Roger Lee ’94 and Kate Walsh ’77 SPH ’79 — the two candidates running for a soon-to-be-vacant alumni fellow position on the Yale Corporation — cancelled endorsement interviews with the News earlier this week after the University intervened.
Last week, Lee and Walsh both agreed to be interviewed by the Managing Board of 2018, which intended to publish an editorial endorsing one of the candidates. But after learning of the agreement earlier this week, University Secretary and Vice President for Student Life Kimberly Goff-Crews told both Lee and Walsh to cancel their interviews with the News, citing a policy against campaigning in the alumni fellow election, which runs this year from April 7 to May 21.
The cancelation comes less than a month after the Corporation unveiled a series of initiatives designed to make the body more transparent and accessible, from an updated website to the promise of regular meetings with campus groups.
Goff-Crews said the policy against campaigning — which is not recorded in the University Charter, the Corporation Bylaws or the Miscellaneous Regulations — is intended to create “a level playing field” for the candidates. The candidates were informed of the policy when the Association of Yale Alumni nominated them, but did not realize that an endorsement interview was considered campaigning, said Vice President for Communications Eileen O’Connor.
“We saw the endorsement interviews as a great opportunity to increase transparency and help alumni make informed decisions about whom to vote for, and we were thrilled that both candidates agreed to participate,” said David Shimer ’18, the News’ editor-in-chief, in a statement. “However, administrators made clear to us that the only way to hold a fair election was to cancel those interviews and, more broadly, to restrict the information available to alumni. Our board fundamentally disagrees. I understand concerns about open campaigning, but the choice should not be between that and total silence on the part of the candidates. An interview with the News, or frankly with any other publication, seems like a potential middle ground.”
Former Vice President for Global and Strategic Initiatives Linda Lorimer LAW ’77 said the policy prevents candidates from making promises to certain subgroups within Yale — like the varsity athletics program or a specific professional school — and ensures that the alumni elect nominees who are “stewards to the entire University.”
“To have electioneering which had candidates adopt a particular point of view or agenda for the institution is very deleterious to the institution,” Lorimer said. “You can imagine someone who as a varsity athlete says that ‘I’m going to campaign to have Yale give a lot more money for varsity athletics.’”
Moreover, changing the policy in the middle of an election would damage the integrity of the process “and lead to the perception by alumni and the candidates that the election is not being administered fairly,” said Weili Cheng ’77, executive director of the AYA.
“Many alumni have already voted and many are in the process of voting,” Cheng said. “YDN’s endorsement of a candidate now, in the middle of the balloting, could disrupt the voting process and lead to the perception by alumni and the candidates that the election is not being administered fairly.”
But she added that the AYA would not “terminate” the candidacy of a nominee who actively campaigned.
Nathan Lobel ’17, the policy coordinator at Fossil Free Yale, which has advocated for greater Corporation transparency, said the cancellation reveals that the trustees’ professed commitment to openness is “a sham.”
“It is unbelievable that at a time when the University is facing so many profound questions, Yale has chosen to censor its newspaper in order to prevent alumni from making an informed decision,” Lobel said. “There is no conceivable reason why the University would do this as it professes to be working to build trust between the Corporation and the Yale community.”
The election began on April 7 after Goff-Crews sent an email to Yale alumni with roughly 500-word biographies of Lee and Walsh, who both did not respond to requests for comment. Lee serves on the Yale Development Council and is a general partner at a venture capital firm specializing in the development of technology companies. Walsh sits on the University Council and works as president and CEO of a not-for-profit medical center in Boston.
In an interview with the News last weekend — before the cancellations — Lee said he was “all for transparency and making myself as available as I possibly can.”
Over the years, Yale’s peer institutions have taken a range of approaches to the election of alumni trustees. At Princeton, juniors and seniors are allowed to vote for four “young alumni trustees” on the university’s board. Meanwhile, at Dartmouth, the board of trustees took steps in 2007 to reduce the power of alumni representatives, citing concerns about the politicization of the alumni election process.
There are a total of 16 trustees on the Corporation: 10 are appointed by their predecessors and serve for 12 years, and six are elected by alumni and serve staggered six-year terms, meaning that a new election takes place every year. The nominees are selected by a committee within the AYA, although alumni can also enter the race through a petition drive. In previous elections during the past 50 years, candidates who were not selected by the AYA have vigorously campaigned for the position, giving media interviews and soliciting donations.
Over the years, the Alumni Fellow Election has mostly flown under the radar, with a few notable exceptions, usually involving candidates who were not nominated by the AYA. But in light of the ongoing debate at Yale about the transparency of the Corporation, this year’s election has received unusual scrutiny from student activists and alumni. Since the polls opened, more than 380 alumni have signed a petition calling for Lee and Walsh to participate in a forum on free expression and intellectual diversity hosted by the William F. Buckley, Jr. Program.
Buckley Program Executive Director Lauren Noble ’11 said she still intends to submit the petition to the Corporation later this month. She added that learning the candidates’ views on campus issues is critical for alumni seeking to make an informed decision about the future of Yale.
“Judging by the initial agreement of the candidates to participate in an interview with the Yale Daily News, clearly they are willing to state their thoughts,” she said. “Why is the administration unwilling to let people learn more about the candidates? What, then, is the purpose of the Alumni Fellow Election?”
But asked whether she would consider pushing for changes to the policy next year, Cheng said she feared that campaigning might lead to conflict in the alumni community. “Look what happened with the presidential campaign,” she said.
The next Corporation meeting will begin on June 10.