As is the case with any governing body, the Yale Corporation has faced its fair share of criticism over the years. While criticism of the group takes many forms, by far the most common critique is that the Corporation is little more than a cadre of bankers and lawyers who are ignorant about education and insensitive to the needs of students and faculty. These complaints — which touch on important questions of transparency, accountability and legitimacy — are certainly understandable, but they often fail to recognize the purpose of the Yale Corporation and its place in our University.
Despite the misapprehension of many students, the Corporation is not merely a collection of undeserving plutocrats. Its members comprise a diverse body of public and private sector leaders, including surgeons, chemistry professors, entrepreneurs, university presidents and non-profit directors. Fifteen of the 17 have obtained advanced degrees, and all are distinguished in their fields. Perhaps the only organizing characteristic of the body is its deep commitment to Yale, whether expressed through financial contributions, experience, service or all three.
It is true that many Corporation members are involved in financial services and many more have amassed sizable personal fortunes. However, this does not detract from their ability to guide Yale. If anything, we should be proud that its members are leaders in their fields who have experience managing and growing an organization, whose time at Yale has given them a unique long-term perspective and whose contributions — in wealth, wisdom or work — testify to their expertise.
Beyond questions of composition, much of the controversy concerning the Corporation stems from its lack of transparency. As I see it, there are two central factors that play into this concern: First, student ignorance of the Corporation, and second, the Corporation’s purported wish to avoid contact with the student body. According to a 2014 survey by the Yale Politic, more than a quarter of students were unaware of the Yale Corporation’s existence. This statistic is unfortunate, but hardly a fault of the Corporation. There are several opportunities each year for students to sit and chat with members in addition to the thorough biographies on Yale’s website detailing the contributions and achievements of the members. As to the second concern, the decision to hold private meetings is regrettable, albeit understandable. Just last week at the University of Pennsylvania, a group of students protested a meeting of the University’s Board of Trustees to the point that they were unable to continue the meeting and reach conclusions on many important issues.
Indeed, the Yale Corporation is not meant to be a democratically elected arm that is directly accountable to the student body. Yale has a wide variety of councils and bodies that exist to represent the varied populations in our school. For students, that representative body is the Yale College Council, which does an effective job of drafting reports, delivering petitions and making known to the administration the current concerns of students. The idea that every policymaking arm of the University ought to be directly accountable to undergraduates alone is narrow-minded. The concerns of students — while certainly important — do not always reflect the interests of the University, and it is important that a body exists that can balance the varied interests of the members of Yale (students, faculty, alumni, staff) with the institutional factors (the endowment and scholarship) and can make decisions that are at times unpopular.
Perhaps the strongest criticism levied against the Yale Corporation is that its members are all too often involved in conflicts of interest. This concern has come to the forefront of the discussion recently, particularly as it pertains to such issues as divestment and the development of the Yale-NUS campus. By all means, this is a valid critique, and any member of the Corporation who comes upon a conflict of interest should recuse him or herself from the decision-making process. But at the same time, we should be careful to categorically write off an entire board — particularly one that has been so generous in its contribution to Yale — merely because these conflicts will inevitably arise.
Ultimately, it is important to recognize the Corporation for what it is and what it is not. The members of the Yale Corporation are not elected representatives of the students. They are not our teachers or our deans. And despite what many may think, they are not lobbyists for the endowment. Whether or not it succeeds in its mission, the Corporation is a body that draws on diverse sources of expertise and interests to best position the University for long-term success.
Benjamin Marrow is a sophomore in Berkeley College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .