Yale’s ‘most progressive’ presidential search?

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It had been pouring for hours. As students filed into Battell Chapel this past gloomy Friday afternoon, some looked as though they’d swum rather than walked there.

Three dozen Yalies had braved the weather to attend an “Open Forum” hosted by the Presidential Search Committee (PSC). That group, which consists of eight Corporation members and four faculty representatives, will be responsible for providing recommendations to the Yale Corporation, the larger body which will ultimately choose this University’s next President. Presidential Search Committee Chair Charles Goodyear ’80 and Vice Chair Dr. Paul Joskow ’72 told students in an email that this forum was an opportunity for undergraduates to offer “observations, advice and feedback” they said would be “invaluable” for the PSC later on in its selection process.

The atmosphere in the room was unsettled. The dripping wet students in attendance spread themselves thin over the pews, only moving up to the front when urged by organizers. Those who had put their names down on a list to speak muttered to their neighbors, rehearsing what they wanted to say. The forum’s moderator, the four Search Committee members present and the single student counselor asked to advise the PSC stood apart at the front of the nave, talking quietly.

After spending about 10 minutes glancing around for stragglers, moderator and Yale Corporation member Byron G. Auguste ’89 turned to face students and began explaining in calm, measured tones that this was going to be “a listening session”: a chance for the committee to hear students’ thoughts on Yale’s strengths and weaknesses — and, of course, the qualities they would like to see in its next leader.

That wasn’t exactly what they got. Fifteen minutes in, the first student got up to talk. She identified herself as a member of activist group Students Unite Now and launched into a reading of a manifesto written by her organization’s members.

“Good afternoon,” she began. “We’re really excited to be here.”

Over the course of the next two hours, SUN activists and other concerned students would speak passionately about everything from their love for Yale to their concerns about the new residential colleges, read aloud poetry by lesbian feminist group Fierce Pussy (the opening line: “I want a dyke for president”) and rail against Yale-NUS. But what they wanted to talk about most of all was not what they wanted to see in the next president of Yale. It was how he or she would be chosen — and whether they would have a say in that decision.

Over and over, students expressed their confusion and frustration about the search process: How had the search committee members been appointed? Why wasn’t there a student voice on the PSC? How could students even know the Corporation was going to listen to what was being said that day?

Beyond concerns about the search’s mechanics, students spoke about against its overall lack of transparency, as well as the “corporatization” of Yale as an institution.

“I see a trend of Yale becoming less of a community and more of a brand,” said Communication and Consent Educator Jess Belding ’13. “I don’t like forums like this because … I feel like I’m being an ungrateful consumer. In a truly democratic process, no one would be feeling that way.”

Belding was among many who pointed out what they saw as the primary flaw in the forum’s design: the fact that it asked students to talk at, not with, the members of the committee sitting silently in the front pew, while hearing nothing in response and having nothing more than the Corporation’s word as a guarantee that their views would be taken into account.

By the end of the session, it was clear that at least some of the assembled students weren’t willing to disband without hearing something from the committee in a physical, rather than a virtual, space.

Eventually, Goodyear stood up and began to speak directly to them.

Asked whom the members of his search committee saw themselves as accountable to, he said he would turn the question back to students: “Why do you think we won’t be accountable?”

Several disgruntled student responses later, Goodyear conceded the point.

“I realize you don’t have any basis to trust us,” he said. “We need to earn your trust over time.”


Four weeks earlier, at 8:59 a.m. on Aug. 30, 2012, Yale students, faculty and staff received “a message to the Yale Community” announcing that, after 20 years in office, President Richard C. Levin would be stepping down at the end of the 2012-13 academic year.

At 9:10 a.m., they received another email from the Senior Fellow of the Yale Corporation, Edward P. Bass ’67 ARC ’72 . This was the first time most Yalies had ever heard the name, and many hit the delete button without a second thought.

Former Yale College Council President Brandon Levin ’14 was sitting at his job in Betts House, where he works as special assistant to Vice President Linda Lorimer, when the message announcing President Levin’s retirement appeared. He processed the news together with the administrators sitting in the offices around him.

“I had no idea, no advance notice,” he said, “I was very surprised.”

Later that same day, Lorimer spoke to her special assistant about an opportunity for him to serve the University in another capacity. Bass had asked her to invite Brandon Levin to fill the role of Student Counselor to the new Presidential Search Committee.

