Each year, Yale graduates elect a new alumni fellow to the Yale Corporation, which controls issues such as renaming buildings, the endowment’s investment portfolio and the construction of new colleges. Alumni fellows each serve a six-year term on the Corporation, elected by voters based on a few-paragraph-long overview of their credentials.
To allow alumni to make a more informed decision — one not based entirely on a short biography approved by the administration — the News invited the two current candidates, Roger Lee ’94 and Kate Walsh ’77 SPH ’79, to endorsement interviews. The idea was simple: for them to offer their views on University governance, as candidates have in past elections and did as recently as 2002. Both Lee and Walsh enthusiastically agreed.
But on Monday, University President Peter Salovey’s team met with members of the News in Woodbridge Hall to relay that they had intervened and that the endorsement interviews would be cancelled. They said the best way to hold a fair election was to release only one-page biographies of each candidate. We disagree. To us, such heavy-handed control of public information isn’t just unfair. It’s counter to what Yale stands for.
This troubling development makes us question the Corporation’s recently announced transparency initiatives. We credit the University for making fellows more accessible to students and publicizing the dates of Corporation meetings, and we recognize that alumni voting recently began. Still, Corporation meeting agendas remain confidential, and meeting minutes remain sealed for 50 years.
If Salovey genuinely intends to make the Corporation more transparent, the election of alumni fellows should be made more democratic and open. In 2002, both candidates for alumni fellow conducted unprecedented campaigns and gave interviews with the media. The University understandably grew concerned and seems to have since moved to the opposite extreme. We propose two common-sense reforms: Give students and faculty the right to vote for alumni fellows, and provide candidates with structured opportunities to speak publicly to members of the Yale community.
Right now, only alumni who graduated five or more years ago are eligible to vote in this election. Enfranchising students and faculty — let alone all alumni — would provide them with indirect representation on the Corporation. At Princeton, for instance, the junior and senior classes can vote for “Young Alumni Trustees.” And during recent campus protests at Yale, Corporation members were often described as “faceless” figures. Giving more of our community a say in the election of the six alumni fellows — the other 10 are chosen entirely behind closed doors — would bolster confidence in the body’s decision-making. Students have long called for a representative on the Corporation. While we see such a request as infeasible, this reform provides an alternative path to the same general endpoint.
At a more basic level, we insist that Salovey allow candidates to engage with the community at large, if only through a public town hall or another moderated setting. If the University is proud of the two candidates its nominating committee selected, why are they so unwilling to let students, alumni and faculty engage with Lee and Walsh? We do not pick leaders based on credentials alone; we elect them based on their character and values. In a November 2016 email to the Yale community, Salovey wrote that he “cherish[es] the free exchange of ideas on our campus.” The Yale Corporation election should be no exception.