At first it seems like a great idea. A local pastor and community leader, backed by a coalition of students, local citizens and even the mayor, offers to strengthen the bond between Yale and New Haven by vying for a seat on the Yale Corporation.
But while the Corporation candidacy of Reverend W. David Lee DIV ’93 may initially evoke dreams of the ideal town-gown relationship, a closer look reveals deeply rooted problems in Lee’s bid.
The University’s highest policy-making body, the Yale Corporation, is composed of 16 trustees, six of whom are elected directly by alumni who graduated five or more years ago. A new alumni trustee is elected each year to a six-year term. Traditionally, the candidates are chosen by the Alumni Fellow Nominating Committee, an independent branch of the Association of Yale Alumni. But a candidate can also petition for a place on the ballot by collecting signatures from three percent of the voting-eligible alumni.
This was the path chosen by Lee, the pastor of Varick AME Zion Church on Dixwell Avenue, who triumphantly submitted a completed petition at the Rose Alumni House last Monday.
While Lee’s route is democratic and commendable because it allows alumni of any background to vie for a Corporation seat, his bid could result in a major setback for a Corporation charged with maintaining the University’s academic excellence and financial stability.
Most troubling is Lee’s close connection with locals 34 and 35 — Yale’s two recognized unions — who have already contributed $30,000 to his campaign. Beyond a financial connection, Lee is ideologically tied to the unions, openly supporting the unionization of graduate students and Yale-New Haven hospital workers.
Lee’s close allegiance to the unions leave him beholden to special interests in a way Corporation members should not be. As stewards of Yale, Corporation members must first and foremost attend to the interests and needs of a diverse campus, not to any specific constituency affiliated with the University. They are often accomplished in their respective field and equipped with a lifetime of experience. Most of all, they should have a single overriding interest — Yale University.
The fundamental problem with Lee as a trustee is thus that the whole of Yale is not in fact his primary interest. He pitches himself as a representative of the community and focuses on certain constituencies at Yale at the expense of others. Also, his relative youth and lack of professional distinction leave him at a disadvantage compared to more experienced members.
Despite the serious problems with this candidacy, Lee’s aim to increase communication between the Yale Corporation, the student body and New Haven community is admirable. If his bid is a symbolic effort to draw attention to the administration’s alleged neglect of community, student and labor issues, the uniquely publicized campaign itself may achieve his end.
But if Lee sincerely seeks a seat at Yale’s highest governing body, alumni voters should not ignore his lack of experience and dangerously strong ties to special interests.