Before long, he found himself “communicating daily” with Bass, Goodyear and Joskow.

One day later, the community received another email from Bass with the subject line “Presidential Search.” It contained a rough outline of the structure to be set in place for communication with the PSC, with appointed “Trustee Liaisons to Campus Constituencies” on the Corporation side working with “Campus Counselors to the Search Committee” on the other.

The position to which Levin was appointed is a new one. It represents the first time in Yale’s history that a student has had a formal role in the process of finding a new president. The same goes for the new posts of faculty, staff and alumni counselors to the search committee — all of whom are to serve as conduits between their various constituencies and the members of the Yale Corporation.

But certain members of both the student and faculty communities remain skeptical of what such overtures might mean in practice.

“An elaborate structure has been put in place, featuring layer after layer of filters and baffles … It all seems like a thin disguise over the Corporation’s undisputed prerogative to do exactly what it wants, no matter what anyone thinks,” French and African-American Studies professor Christopher L. Miller GRD ’78 PHD ’83 wrote in an email to the News.

More visibly, members of Students Unite Now (SUN) took the Corporation’s attempts at outreach as a call to arms.

SUN began a multi-pronged campaign to get fellow students organized, sending multiple email blasts to the Yale community, circulating both paper and online petitions and canvassing residential college suites. SUN Leader Sarah Cox ’15 said nearly everyone she has talked to about the search process, from friends to the last freshman whose door she knocked on, “has a sense that this isn’t quite right.”

Her organization’s petition had 366 supporters online at change.org at the time this article was written and contains a template for a letter outlining the demands SUN is making “in order that the process better reflect the values of democracy and transparency that are at the core of this institution’s mission.”

Members of the Yale Corporation and administration who were present in 1993 for Levin’s selection might find this appeal difficult to understand. After all, the current search process is doing more to solicit input from all the constituencies of the Yale community than any in Yale’s 311-year history.

President Levin told the News that “the outreach on this one has been much more extensive in terms of reaching out to the internal consistencies” compared to the search which selected him.

Up until Levin, Yale’s presidents were selected by a process so far from being either democratic or transparent it could become “farcical” at times, said Yale historian Gaddis Smith ’54 GRD ’61. Past presidents were selected — with more or less total impunity — by the Corporation, Yale’s board of trustees.

The most egregious excess came in 1986, just after President A. Bartlett Giamatti abruptly ended a presidency beset by strikes and tense labor relations in order to become the new Commissioner of Major League Baseball. The search that followed resulted in the appointment of then-Dean of Columbia Law School Benno C. Schmidt — but it was really no search at all.

“Schmidt was the only candidate, and the search committee was basically just one powerful member of the Corporation,” said Smith. “They just tapped him and said, ‘that’s it, you’re the president.’”

But Schmidt was no Levin when it came to longevity. His term lasted only six years, and he is best remembered for alienating much of campus. Schmidt did not even live in New Haven, choosing instead to commute to Yale from New York City.

The search for his replacement, which would eventually bring Levin to office, was significant in the University’s history for its thoroughness, with numerous candidates from across the country interviewed in multiple rounds. Levin recalled having had around 24 interviews with members of the search committee.

For Smith, the enormous divide between these two presidential searches can be boiled down to one visual: the documentation produced by the search for President Levin is purported to take up the equivalent of a four-by-four foot shelf space in a downtown New Haven bank, he explained. With Schmidt’s selection, Smith laughed, “there was a rumor it was just one thin file.”

Though the ongoing presidential search, modeled after that of 1993, has inspired outrage in some, it is undoubtedly the most progressive in Yale’s history. Not only will it continue the precedent of including faculty as full members of the PSC, but it will be the first to include an extensive formal structure to reach out to students, staff and alumni.

Given this, the overwhelming attitude among those on the Corporation both then and now is to ask, “Why fix what isn’t broken?”

For Vernon Loucks Jr. ’57, who was senior fellow of the Corporation when Levin became president, Levin’s legacy ought to be enough to vouch for the process that chose him.

“It seems to me that what you’re looking for more than anything else is an effective system,” he said. “And it seems to me that it was.”

