For decades, the Yale Corporation has remained a mystery to all but a few University insiders. Its deliberations are almost entirely confidential, its rules are generally unknown, and its members are not prone to stand out.
Few people have cared about the inner workings of Yale’s highest governing body and the personalities of those who serve on it — until now.
The Rev. W. David Lee’s DIV ’93 unprecedented campaign for a spot on the Corporation has brought the 16 trustees into the spotlight as students and alumni alike have found more interest in what happens in the Woodbridge Hall boardroom and what it takes to be a trustee.
Corporation members say the role of trustee requires substantial dedication.
Before each meeting, trustees and officers are given a notebook of reading over an inch thick.
Although University Secretary Linda Lorimer said the reading load is less demanding than a Yale course, Trustee Roland Betts ’68 said he dedicates the evenings before the meeting to the readings. Betts said he reads the Yale Daily News in addition to various publications on higher education, and he said he frequently talks with other Corporation members.
Corporation member Janet Yellen GRD ’71, an economist who is a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, said that outside of her job, Yale is her major commitment.
“There certainly is an ongoing commitment to prepare with meetings and keep up with issues of concern to Yale,” Yellen said. “I think everybody on the Corporation takes it quite seriously as their major outside committee.”
Fully utilizing the collective talent of such a focused group is a challenge for any deliberative body, but Yellen and G. Leonard Baker ’64 both used the same adjectives to describe the group — collegial and heterogeneous.
“It takes a lot of the work. The Corporation is a very collegial group in the way people function together,” Baker said, adding that the group has a “great CEO” in Levin. “There is a great deal of listening to and considering all opinions.”
Betts said that while the days are long, with a constant stream of meetings and activities, he finds the weekends he devotes to the Corporation “very, very stimulating.”
“I think Yale, in selecting people in the Corporation, looks for people who historically work well with other people,” Betts said. “They tend to listen and be good at exchanging ideas. They tend not to grandstand.”
Yellen said she thinks Yale looks for a mix of members in order to better serve the University.
“I think Yale looks to every member of the Corporation to make a range of contributions, and different members of the Corporation have come with different backgrounds, professional accomplishments and expertise that they put to work in the full variety of different ways for the benefit of Yale,” Yellen said.
The power of the individual
The possibility of Lee as a trustee and the controversial nature of his campaign has raised questions about the sway any one Corporation member can exert.
Baker said the amount of influence enjoyed by each member varies.
“It really depends,” Baker said. “In a collegial group, a lot of it is based on personal credibility.”
Lorimer agreed that credibility affects a member’s power.
“I think some individuals become more prominent because their statements are clearly perceived by the other trustees as very wise,” Lorimer said, adding that she still believes every member is very important, given the small size of Yale’s board.
Betts agreed that the size of the Corporation gives every member a good deal of influence because of the committees.
“I think each person, assuming they take their responsibilities seriously, can have a great deal of influence,” Betts said.
The Corporation has been criticized for its secrecy, but Corporation members maintained that confidentiality is key to the body’s efficiency.
While Betts said he thinks there is a point where information needs to be public, he said reaching a decision regarding a certain issue can take hours and hours of deliberation that does not necessarily deserve to be on the public record.
“There is a lot of discussion within the Corporation about individual people. You don’t want to have that be public,” Betts said.
Confidentiality, Baker said, is key to the board’s dynamic.
“I think that in order to maintain collegiality and maintain trust, you really do need to be able to trust that everyone is going to use good judgment about maintaining confidentially,” Baker said.
The Corporation beyond 300
After spending 13 years on the Corporation, Senior Fellow Kurt Schmoke ’71 maintains it is not perfect — “I don’t know of any perfect institution that involves humans” — but says it has served the University well for over 300 years.
Lorimer said that no changes are in the works for the bylaws because of this year’s unprecedented campaign.
“There are often times changes to the miscellaneous regulations and or the University bylaws, but there is not anything before the Corporation now concerning campaigning,” she said.