To everyone’s chagrin, the conversation around the Yale presidential search continues. Self-styled student activists, small in number, demand unreasonable representation in the selection process. In dining halls and classrooms, students and faculty alike debate the method for picking President Levin’s replacement.
How did we get here? Why do so many — not just those few bent on activism — have little faith the Corporation’s presidential search process? Allow me to postulate an answer: by remaining largely absent from campus in the past decade, the trustees have created a crisis of confidence. When we don’t know them, when we don’t see them — we don’t trust them.
While we should not romanticize the past, the Yale Corporation circa 1970 contains some lessons for the present day. Then, the Corporation contained distinguished national figures, such as New York Mayor John Lindsay ’44 and civil rights activist Bishop Paul Moore ’41. These trustees were visible presences in New Haven. Students recognized them because of their prominence and frequent visits to campus.
That Corporation shepherded the University through tumultuous times ranging from coeducation to a financial crisis. Was there popular discontent with the Corporation’s decisions? Of course — it was the ’70s. Alumni rebelled against the inclusion of women in Yale College; student activism was in its heyday. But the visibility of the Corporation, including President Kingman Brewster ’43, lent the University’s trustees a legitimacy the current Corporation lacks. Most famously, in the midst of the May Day riots, Brewster spoke to a tense audience of students and faculty at the Whale — and they listened, because they knew him and respected him.
In contrast to Lindsay and his peers, Senior Fellow Edward Bass, Levin and their colleagues lack the community’s confidence. For the most part, the current trustees are businessmen and women — highly successful people to be sure, but not prominent public servants. What Yalie can name the CEO of Chanel, let alone know that she — Maureen Chiquet ’85— is a member of the Corporation? When have she or her peers sat down with Yale students?
Indeed, this search process marks the first substantial time the trustees have consulted with the Yale community. Other important matters, such as Yale-NUS, were approved without serious discussion between the Corporation and the rest of the Yale community. And so, it is understandable that many believe that the recent public forums on the presidential search are window dressing — a way to create a veneer of popular buy-in for the trustees’ eventual decision.
What is worse, realizing they lack our confidence, the trustees have tried to correct their failure by pleasing special constituencies at Yale. The next president, Corporation members tell us, must expand the sciences, but without comprising our commitment to the humanities. Yale will move across the globe, but also maintain vibrancy in New Haven. Residential colleges will be strengthened and the labor unions satiated; online education embraced and faculty hired. The list goes on.
In labeling everything a priority, the Corporation fails to articulate a coherent vision for the university and its next president. We live in a time of limited means. In the next few years, we cannot accomplish all our desirable goals — we need to identify and support specific, achievable objectives for Yale. Some activities, while worthy, will not make the cut. My own conception of that vision is another column. What is important is that the Corporation at least confronts these hard choices. Sadly, the trustees have decided to placate special interest groups. This attempt at regaining popular support will prove to be too little, too late.
Where do we move from here? The Corporation needs to come to campus and regain the community’s confidence on the search and other issues through consistent visible engagement. Bass cannot be Yale’s lone ranger — here only for the presidential search, gone in a flash, identity masked. Instead, he and his peers should look to Lindsay, Moore and Brewster as models.
Nathaniel Zelinsky is a senior in Davenport College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.