But what was revolutionary in 1993 seems anachronistic to many in 2012, particularly those with an eye on what has been happening at Yale’s peer institutions.

Some weeks after Levin’s announcement, Princeton University President Shirley M. Tilghman declared that she too would be stepping down. Not long afterwards, Princeton’s Undergraduate Student Government President Bruce A. Easop invited members of the university’s current senior class to apply to serve on the school’s Presidential Search Committee.’

“Two members of the Class of 2013 … will have the unique privilege of playing a part in shaping Princeton’s history,” Easop wrote in an email.

At Princeton, such an opportunity isn’t news. Two students were also on the committee that identified Tilghman, the University’s last presidential choice. The only new development is towards increased openness: last time, one of the two student seats was reserved for the president of Princeton’s student government. This time around, both will be filled through an open application.

“I think the president of a university needs to be able to work effectively with all of the constituencies of the university,” Princeton Vice President and Secretary Robert K. Durkee, who will also be staffing the school’s search committee, told the News. “In our experience it’s helpful … to have representatives of all of those constituencies present during the search itself.”

The view looks similar up in Providence. When then-President of Brown University Ruth J. Simmons announced her plans to step down on Sept. 15, 2011, a process comparable to Princeton’s was set in motion. The Presidential Selection Committee of the Brown Corporation was joined by a 13-member Campus Advisory Committee, which comprised six professors, two staff members, a medical student, a graduate student and three undergraduates, only one of whom was a member of student government.

For a shot at one of the other two undergraduate spots of the Advisory Committee, students could fill out an application which was sent out to the entire undergraduate student body.

Current Brown senior David Rattner, who filled the spot reserved for a student government representative, said that, despite the formal split between the Selection and Advisory Committees, the two “essentially functioned as one big group.” Both he and the other students remained present in the room during meetings all the way up until the final candidate’s presentation to the rest of the board of trustees, and remained, he said, “as much a part of the process as anyone else,” right up till March, when the search culminated in the naming of economist Christina Hull Paxson as Brown’s new president.

Princeton and Brown are not uniquely enlightened institutions. Stanford, Columbia and Duke Universities have all included students as formal members of their most recent presidential search committees.

In fact, however little we may want to believe it, the institution Yale most closely resembles in this respect is none other than Harvard.

Harvard’s most recent presidential search took place in 2006 and selected the school’s first female President, Drew Gilpin Faust. Like Yale’s current process, it was the first in that school’s history to consider input from a series of student and faculty advisory committees. In Cambridge, though, neither student nor faculty representatives had a formal seat on the Search Committee itself.

News stories published in the Harvard Crimson over the course of that year described Harvard’s process as “unique in many ways, not the least of which is its insular and secretive nature,” and (perhaps not without a note of pride) “historically as secretive as final-club punch.”

Overall, however, the marked difference between Yale and many of its peers has served to further some students’ outrage at the absence of a single student voice at the table at Yale today.

According to Cox, being aware of opportunities other schools provide for student representation “really highlights how unnecessary this is for this to be so closed [and] how far behind we are in our governing structure.”

The numbers of those who agree are greater than the 30-some students who came to the meeting in Battell or even the 369 who have signed SUN’s online petition. 82 percent of more than 600 students surveyed by the News agreed with the statement that students should have a say in the decision-making process to find Yale’s next president, while 77 percent agreed that at least one student should be present at all Presidential Search Committee meetings.

Adding Levin to the process is not, Cox emphasized, a replacement for a student voice.

“A liaison is just a liaison,” she said.

As she and others have pointed out, the only formal duty that has been outlined for Levin thus far is to act as an intermediary between students and members of the Yale Corporation and Search Committee. As far as Levin knows, he said, his role will only diminish as the search moves beyond its initial “listening phase.” He will not, for instance, be present during meetings at which the PSC will evaluate candidates.

The Corporation’s official statement on the subject of student representation on the search committee is that “no one or two students can represent the full diversity of the Yale student body. The Corporation believes that the best way to get input is through the designed process that allows the committee to directly or indirectly hear from all the student constituencies, through the Student Counselor or direct contact from any and all students or student organizations.”

But that argument seemed to hold little merit for the students at Battell, as became clear through the increasingly hostile exchanges between Goodyear and those barraging him with questions from both those linked to SUN and there to represent themselves. When Goodyear got up to speak in response to students’ repeated requests, he reiterated the Corporation’s logic.

