By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer
With a new governor poised to take office in January, Princeton University will navigate the changing landscape in Trenton with a veteran of state government and higher education who wins accolades from both sides of the political aisle.
Karen A. Jezierny is Nassau Hall’s director of public affairs, a self-described “Yankee by birth and disposition” and a “Jersey girl by choice.” She cut her teeth working for the New Jersey Assembly majority office in 1982, a year after graduating with a master’s from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and then bounced back and forth between higher education and state government before settling in at Princeton, where she has spent the past 25 years in different capacities.
“Professionally, she’s been great to work with,” said Mayor Liz Lempert in calling Jezierny “practical” and a “problem-solver.”
“I feel like she can be a really great partner,” Mayor Lempert said, “especially if there’s issues with the Department of Transportation, because the university can be very effective. So when our interests are aligned, it’s a good thing for the town to have the university on our side.”
Jezierny, who shuns the limelight, declined to be interviewed for this story. But interviews with state lawmakers and others portray her as a talented, straight shooter, who, in the words of one former boss, has a “quiet determination” about her.
“As far as governmental affairs and relations go, Karen is one of the best,” said state Assemblyman Jack M. Ciattarelli, (R-16), who is retiring from the Legislature.
On its website, the university office of public affairs, which she has led since January 2004, said it “provides the principal link between Princeton University and the state of New Jersey on state laws and regulations that affect the management of the university and the quality of life of our students and faculty.”
Jezierny, in a 2016 interview with the university athletic department, where she serves as an academic-athletic fellow for women’s basketball and soccer, said of herself that she manages “the relationships between the university and statewide organizations, including members of the Legislature and the executive branch of state government, advocacy organizations, professional groups and others.”
Jezierny went to work for the university for the first time, in 1986, as its director of community and state affairs. She returned to Trenton, in 1990, to work for the administration of Gov. Jim Florio, as his assistant state treasurer. In an interview last year, Florio recalled her as a “key person” in budget deliberations.
“She was always very good,” he said in touting her “quiet determination.”
She spent a year working for Florio before going back to higher education, first at Farleigh Dickinson University before returning to Princeton in 1992 as an associate dean in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. She has been director of public affairs for nearly 14 years — having to work with Democratic and Republican governors in that time.
Ciattarelli said that in past six years, he and Jezierny have “communicated and or worked together at least once a quarter on various issues that are important to Princeton and specifically the university.”
One instance where they did not see eye to eye was on a bill to make private universities exempt from municipal land use regulations, so that their projects would not have to get approval from planning and zoning boards.
“It’s not a case of us always being in perfect agreement,” he said. “I think land use law was a perfect example of us not being in agreement. But we always worked together well. And I always found Karen to be very professional.”
State Sen. Shirley K. Turner, (D-15) had represented Princeton when it was part of her district, with the town now in Ciattarelli’s district. She said she continues to work with Jezierny.
“I found her to be a very committed and very dedicated person to, of course, the university but also to the Princeton community,” Turner said. “So I have nothing but respect and high regard for her.”
Away from her work for Nassau Hall, Jezierny, a Princeton resident, is also involved in the community, including with college sports and the local chapter of the YWCA.
“I’ve always found Karen to be aboveboard and very interested in community affairs,” said former Borough Councilman Kevin Wilkes. “I’ve always had a good relationship. And I think she’s (a) pretty square person.”
“She is wonderfully charismatic and possesses a passion for this school that is unmistakable,” said Princeton women’s soccer coach Sean Driscoll, in 2016.
But it is unclear what the university’s priorities might be with a new governor replacing Chris Christie, a Republican. There has been no talk of the state trying to tax the university’s more than $20 billion endowment, a move that Connecticut officials considered but dropped concerning Yale University. But the timing of the change in administration comes with the university looking to expand its presence into West Windsor as part of its strategy to grow the school in the coming years.
“So no matter who wins the governor’s race,” Ciattarelli said, “Princeton will be well represented with Karen doing its outreach to the new administration.”
By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer