President-elect Donald Trump’s nomination of two Yale alums, Wilbur Ross ’59 and Steven Mnuchin ’85, to his cabinet drew mixed reactions from Yale faculty.
Professors in favor of the picks — Ross as Secretary of Commerce and Mnuchin as Secretary of the Treasury — praised the leadership experience of the two nominees. However, others expressed concerns that the appointees’ Wall Street backgrounds are inconsistent with Trump’s populist platform.
Ross spent 24 years at Rothschild Inc., where he specialized in advising clients who need to restructure post-bankruptcy, before opening up a private equity firm. Mnuchin similarly spent almost two decades on Wall Street — though at Goldman Sachs — before turning to movie production.
“They seem to be very good appointments [of] knowledgeable people who will be able to understand their institutions and do a good job,” said Charles Hill, a lecturer in International Studies and a diplomat in residence.
Citing their records in the private sector, Hill noted how Ross and Mnuchin’s expertise in dealing with businesses in crisis showed an ability to lead in uncertain situations — a quality essential to success in national leadership.
Professor of computer science David Gelernter ’76 was similarly optimistic. He expressed “delight” at the nominees’ Wall Street backgrounds, stating that such experiences suggest expertise in dealing with economic and financial matters.
Others interpreted the nominees’ Wall Street ties less positively. Professor of Theater Studies Deborah Margolin felt such appointments represented a betrayal of Trump’s working-class support base.
“We are all thinking about those voters for whom the lack of good work, for whom the closing of coal mines, for whom the dissolution of certain parts of manufacturing as jobs are shipped overseas or given to automation [made them] feel left behind,” Margolin said. “Mnuchin and Ross both have been involved in enterprises that were participatory or contributory to the collapse of the economy. This does not seem to be consonant with President-elect Trump’s assurances that his goal was to bring back jobs to those people who were the ones who really put him in office.”
Professor of sociology Jeffrey Alexander expressed similar sentiments. He speculated that both appointees, a multimillionaire and a billionaire, respectively, would not be sensitive to economic inequality. Instead, they could lower tax rates for the rich, which might lead to greater concentration of wealth in the hands of a few Americans.
Professor of political science Gregory Huber was more cautious about interpreting Ross and Mnuchin’s backgrounds in this way.
“It seems specious to assume that someone’s employment history affects who they are motivated to work on behalf of,” Huber told the News. He added that their lack of experience in government may pose other challenges, given the differences in the way businesses and governments are run.
Rick Antle, professor of accounting at the School of Management, argued that the appointment of insiders from the financial sector was not surprising, for they understand best how the financial industry works. The real question was what their policies would be, Antle said.
“Part of the campaign was about using this to benefit Middle America, to bring jobs back,” he said. “I think these words were said with no idea of how they were going to do it. I’m very worried about not just a continued neglect of the losers of globalization but the acceleration of its effects.”
Alexander similarly argued that the conservative notion of a “rising tide floating all boats” was chimerical. America’s growth in recent times had created great inequality and further deregulation would exacerbate such problems, he said.
Hill, on the other hand, was optimistic about deregulation.
“You can only regulate something so much before you begin to shut it down. If you tax something, you get less of it. This is killing the goose that’s laying the golden egg,” he said.
Others felt it was too early to say. Professor of economics Ray Fair told the News that it was hard to predict what Ross and Mnuchin’s policies on trade and regulation would be.
Antle was sympathetic to this “wait and see” attitude. He made a distinction, however, between withholding judgment and giving a “free ride” to the Trump administration, which he said had won the election off a “campaign of hate” that threatened domestic tranquility and was a “disservice to America.”
Despite these disagreements, most professors interviewed were positive about both nominees being Yale alumni.
Antle and Hill emphasized the importance of a liberal arts education for aspiring leaders. Hill remarked that the liberal arts, especially the humanities, helped students learn to grapple with uncertainty.
“We should be glad when individuals with expertise and experience choose to forgo personal wealth for a chance to serve,” Huber said. “Yale’s core values of seeking truth and understanding alongside civil discourse and appreciation of differences are likely a plus for any leader.”
Trump announced his intention to nominate Mnuchin and Ross on Nov. 30.