“Think about the diversity of the students on this campus,” Goodyear said, listing examples of specific student constituencies present on Yale’s campus before being interrupted by students arguing that similar divisions could be present within the faculty or the Corporation.

“I don’t understand the distinction between students, faculty and the Yale Corporation,” said Katherine Aragon ’14, the political action chair of MEChA de Yale. “I feel, if anything, students should have a larger voice in this process because we live here, and we go to these classes, and this is our home for four years, so I really don’t understand the distinction, but maybe you could explain it a little more.”

Goodyear had an answer ready: “Well, you just said it. You live here for four years. Faculty may live here for their career.”

Aragon was not satisfied with this distinction.

“We should be taken seriously,” she argued in an email to the News two days after the meeting. “For us, Yale is an everyday reality, not just a dollar figure, public image or brand to be maintained. We can bring this perspective to the search committee’s deliberations.”

But on that gray Friday, Goodyear cut the dialogue short.

“Listen, I’m not going to be able to answer all of your questions today,” he said.

Within a few minutes, the meeting was dissolved.


While SUN’s demands for a student voice ask Yale to do nothing but meet the standards of its peers, its requests for transparency demand action that some said would be unimaginable for a university like Yale.

SUN is asking the Search Committee to enact two new policies with regards to transparency: to release the minutes of each meeting and publish a shortlist of candidates at least three weeks before a final recommendation is made to the Corporation.

The organization listed the University of New Mexico, Missouri State University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison as schools at which releasing a shortlist of candidates before a final selection is common practice.

The Presidential Search Committee’s emailed response to these concerns explained that many candidates for Yale’s presidency might not want to publicly announce their candidacy.

“Many candidates will not want to publicly ‘throw their hat in the ring’ as they do not want to be seen to have come in 2nd or 3rd (or worse) if they are not successful. It may also impact the opportunities in their current role if they are not successful. The same can be said of Yale; Yale does not want to be seen having to settle for her 2nd or 3rd choice. As a result, in order to maintain the widest pool of outstanding candidates, the PSC believes confidentiality must be maintained.”

While SUN’s statement at Battell played up the pettiness of trying to save face during such an important decision, it did not address the more serious underlying argument the PSC was trying to make: that failing to guarantee confidentiality to potential candidates could dramatically limit Yale’s options.

Those on the other side of the process both here and at other universities sympathize with the PSC. Princeton Vice President Durkee said that the work of his university’s presidential search committee, which will be working parallel to Yale’s over the coming months, will be carried out in complete confidence.

“Our experience is that there are many potential candidates who would be willing to talk with the search committee … But who would not be willing to do so if we were not willing to have that conversation confidentially,” Durkee said.

Speaking over the phone from Brown, Rattner said that the same level of secrecy was expected from all those working on the his university’s presidential search.

SUN wants Yale to keep students informed about candidates the PSC being brought under consideration and the progress the PSC is making. But according to Rattner, once the Brown search committees moved into their deliberation phase, “there was absolutely no updating [the community at large] at all” up until the final selection was made and announced in an email to the entire university.

The reason for this level of secrecy, Rattner argued, is simple: “Anyone who wants to become president of Brown, of Yale, of Princeton, already has an incredible job … If their name got out, they would almost certainly drop out of consideration.”

In fact, this exact situation happened at Yale in 1978, said historian Smith. Giamatti was appointed at the last minute, after the name of Yale’s top choice, a top Harvard administrator, was leaked to the press and he subsequently withdrew his name from consideration.

Yale and its peer institutions may be different from the public schools SUN has cited simply in attracting a pool of higher profile candidates with more to lose should their names be released.

“This is not … some open beauty contest,” Vice President Lorimer said. “[It is] rather a serious review of outstanding candidates to ascertain who would be the best leader for Yale.”

For some members of the Yale community, a level of secrecy seems inherent when it comes to Corporation dealings at this level.

“I’ve been a student, I’ve been a faculty member, I’ve been a parent. but I don’t know what goes on inside the Corporation room, I can only guess,” said history lecturer Jay Gitlin ’71 MUS ’74 GRD ’02. He wasn’t, however, complaining.

