Politics & Policy

Yale University’s War against Alumni and Accountability

A student walks on the campus of Yale University in New Haven, Conn., November 12, 2015. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)
Fearful of transparency and change, Yale’s governing body has resorted to procedural tactics to keep alumni from joining that wouldn’t be out of place in a dictatorship.

Back in March 2020, I signed up to gather the 4,394 signatures required to become a petition candidate for the Yale Corporation. In a four-month period, I gathered over 7,200 signatures and won a place on the ballot for the Yale Corporation (which is the governing body of Yale University). It hires the president, grants tenure, adopts the annual budget and sets policy on whatever it wants to affect.

I ran because, as a Yale alumnus, I was tired of getting two names each year of persons I did not know, with no information on why they were running provided. All we got was a bio, and now a video lacking any comments from candidates on issues facing Yale. In my campaign, I also emphasized openness, and my opposition both to expensive administrative growth and to rising tuition during the pandemic.

While the 2021 election, for which I was a candidate, was transpiring from April 14 to May 23, the Yale Corporation, chaired by President Peter Salovey but guided by Catherine Bond Hill, former Vassar president, moved to abolish this system and give total control to the existing 19 members on filling vacancies. Regulations permit two to five candidates. A special unannounced meeting of the corporation was held May 18. Two members, the governor and lieutenant governor of Connecticut, were not notified or informed of the agenda of the meeting. Why? I realize I’m a biased party, but it seems hard not to conclude that Yale, frightened by my efforts and by the possibility that either I or — since I did not, ultimately, win under the old procedures — some other committed individual might shake things up, moved quickly to secure power. Such a step is unbecoming of Yale University.

The board-selection process is distant and unfriendly. But it has existed since 1927. It produced the first Jewish member of the corporation in William Horowitz in 1965. It produced the first women to serve on the corporation in the 1970s. Now that process has been abolished, and the 160,407 Yale alumni will be able to vote for only the hand-picked choices from the Yale Alumni Association’s 14-member nominating committee in future years. This is similar to what mainland China has imposed on Hong Kong in its future “elections.”

Yale alumni who were affected by losing their right to be a petition candidate or to vote for a petition candidate were not asked their opinions on this change. Yale leaders who profess to value alumni views when they seek annual donations were strangely silent on this significant change.

Apparently, Yale leaders disliked having their procedures, such as the 50-year embargo on releasing the minutes of the corporation, questioned. The debate on this issue was triggered by the twin candidacies of Maggie Thomas of Yale Forward and myself. It genuinely irked some Yale Corporation members, who may not welcome questions from alumni.

My pledge to make my personal phone number and email available caused other corporation members to become uncomfortable with this level of accessibility. In fact, I did it in my campaign. Frightened by the possibility of transparency, the existing corporation members looked to Vladimir Putin and his tactics for inspiration on what to do with candidates such as Maggie Thomas and myself who raise or ask inconvenient questions.

The corporation does not have to worry about my attendance, as I did not win. But it does not want to allow even outside discussion. Permitting anything like democracy in Yale’s governance seems abhorrent to them. Its members saw that three more petition candidates had qualified for 2022, and it was more than the corporation members could handle. They wanted this pesky intrusion of possible accountability to go away.

This has all occurred while voting for Yale trustees has dropped by over half in the past 50 years. Even this year, it was less than 16 percent of the total number of eligible voters. That means 84 percent of Yale voters skipped this election.

David Richards, a thoughtful Yale historian, wrote last week:

This is a black day for Yale University governance, and in an alumni climate where so many persons voted for the two petition candidates this year (Ashe and Thomas), in a system which allowed up to three petition candidates, you may think (they) you have doused a fire and instead have ignited a firestorm.

Now the outrage has mushroomed. Many are considering legal action to overturn the action of the corporation on the grounds that two of its members were never notified of the special meeting. This could show Yale has ignored Connecticut leaders for many years despite over 18,000 Yale alumni being Connecticut residents. Of course, the Yale Corporation could meet again, notify the missing members, and we would be back to where we are now.

A more challenging effort, which, if successful, would simply nullify what the corporation did, would be to take this voting-rights issue to the Connecticut legislature. Many persons do not realize that much of the Yale Charter was adopted by the legislature a century ago. Even the restriction on Yale graduates of Yale College not voting until they have been out for five years is part of state law in the Yale Charter.

This issue could attract favorable attention from lawmakers, who support their Yale constituents’ having full voting rights for any candidate of their choice. It also could reopen the issue of taxing income from the Yale endowment and providing more taxes from Yale to New Haven. Yale leaders have often feared this might happen.

The corporation’s current heavy-handed tactics may reduce alumni support in the legislature and encourage local-government leaders, starting in New Haven, to have a field day in Hartford at Yale’s expense. Yale leaders need only look in the mirror to discover why. Their actions declared war on alumni and were done in a clandestine way. They are using up the warm feelings many want to have and have had for Mother Yale.

The consequences of the past week may well be remembered as the worst week in the presidency of Peter Salovey, who failed to foresee the chain reaction this foolhardy action would trigger. It will be hard to contain the anger. He has time to reverse course, but he seems to defer to Bond Hill. Even Harvard has not abolished open elections for its Board of Overseers but has reduced the number to be chosen. If honor or shame will not prevail upon the Yale Corporation, maybe it should at least care to ensure that Yale doesn’t do something worse than Harvard.

Victor Ashe, Yale class of 1967, is a former 16-year mayor of Knoxville, Tenn., lawmaker, president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and U.S. ambassador to Poland, 2004 to 2009.

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