NEW YORK — The Association of Yale Alumni should be worried about Kate Coon ’73. She is a high school counselor in Dedham, Mass. She is brash and frank. She is wary of elitism and finds the Yale Corporation detached and unresponsive. “I’m from the Class of 1973. Need I say more?” she told me last Wednesday, on board the Acela bullet train to New York City.
Coon has just received her Corporation ballot and she is leaning toward voting for the Rev. W. David Lee DIV ’93. As we talked, I ticked off a list of well-known objections to his candidacy: his union ties, his admission that local ministers and organized labor groups put him up, his lack of glamorous credentials. Why support Lee, I asked her.
“There is a Yale power structure that I do not like here,” Coon answered. She pointed to the list of powerful people who have lined up to oppose Lee: Henry Chauncey ’57, Frances Beinecke ’71, Calvin Hill ’69. She thinks that alliance will turn voters against the University. “If Lee wins,” she said, “it’s a vote against Yale.”
I heard it again and again Wednesday. On the train and in the sitting rooms of the Yale Club of New York where Lee spoke. From the Class of 1953 to the Class of 1983, graduates are deeply unsettled by the campaign against Lee. They think Yale is “paranoid.” They do not distinguish between mailings from the AYA and the alliance of former trustees led by erstwhile Yale Secretary Henry Chauncey.
Right or wrong, they see only this: one monolithic machine, well-oiled and well-heeled, protecting Yale’s traditional decision-making system.
For many alumni, that is what the election for the Corporation seat has become: a referendum on Yale and power. To be sure, Lee laid the groundwork for an ugly campaign. He broke the unwritten rules. He sent out thousands of letters and e-mails to more than 100,000 voting graduates. But the countercampaign he provoked — from restless alumni like Chauncey and the AYA board of governors — was a defensive salvo alarming to alumni in both scale and expense.
Many graduates are now unsealing their third anti-Lee mailing. When they received their first, they were surprised, some even angry, that the AYA had nominated a single candidate, Maya Lin. Now, they are watching the AYA dispense thousands of dollars to defeat a legal candidacy in an election they believe should be left up to the voters. And they are waiting for — but not hearing — a denouncement from University President Richard Levin of the countercampaign. Levin has criticized Lee’s “unprecedented” electioneering; he has remained mum on the more pricey alumni response.
For alumni inclined to think the worst of influential people and institutions, the anti-Lee campaign has confirmed their suspicions: powerful interests protect powerful interests.
Take Norman Oder ’83. He left his job editing for the Library Journal early last Wednesday to hear Lee talk at the Yale Club. The campaign against Lee, he said, “seems overwhelming in that even if he is a gadfly, he is one of 18. It will not destroy the Corporation.” While Oder said he was not impressed with Lee’s speech, he later told me in an e-mail that he’s still voting for him “or, rather, against Yale’s anti-Lee campaign.” He called it the first step toward ventilating issues in Corporation elections rather than treating them as “resume runoffs.”
Then there is Geoff Martin ’63. The Consumer Reports director said he was amazed the AYA nominated only one candidate for alumni to consider this year. Rhoda Karpatkin LAW ’53 agreed: “Lee would offer a diversity of opinion that should be welcomed. But it is not being welcomed at all.”
I asked Martin about Lee’s union ties and the stigma of special interests that has shadowed him for months. Martin responded that the $30,000 the unions gave Lee is still less than the amount the AYA has spent on its campaign against him.
There are many reasons to doubt Lee’s candidacy. Some were on display Wednesday night. He was overly handled by a group of ministers, one of whom, the Rev. W. Franklyn Richardson DIV ’81, recklessly compared the relationship between Yale and the citizens of New Haven to that of a “plantation and sharecroppers.” Lee himself did not offer a terribly compelling vision for the Corporation, as many in the crowd later noted. His standard line that Yale is responsible for the quality of New Haven’s public schools reflects a dangerous misunderstanding of the Corporation’s mission and scope.
But there Lee was in the Yale Club, mingling with alumni, offering a new kind of Corporation candidacy that appeals to those who recoil at the idea of a detached, elite power structure. That power structure, meanwhile, was busy fulfilling Coon’s prophecy, with the AYA issuing ‘explanatory’ letters undercutting Lee, wealthy alumni upbraiding him with their own mailings and Woodbridge Hall winking and nodding at both.
For the alumni in the Yale Club who told me they were voting for Lee, it is that juxtaposition of a positive campaign for openness and a negative campaign to defeat an outside candidate that matters. Call these graduates irresponsible idealists. Maybe they are.
After all, you have to ignore a lot to vote for Lee.
But it is hard to understand why the AYA, Chauncey and Levin did not see this coming. They should have talked to Bill Hammock ’66. He’s no radical idealist. He sits on three corporate boards of directors. He’s an investor in Manhattan. And he’s voting for Lee.
“I think the college boards of governance are a hold-out on the old boys network,” he said. “Lee is a candidate not anointed by the corporate board.”
Michael Barbaro is a senior in Davenport College. He is a former editor in chief of the Yale Daily News.