Yale’s having an election, and this one won’t be rigged. For the first time since 1965, there’s an independent candidate running for the Yale Corporation, Yale University’s 18-member board of trustees. Yale usually runs official candidates nominated by the alumni association, assiduously controlled by the university’s paid alumni-office staff. It’s long been a low-key coronation with no contest and few people voting.
I got my Ph.D. in art history at Yale, so I’m following the election closely.
Ceaseless controversies over Yale’s spending, race problems, diversity cult, secrecy, and intellectual decline led Victor Ashe, an alumnus and former mayor of Knoxville, to run. Voting is from April 12 to May 23. He’s hoping to scale the Ivory Tower and knock some common sense into the place.
Bill Buckley, author of God and Man at Yale, would approve. Buckley wrote his exposé of Yale’s slouch toward fat, sclerotic, nihilism du jour in 1951. A long time ago, I know, but “some things never change” unless we do something. I’m an optimist. Yale’s board needs outside voices. The school is running off the rails.
Ashe, an alumnus from the class of 1967, has stellar credentials. He served in Tennessee’s legislature and, crucially, was mayor of Knoxville for 16 years, making him its longest-serving mayor. Knoxville, with 190,000 people, is much bigger than New Haven. He focused on finances, as any mayor must, and enhancing tourism, parkland, and business development. The University of Tennessee’s main campus is in Knoxville, making Ashe a natural in keeping town–gown relations positive. He was the ambassador to Poland during the second Bush era.
I’d describe Ashe as an eastern Tennessee conservative, courtly but steely, practical rather than dogmatic, an intellectually rigorous man. He knows how to build things. He respects tradition. He demands results. Like many Yale alumni, Ashe sees a culture of suppression on campus — suppression of student opinion, of classroom debate, and of research that challenges accepted narratives.
Increasingly, ideology supplants originality and curiosity, he thinks. Yale’s fanatical affirmative-action program creates huge problems in terms of remediation and unhappiness as students struggle. Everyone knows it, but no one can talk about it.
There’s now close to zero political diversity among faculty, and that’s never been the case. I read Yale’s daily newsletter. Most of the scholarly endeavors it highlights seem earnest, conventional, and dull. There’s plenty of elite groupthink. As the COVID crisis nears its end, I’ve read nothing from Yale scientists and medical-school professors questioning the party line.
Yale’s English Department doesn’t require majors to study Shakespeare. Chaucer, Milton, Donne, the Romantic poets, Dickens, and Trollope aren’t kicked to the curb — yet. They’re tainted, though, and might have been white supremacists or tools of nationalism. Will ideology distort the medical school and hard sciences? Will Yale’s music department ban the study of musical notation or “Slave Era” composers as “colonialist,” as Oxford has done? I’m worried that anti-Semitism will return to Yale as it has to so many campuses. Anything’s possible when PC wackadoodles run amok.
I had a great experience at Yale. Its History of Art department is the best in the country, with inspirational teachers, a star-studded art gallery, the British Art Center, and lots of money to support future scholars. Every few steps, Yale has got another world-class library. Its undergraduates, at least when I was there, were the cream of the crop. I revere Yale’s faculty. Aside from a couple of ding-a-lings, my professors were superb.
But somewhere, sometime, a bit of rot crept into Yale’s foundation. Now, I can’t believe what I’m seeing and hearing.
Most worried alumni have their own story about what turned them off Yale. In 2015, I watched a video of a Yale undergraduate, an African-American woman, viciously berate Nicholas Christakis, a Yale professor and the Master at Silliman College. Screaming profanities, she was offended by a memo that Christakis’s wife, also a professor, sent campus-wide via email urging Yale students to use good sense in selecting Halloween costumes but, still, to keep a sense of play and whimsy.
In my opinion, this woman was among the most blessed young people in world history. She was a Yale student, with more privilege, intellectual resources, and comforts at her disposal than any generation before hers. Her rudeness, entitlement, and anger appalled me. What happened to respect? What happened to self-control or self-questioning?
She went unpunished. Among many, she was heroized. Yale’s president and deans can’t control every aspect of student culture and behavior, I know. But the adults in the room can and must enforce basic standards of behavior. Instead, Yale’s top brass activated its excuse-and-coddle apparatchiks.
Events like this now happen all the time as bullies and cranks own the keys to the megaphone cabinet. Where’s the leadership?
I’m not a troglodyte. I believe that merit, high standards, and freedom of thought and inquiry are essential at Yale. Many Yale administrators don’t. The kerfuffle over naming the various residential colleges on campus doesn’t upset me. I’m a descendant of multiple Yale pooh-bahs of yore. I don’t care whether or not residences are named after them. I’m delighted that one of the 14 colleges is now named after computer scientist and mathematician Grace Hopper, a Yale Ph.D. and a woman who lived in my lifetime.
I like Peter Salovey, Yale’s current president. He’s a nice guy — far too nice — and a positive face for Yale. He’s a lapsed hippie, lapsed for appearances’ sake but a believer still.
Under his watch, Yale continues to enhance its buildings, play well with the city fathers in New Haven, and keep peace with its unions. These are tremendous achievements. Ed Bass’s leadership on the Yale Corporation was essential, but he’s retired from the board.
Salovey needs to dilute his inner Peter, Paul, and Mary with a splash of Margaret Thatcher and a jigger of Marine drill sergeant. To do it, he needs trustees to stiffen his spine. Presidents take their marching orders from the trustees, and deans and department chairs from the president. “Get tough, or get lost” isn’t the worst governing philosophy.
The Chronicle of Higher Education determined recently that Yale has proportionately more administrators than all but four of 1,600 American colleges and universities. From 1995, when I was a Yale student, to 2017, managerial staff increased by 77 percent while the number of students has stayed roughly the same. All the while, faculty salaries are falling behind those at other Ivies.
Yale has a big transparency problem, too. The minutes of Yale Corporation meetings are embargoed for 50 years. No one can see even a summary of votes. Why the secrecy? It’s bad trusteeship. For all we know, the board is dressing up as elves and chanting to Shinigami when it’s supposed to be supervising the hired help and asking hard questions.
At the end of 2019, Yale’s endowment was $30 billion, the country’s biggest after Harvard’s. Almost all of this comes from alumni philanthropy over four centuries, yet alumni are deliberately kept in the dark about how big decisions at Yale get made. Most alumni, like me, are aghast at some of the on-campus drama. With $30 billion, Yale’s administration is reaching the point where it needn’t give a hoot about alumni opinion.
If we need yet another sign of Yale’s bad governance, it’s in the university’s election rules. Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela could learn something from the Alumni Office’s voter-suppression tricks, barriers-to-the-ballot, and still more secrecy. Days before voting starts, no one even knows who Yale’s official candidate is. It’s a secret.
Ashe needed to get more than 4,300 signatures to get on the ballot. Yale won’t disclose how many votes trustee candidates actually get. Turnout has hovered at a bit above 10 percent of Yale’s 87,000 alumni. In previous elections, no one knows how many voted “none of the above.”
Casey Murrow is the son of Edward R. Murrow and Yale ’68. “Looking at the world today,” he said of Yale’s system for picking trustees, “it would be hard to imagine a system designed to make it impossible for a determined candidate to win . . . yet Yale has achieved this curious goal.” Well said.
Yale needs new voices on top. Left-wingers need a comeuppance. Common sense needs a comeback. Debate and contrarian thinking need free rein, not the heavy boot. I admire Ashe for acting on principle and speaking truth to power. Shakespeare, on Yale’s Watch List for un-PC words, wrote, “Valour is the chiefest virtue, and most dignifies the haver.” Ashe has good ideas, and he has cojones. I hope that Yalies vote in droves and vote for change.