Yale Has Gagged Its Alumni
Last week, Yale University’s governing board, the Yale Corporation, announced a decision to abolish the petition process allowing alumni to seek a spot on the ballot in the annual Alumni Fellow Election. In a letter to alumni, Senior Trustee Catharine Bond Hill disguises this disenfranchisement as a “best practice.”
What provoked this ham-handed edict? For the first time in nearly two decades, a petition candidate appeared on the ballot, thanks to the vigorous candidacy of former U.S. ambassador to Poland and Knoxville, Tennessee mayor Victor Ashe. His message of openness, transparency, and reform inspired more than 7,000 alumni to sign his petition.
Instead of acknowledging alumni concerns, the Yale Corporation has doubled down on secrecy. Coupled with the gag rule preventing trustee candidates from speaking on issues, this change guarantees that going forward, alumni will have no ability to learn about the views of the candidates on issues facing Yale and to cast an informed vote. They will have no opportunity to support independent voices joining the board. A university whose mantra often appears to be diversity and inclusion has offered a master class in conformity and exclusion.
The trustees’ reasoning is unworthy of a great university. They dismiss petition candidates as beholden to special interests and therefore not “in the best interests of the university” but provide no supporting evidence for this assertion. By all accounts, William Horowitz, Yale’s first Jewish trustee and the last petition candidate elected, served the university honorably. Petition candidates have broad support – it’s impossible, after all, to get on the ballot without thousands of signatures. And even when a candidate makes it on to the ballot, alumni still decide the election outcome.
The trustees lament the support of “well-funded organizations” for petition candidates but ignore how Yale’s own policies – which ask candidates to take an oath of silence and obligate those who don’t do so to gather nearly 4,500 signatures – make financial resources a requirement. For years before the recent petition candidacies, alumni requested more information about the candidates, only to be denied and told that the free exchange of ideas would threaten “intergenerational equity.” The Yale Corporation’s latest move revises the university’s motto from “light and truth” to “silence is golden.”
The Yale Corporation couches its argument in fiduciary responsibility – but have the trustees been good stewards of the university? You decide. Yale regularly embarrasses itself in the headlines. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, Yale leads the Ivy League in bureaucracy. In the most recent academic year, Yale reported 1.15 students for every staff member compared to 13 students for every tenured faculty member. Meanwhile, “69% of tenured faculty members . . . do not believe that their respective department ranks within the top five in their respective fields.” Yale has the second-lowest alumni giving rate in the Ivy League.
Is any trustee questioning this direction? The Yale Corporation embargoes its meeting minutes for 50 years, so we won’t find out until 2071. What we do know is this: according to Yale’s tax return, the investment firm of one of the current trustees, Lei Zhang, collected $6.6 million in management fees from Yale in 2018. The notion that a distinguished public servant with broad alumni support like Victor Ashe would be “challenged to do the work of a fiduciary” but an unelected trustee with millions of dollars in conflicts of interest faces no such challenges is laughable. It seems reasonable to guess that many petition candidates might be better fiduciaries than the current, self-perpetuating board.
The Yale Corporation justifies its embrace of undemocratic principles by lecturing us on “general principles for the governance of universities.” This is all rather awkward, considering that Yale doesn’t appear to follow its own bylaws. A recent Freedom of Information Act request shows that two trustees, Connecticut’s governor and lieutenant governor, receive no correspondence related to the meetings of the Yale Corporation, including agendas, minutes, or invitations. The Yale Corporation often doesn’t even regard them as trustees. A 2019 email from Secretary Kimberly Goff-Crews thanked Lieutenant Governor Susan Bysiewicz for her interest “in enhancing [her] connection to Yale” but goes on to say that “the most effective way to do this is likely through a series of briefings with Yale administrators and trustees from the relevant corporation committees.”
This stance seems to conflict with Yale’s bylaws, which note that “a written notice of each meeting shall be sent to each member . . . by mail, telefacsimile or other electronic means at least five days prior to the date set for such meetings, and the notice of any special meeting shall contain a statement of the chief subjects of business proposed.” The decision to eliminate the petition process was made at the meeting on May 18. This date is not listed on the Yale Corporation’s website, indicating that it was likely a special meeting. As Gail Lavielle, petition candidate for 2022, notes: “This raises the question of whether the vote was properly noticed and, by extension, whether it was properly taken.”
The 8,941 votes cast for Ashe were not enough to win the election, and he accepted the result graciously. Given the result, the Yale Corporation seems to fear not merely dissent, but the remote possibility of it. The trustees might begin to understand their error by revisiting the university’s famed Woodward Report on freedom of expression: “Free speech is a barrier to the tyranny of authoritarian or even majority opinion as to the rightness or wrongness of particular doctrines or thoughts.”