Juanita James ’74 is passionate about uplifting Princetonians

Juanita James holds a 1746 Society pennant

Photo courtesy of Juanita James

Juanita James ’74 is excited about all the changes at Princeton — changes she witnessed and those she helped usher in. As her 50th Reunion approaches, James has honored the milestone by becoming a member of the 1746 Society through the Annual Giving Legacy program, creating two charitable gift annuities. It’s another powerful expression of gratitude in her long history of giving back to the University.

James’ Princeton story is one defined by resilience, optimism and laudable achievement. Most notably, 10 years after graduation, she became the first Black woman trustee in the University’s history. The role, which she held from 1984 to 1998, had a profound impact on the trajectory of her life and solidified her relationship with Princeton.

But her trustee service is not where her Tiger tale began.

Finding Her Footing 

In the fall of 1970, in her first semester on campus, James was feeling like a fish out of water. “I really struggled my freshman year for a number of reasons,” James said. “I came from an all-girls Catholic high school in Brooklyn, I was the daughter of a single parent and I was a first-generation college student. I was so intimidated.” 

The first Princeton class with women had matriculated just one year before, and support systems had yet to be developed. In addition, she said, Black students “felt a lot of hostility.” James remembers reading letters from alumni in The Daily Princetonian saying that Princeton was lowering its standards by admitting women and people of color. Feeling unsure and unwelcome, James took the bus home to Brooklyn every weekend during her first semester. 

But James was determined: There was no way she wouldn’t succeed at Princeton. She reached out to others and began to find her footing. She started tutoring with Community House, which had been founded the previous year by undergraduates who moved off campus to live and connect with the town’s residents, and she discovered a support network within the Black community. The professors in the romance language department were particularly welcoming to her, and she declared her major in French. She joined the Program in Teacher Preparation and received additional support from its director, Henry Drewry, and his wife, Cecelia. James also took classes and found support in the African American Studies department, which was established in 1969. And in her free time, she earned a third-class FCC license so she could host “Triad,” a jazz show on WPRB. 

James also joined a student group, the Association of Black Collegians (ABC). “I met people from all over the world, from parts of the country I had never heard of,” she said. “What we had in common was we were breaking ground. We were all thrilled and proud to be there, fulfilling our families’ dreams. I formed relationships that to this day I still have. That was the shining light.”  

Time as a Trustee  

After graduating in 1974, James moved to Washington, D.C. She credits Princeton with helping to launch her career: “At the time, Time Inc. was very much a group of a lot of Princeton alums.” Starting as an editorial apprentice in the book division of the company based in Virginia, James went on to have a 20-year career at Time Inc., working her way up to roles including president and CEO of Time-Life Libraries and then senior vice president for Book-of-the-Month Club, based in New York City. Along the way she attended Columbia Business School’s executive education program courtesy of Time Inc. 

Just 10 years after her Princeton graduation, when she had already been promoted to vice president of human resources for Time-Life Books, James spoke at an alumni panel on campus. Soon after, she became a candidate for the University’s Board of Trustees.

During her first four years as a term trustee, she found others on the board whose trajectories, like hers, had been changed by Princeton. “The trustees could not have been more supportive, more welcoming, more inclusive,” James said. She continued to serve as a charter trustee until 1998.  

The trusteeship, she said, gave her breadth and experience in leadership roles, for which she is grateful. But it was thinking about the future of the University that truly energized her relationship with Princeton. “That’s really what solidified my connection in a very, very positive way — seeing how much the University was trying to get in front of itself,” she said. “To honor its traditions, but also being really open to changing to meet the times. For example, I was involved in the decision to disassociate from companies doing business in South Africa that were not following the Sullivan Principles. I was involved in the women in engineering initiative.” 

James was also involved in policy changes to financial aid that made the Princeton experience more accessible to students across the whole economic spectrum. A highlight of her trustee years, she said, was chairing the Committee on Academic Affairs. Two committees needed new chairs at the time; the other was Student Life. James is grateful to Ruth Simmons, then vice provost, for her advice: “She said, ‘Juanita, I know Student Life is something you relate to and love. Academic Affairs is harder, but it’s the lifeblood of the University.’ It was a wonderful experience in terms of thinking ahead to where Princeton was going as an institution.” 

Passion for Service 

After two decades at Time Inc., James went on to run the Doubleday book clubs at Bertlesmann for five years, and she then worked for 10 years at Pitney Bowes, where she served as chief communications and marketing officer. When James retired from corporate life, she took a new path. As president and chief executive officer at Fairfield County Community Foundation, she led the nonprofit for 11 years, retiring in 2022.  

In addition to her time as a Princeton trustee, James has served on two public corporate boards, two other university boards and more than a dozen nonprofit boards.  

Despite the heavy demands of balancing a high-powered career, her role as wife and mother and her other significant volunteer positions, James has always made giving back to Princeton a priority, financially and through University service. She loyally supports Annual Giving. In October 2010, she established the Juanita James ’74 Fund for Faculty Research in African American Studies.  

In 2018 and 2019, she served on panels at the “She Roars” and “Thrive” alumni affinity conferences, respectively, offering her expertise on navigating board membership and career transitions. James is an active member of two affinity groups, the Association of Black Princeton Alumni and Princeton Women’s Network. Among other roles, she’s served in class leadership positions for Annual Giving, on her regional leadership team for the Princeton Prize in Race Relations, for the Alumni Schools Committee and on the Dean of Faculty’s advisory councils for both English and human resources.  

Hip, Hip, 1746 

Last year, James returned to campus for Reunions weekend, when the Class of 1973 celebrated its 50th. “It was such an uplifting experience to see how much the University has transformed,” she said. This year, she’s looking forward to seeing classmates at her own 50th.  

James praises the University for its continuing commitment “to allow different voices to be heard” in handling all of the disruption in society right now.” From her own days on campus, she remembers how hearing the voices of African American students led to the opening of the Third World Center in 1971, a space for community building, as well as for diverse cultural, educational and political programming. (In 2002, the Third World Center was renamed the Carl A. Fields Center for Equality + Cultural Understanding.) “The fact that there is discussion and dialogue, and the allowance for different perspectives and opinions to be brought to the table in a respectful way — those are the things that, to me, make Princeton very special,” she said.  

For James, joining the 1746 Society and supporting Princeton through the Annual Giving Legacy program before her landmark reunion is a way to continue her strong commitment to the University as an institution. “Giving back is about making contributions of our talents and resources, both financial and experiential,” she said. “And supporting Princeton is about uplifting people.”