“Transparent would be a fantasy, it can’t be that transparent,” he added.


Gitlin is one of many who aren’t complaining. Many on this campus are expressing either optimism that student voices are being heard or simply indifference.

Seventy percent of respondents to the News’ survey said they have not been involved in the presidential search in any way.

“I think that the [lack of response from] the student body is a good thing,” said Amalia Halikias ’15. “It shows we have a lot of faith that a good decision will be made.”

Meanwhile, students coming out of the smaller private sessions with members of the PSC and the Corporation held the weekend after the Friday open forum said they were satisfied with their opportunity to have the kind of dialogue with members of the PSC that was lacking at Battell.

Jamey Silveira ’13, president of the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity and a vocal representative of the Greek life community recently hit by more stringent administrative policies, described the atmosphere and general tone of his meeting with the PSC as “fantastic.”

“It was very open and seemed very promising, especially in terms of the likelihood that these people will take into consideration the concerns that we brought up,” Silveira said.

Even SUN leader Alejandro Gutierrez ’13 said the PSC members at the meeting he attended seemed receptive to having a dialogue with undergraduates.

“The best thing [for students] to do is to demonstrate that there would be benefit added from having a student on this search,” said Brandon Levin, perhaps the best example of a Yalie working within the system currently in place.

Indeed, some students feel that in attempting to “change the conversation” at Battell Chapel, SUN was doing exactly the opposite — and effectively harming its own cause.

Yishai Schwartz ’13, a columnist for the News and former speaker of the Yale Political Union, expressed this view in an op-ed published yesterday. He criticized SUN for using the forum “as a platform to prove how activist they are” instead of providing constructive feedback to the Search Committee in keeping with “the point of the forum.”

Entering the fray with a less serious blow at SUN, the Yale Herald placed the organization’s emails to the undergraduate population in its Bullblog Blacklist on September 28.

“I promise you,” read the text, “I have nothing valuable to contribute to the presidential search committee. Now leave my inbox alone.”

On the presidential search front, maybe all Yale needs is a bit more time to update its search process and fall in step with its peers. But the dissatisfaction expressed by some undergraduates may point to a more problematic institutional difference between this University and others.

Both the presidential searches at Brown and Princeton have something Yale lacks: a precedent for involving students in major decisions made by the University.

The body responsible for the presidential search is not the only important committee at Princeton to incorporate student representatives. In the email student body president Bruce Easop wrote to Princeton’s senior class, he noted that “this commitment to transparency in committee selection comes as part of a [Princeton University Student Government] effort to open up applications across campus, including those for the Priorities Committee.”

The Priorities Committee at Princeton, which has existed since 1970, annually advises that university’s president on how to spend the operating budget, making recommendations about tuition levels, salary increases, and new programs to support.

Apart from administrators, the committee includes undergraduates, graduate students, faculty and staff members.

“It’s a way for people from all campus constituencies to think together about the decisions that have to be made each year,” Princeton Vice President Durkee said.

Hearing students out is a part of the institutional culture at Brown as well, according to Rattner, one of the undergraduate representatives involved in that university’s presidential selection process last year.

He spoke of opportunities for students to be heard on committees that determine everything from the University’s budget to dining options. In a report published two weeks ago on the formation of new committees to work on future university strategy at Brown, the Brown Herald noted that most of these bodies would contain undergraduates.

While Yale includes undergraduates on a range of committees, mostly those concerned with specific majors and academic programs, both students and faculty have complained about the University’s closed off approach to making larger strategic choices.

These include the controversial creation of the Yale-NUS College, which faculty argue did not include adequate opportunities for their input, and about which students were not consulted at all.

Gutierrez said that the messages from Bass and Levin designating how the search process will work are merely part of a pattern he has seen in which policy decisions are made “in a boardroom somewhere and emailed out.”

Sometimes, as in the case of Yale College’s 2010 decision to increase the student income contribution for undergraduates on financial aid by $400, these decisions are not emailed out at all, Gutierrez added.

Measures such as the SUN petition and the speeches made at Battell Chapel are, then, aiming to do more than just change the presidential search process.

“What we should be thinking of is how, at the end of this year and beyond, we can have a different relationship with the administration and Corporation,” Cox said.

And that means, she added, “not just in the presidential search process, but in everything that goes on at this University.”

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