The Yale Corporation’s annoucement last week that it will not place restrictions on campaigning for trusteeships was a welcome sign that the University is not overreacting to this spring’s unorthodox election.
The decision, announced in a letter by new senior fellow John Pepper ’60, came three months after former Corporation leader Kurt Schmoke ’71 formally sought alumni feedback on the “politicization” of the election between Maya Lin ’81 ARC ’86 and petition candidate W. David Lee DIV ’93. The bizarre election, which featured campaigns that cost well over $100,000 by Lee and a group of Lin supporters, was controversial enough that Schmoke was right to solicit opinion from the his constituents –the body of Yale alumni.
After receiving about 1,000 responses, Pepper was wise not to issue an across-the-board ban on campaigning. Such a prohibition would represent a broad denial of information to alumni voters that the Corporation cannot justify based on one election, no matter how unorthodox it was.
That said, the Corporation should take steps to prevent the problems that arose last spring from recurring in future alumni fellow elections. Instead of outlawing campaigns, the trustees should implement a system by which candidates — whether they reach the ballot via official nomination or a petition drive –can communicate their visions for the Corporation to alumni.
The solution is quite simple: The trustees should stipulate that the ballot provide space for each candidate to outline his goals for the Corporation. Currently, voters receive only a short candidate biography, which is written by the university secretary. The ballot could continue to include this brief background sketch, but leaving the bulk of the space for the candidate’s own thoughts would prove far more informative for voters.
The Corporation should also act to correct the twisted roles of the University administration and the Association of Yale Alumni. In this spring’s election, both groups openly expressed skepticism about Lee’s qualifications for trusteeship. There is nothing inherently wrong with such organizations offering their opinions, but last year the University and the AYA also claimed to be the guarantors of an objective and fair election. Their comments about Lee revealed a potential for a conflict of interest that must be remedied for the future.
The University eventually announced that it had retained an independent body to count the ballots in the spring election. This was an appropriate step at the time, but the Corporation should now entrust the conduct of the entire election process to a separate entity. This would eliminate potential conflicts of interest and allow the administration and the AYA to be more forthright throughout the election.
As the newly minted senior fellow, Pepper is in a position to drive such change. His detachment from this spring’s controversy makes his leadership even more valuable in catalyzing the needed policy shifts. His decision not to ban campaigning is a good start. Now the Corporation must show its commitment to alumni by ensuring that they receive the fullest, most objective information possible when electing their representatives.