During the presidential search, I wrote that the Yale Corporation lacks our trust because it rarely interacts with the university community. Prior to the slew of emails from Ed Bass ’67 ARC ’72, students and faculty would have been hard pressed to name a trustee.
With President-elect Peter Salovey’s appointment and the passage of a few months, the Corporation has again receded from view. And there is no indication that the trustees intend to engage with campus until another crisis dictates their public appearance.
[media-credit id=12227 align=”alignleft” width=”150″][/media-credit]This model for the Corporation is a mistake. The trustees cannot govern effectively if Yale perceives them as out-of-touch. The presidential search was a relatively routine matter — but even its routineness created rumblings of discontent. Imagine how difficult it would be for the Corporation to rally support around a future, potentially controversial issue (say, a crackdown on free speech at Yale-NUS, to name just one hypothetical, if far-fetched, situation). Indeed, it is not clear that Bass and his colleagues could effectively lead Yale through a tumultuous moment, should one arise, because they lack popular legitimacy.
And, in addition to the issue of optics, how can the Corporation make informed decisions about Yale if they divorce themselves from campus?
It is easy to harangue Bass & Co. for their failures without offering solutions, so let me suggest three actions the Corporation could take, starting as soon as Salovey assumes office this June.
First, individual trustees should meet with groups of students multiple times during the year. As they meet average Yalies, the trustees can tailor their priorities to the realities that exist in New Haven.
There is historical precedent for this scheme. During the turbulent 1970s, then-President Kingman Brewster ’41 required each Corporation member to eat lunch with undergraduates, selected by lottery, in college dining halls.
Admittedly, the trustees were not always so willing. A wealthy patrician, John Hay Whitney ’26, was once so afraid to interact with “radical,” long-haired Yalies that he had to be cajoled into attending a meal. But despite Whitney’s reluctance, his lunch and others like it led to tangible changes at Yale, such as the Corporation’s support for the creation of an African-American studies department.
Salovey clearly understands the importance of interacting with students, something he managed to do even as a Provost — no easy feat given the job focuses on budgets and other administrative duties. He should encourage the Corporation to follow his lead by reinstating Brewster’s trustee-student lunches, beginning next fall. And, to be most valuable, these meetings should be between a representative sample of Yalies (read: not the Yale College Council) and a single Corporation member.
Second, the Yale Corporation should consistently communicate with campus. Recently researching in Manuscripts and Archives, I came across statements released by the Brewster-era Corporation or its members dealing with issues from the mundane to the serious. It would behoove the modern-day trustees to do the same. Steady correspondence, even trivial expressions of support for Woodbridge Hall and other banalities, would demystify the Corporation and familiarize it to students.
(Note that this is an entirely different proposal than the call by self-styled student activists to release minutes of Corporation meetings — a wholly unreasonable demand. In any organization, certain sensitive matters require secrecy.)
Third, Ed Bass and his fellow trustees should use the pomp of Salovey’s inauguration this fall to vault themselves into Yale’s public consciousness. (Yes, there is a ceremony for the new president. And, yes, I can’t wait.) Most of the current Corporation members are unknowns, business executives who blend in with other suits on the streets of New Haven. Find some way — a series of speeches, interviews, a procession, anything really — to make the trustees recognizable and to articulate their role in the university.
If the Corporation interacts with the community, it will better govern Yale during Salovey’s tenure. And, should moments of unpredictable crisis arise, the trustees will be able to lead our University’s ship through the waves.
Nathaniel Zelinsky is a senior in Davenport College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .