With his unorthodox candidacy for the Yale Corporation, the Rev. W. David Lee DIV ’93 has revived interest in the Corporation election and presented a chance for Yale to improve the way its alumni pick the University’s trustees.
To put it mildly, Lee is a different kind of candidate. He is the first person in decades to get his name on the ballot by collecting thousands of alumni signatures. He is actively seeking to mobilize popular support for his campaign through mailings and fund-raising events. And in the process he has developed a cadre of loyal and passionate followers unlike any group ever seen in Corporation elections.
Most of all, Lee has invigorated a traditionally staid process and sparked debate about issues ranging from the role of a Corporation trustee to relationship between Yale and its unions.
As we have said before in this space, there are also numerous problems with Lee’s candidacy, and he is a poor choice for the Corporation. But whether he wins or loses, we hope Lee’s impact will be to change how the Yale community thinks about the Corporation and its electoral process.
The Corporation, which is the University’s highest policy-making body, has often been termed an old boy network. While nationally famous trustees like David Gergen ’63 and Kurt Schmoke ’71 are eminently qualified, lesser-known candidates also deserve the chance to present themselves to alumni.
The ballot the Yale Alumni Association currently produces — which includes only a brief biography of the candidate — denies alumni much of the information they need to cast an educated vote.
The AYA should lengthen the ballot and give the candidates sufficient space to explain their goals for the University. This would be far more valuable to voters, and it would give unique candidates like Lee the opportunity to explain their unconventional vision for the Corporation.
It would also eliminate the need for candidates to seek special-interest funding for mailings and other avenues of publicizing ideas — a crucial mistake Lee has made in this campaign.
If the University has trouble justifying the cost and effort of creating more informative ballots, the response that Lee’s campaign has elicited demonstrates the degree to which alumni are interested in the Corporation and seek greater information about the candidates. The surge in interest in the process deepens the ties between the alumni and the University, which can only help Yale.
It is in this way that Lee has left his most important legacy, whether he wins or loses. By making the Yale community care more about the Corporation, he has led the University to re-examine its practices and attitudes.
We hope such an examination will lead Yale to modify its approach to the Corporation ballot. We also hope it will lead candidates to think more about interacting with the constituency they seek to represent, as Lee has. And it should also convince candidates to avoid the conflicts of interest Lee’s campaign has created and which ultimately could keep him from winning a seat.