The thing about elections is that they tend to encourage campaigning. Candidates want to spread their ideas. Build a base of support. Win offices based on the strength of their convictions. Sounds pretty reasonable.
Yale is shocked — shocked! — that the Rev. W. David Lee is campaigning for a seat on the University’s highest policy-making body. Even Yale President Richard Levin, who is notoriously loath to wade into these political waters, has offered a delicate we-don’t-do-that-sort-of-thing-around-here critique of Lee’s mass mailings, endorsements and paid advertisements.
There is a small problem with the finger-wagging and the logic behind it. The standard is just not being applied consistently. Levin wants it both ways: to accuse Lee, and Lee alone, of waging an unseemly campaign for the alumni Corporation seat while allowing underlings in Woodbridge Hall to criticize the reverend and further politicize the election. Both sides are guilty here.
Nothing underscores the problem better than the increasingly untenable position of Linda Lorimer, Yale’s vice president and secretary. Lorimer is an ex officio member of the Alumni Nominating Committee that selected Maya Lin and the boss of administrators who have criticized Lee. Now she is formally advising both Corporation candidates and editing candidate biographies– objectively and without favor, we are told — despite her conflicts of interest.
Let’s take a look at each of these issues, one at a time.
The campaign: It’s time to dispense with the veneer of gentility. There is a major campaign underway for the alumni Corporation seat on both sides. Levin knows it, the Association of Yale Alumni knows it, Maya Lin and her supporters know it and Lee and his supporters know it.
But Levin and his proxy, spokeswoman Helaine Klasky, have repeatedly tried to isolate Lee as a candidate for breaking all the rules of a Corporation election. What are these unwritten rules of alumni Corporation candidates? Let your distinguished record speak for itself (Lee speaks out too much). Don’t raise money (Lee has raised $55,000). Never align yourself with special interest groups (Lee took $30,000 from Yale unions).
What Levin does not mention is that the AYA is campaigning too, albeit more subtly. They endorsed a single candidate for the alumni ballot, departing from a longstanding precedent that clearly favored more options. In the past 15 years, there have been five slates of two endorsed candidates, seven slates of three candidates and three slates with either four or five candidates. The AYA is campaigning for one candidate, Maya Lin.
Alumni and undergraduates are also campaigning. Actively. They have taken out ads in the Yale Alumni Magazine, written in the Yale Daily News and coordinated among themselves to support Lee or Lin.
Administrative Criticism: Yale administrators are also contributing to the increasingly vicious campaign culture of the Corporation race. High-level officers have publicly and privately criticized Lee and his electioneering tactics, making their own sheepishness about “campaigning” for the Corporation seem more and more like a farce.
Consider the following newspaper accounts. In The Hartford Courant this week, Klasky called Lee’s campaign “unsavory. If you follow it through, you could have some wealthy alumni trying to buy seats.” In the Herald last week, she said: “We’re not in campaign season here. It’s a little discomforting that Reverend Lee has been pushing politicians so hard to endorse him.” In the Yale Daily News, Levin himself, once again worried about Lee and precedents after Sen. Joseph Liebermen surprised everyone and backed his campaign, offered his own version of non-critique critique in early March: “The amount of political involvement in this alumni,” he said, “is completely without precedent.” He has since called that precedent “dangerous.”
Temptation got the best of Woodbridge Hall. If it had remained mum and let Lee’s tactics speak for themselves, top administrators could lay claim to a moral high ground on campaigning. But the genie is out of the bottle: they are now campaigning too.
Linda Lorimer’s Conflicts: Worst of all, the secretary and vice president of the University has ensnared herself in an ethical spider’s web. She sits, as an ex officio member with full voting rights, on the Alumni Fellow Nominating Committee that essentially endorsed Lin (and only Lin). She works for a University president who has now criticized Lee’s tactics. She is the boss of the spokeswomen who has reproached him in the press. She is married to a sitting Corporation member, Charles Ellis. And now she is advising both Lee and Lin and editing the candidate biographies that will be sent to alumni.
The problem is not whether Lorimer favors Lin over Lee. The problem is there is the strong appearance of a conflict of interest. Although Lorimer may advise both candidates evenhandedly, that appearance will cast a shadow over the ballots she edits and the AYA Web site she oversees, not to mention the election itself.
It was cold comfort to discover, for example, that Lorimer “suggested a sentence or two” in the letter Lin wrote to Yale undergraduates this week. Levin, if he cares about the appearance of a fair election, should appoint an outside editor or consultant, free of allegiances and entangling relationships in this campaign, to oversee Lorimer’s election-related duties.
Yale administrators and AYA officers have some facts to face. Competition for the alumni Corporation seat has turned into a campaign: one they — as well as Lee — have fueled. If they are not careful, they run the risk of allowing conflicts of interest to pollute a race between Lee and Lin that should remain honorable.
Michael Barbaro is a senior in Davenport College. He is a former editor in chief of the Yale Daily News.