than the previous iteration, reflected concern among the electorate of New Jersey about high levels of spending and taxation, as well as rampant corruption. If Corzine’s ability to deal with these challenges is the metric by which his time in office is to be judged, then he failed miserably.

The most obvious area in which Corzine was unable to bring about the change he promised is that of ethics. In July of 2009, an FBI sting resulted in the arrest of 29 New Jersey civil servants and public officials as part of an extensive probe into the state’s infamous graft problem. Standing in stark contrast to Corzine’s fecklessness in the face of widespread sleaze was his opponent– and eventual vanquisher– in the 2009 gubernatorial race, Republican Chris Christie, who had launched the investigation as the former U.S. Attorney for Newark.

Another issue on which Christie hammered Corzine’s shortcomings was the budget. Throughout his term, Corzine was unable to make significant headway in addressing the state’s suffocating tax burden. Although he did manage to pass a modicum of property tax relief, this reduction came in tandem with increased sales taxes. As a result, New Jersey currently retains its status as the most heavily taxed state in the nation, along with the equally inglorious title of worst business climate. This unfriendly economic environment has worsened the effects of the current recession and exacerbated the state’s fiscal crisis.

While Christie struggles heroically to rein in the disastrous deficit he inherited, Jon Corzine’s prestigious post in the Wilson School gives him a forum to criticize his successor, and, potentially, to revitalize his own moribund political career. In his keynote address at the Princeton Colloquium on Public and International Affairs – which received fawning praise from Wilson School Dean Christina Paxson – he laid out the latest manifestation of his political beliefs, which is no more original than previous ones. He combines platitudes about the need to reduce debt, cope with globalization, and improve civility in political discourse with the standard liberal zeal for erasing inequality by redistributing wealth.

Corzine’s positions, and his record of implementing them, may not have endeared him to the voters of New Jersey, but they nevertheless tend to dovetail with those held by the faculty of the Wilson School, who are required to approve all appointments. Associate Dean Nolan McCarty dismisses the suggestion that ideological affiliation may have factored into Corzine’s appointment, ascribing the decision to hire Corzine to the former governor’s availability. In addition, he cites past examples of Republicans who have served as fellows at the Wilson School, including Jim Leach ‘64, Bill Frist ‘74, and Josh Bolten ’76, as evidence that the program does not have a partisan bias.

However, McCarty’s statement deserves to be taken with a grain of salt. Leach, Frist, and Bolten are all unambiguously accomplished in the field of public policy, a claim that cannot be made about Corzine. In addition, while the three Republicans are all alumni, Corzine has very little connection to the University beyond his role as ex officio member of the Board of Trustees, a position held by every sitting governor of New Jersey. Thus, it seems fair to conclude that the Wilson School holds conservatives to a higher standard than liberals in determining who will be invited for a visiting fellowship. This trend runs contrary to Princeton’s mission of fostering vigorous scholarly debate, and bodes ominously for the future of free and open discourse on campus.

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