Next month, the Yale Corporation will meet to discuss major campus issues. This is the first in a four-part series on its members. David Shimer reports.

The senior fellow of the Corporation has been described by top administrators as the first among equals — the board member who speaks with University President Peter Salovey every week, strategizes with him on meeting agendas and has the universal respect of his or her peers. Margaret Marshall LAW ’76 — a former general counsel of Harvard and the first female chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court — has served that role for the past three years.

Marshall said Yale administrators approached her about joining the Corporation more than a decade ago. While sitting in her legal chambers as chief justice, she received a phone call from then-University President Richard Levin asking whether she would be interested in serving as an alumni fellow of the Corporation, a position she ultimately assumed in 2004.

“There was not a moment’s hesitation, because I knew I wanted to serve — Yale is one of the great institutions in the world and I was happy to do whatever I could,” she said. “Coming to Yale was the most liberating, wonderful, extraordinary opportunity of my life, and if I had the opportunity to repeat it again, I would jump on it.”

On Thursday and Friday, Marshall will host two open forums with the Yale community to discuss campus naming issues.

She said she considers student input “very seriously,” partly because she was a student activist in her youth and partly because she holds Yale students in the highest regard.

“I believed passionately when I was [that] age that you never trust anyone over the age of 30,” she said. “So for me it’s not just about taking student views into account, but learning from them, either in the graduate schools or in the College. It is one of the things that keeps one feeling most engaged, because there are new ways of looking at the world, which are different, and that’s one of the privileges of serving on this Corporation.”

CORPORATION YEARS

Though Marshall said the leadership traits of the senior fellow are in many ways ceremonial, Salovey said the holder of the position is usually chosen by consensus and possesses “wisdom, good judgment, broad knowledge of Yale and great passion for the University.”

He added that Marshall encompasses all those traits, and has been an invaluable resource to him as a result.

“Chief Marshall is a great partner in thinking about what are the best issues to bring to the Corporation, other than the more routine kinds of agenda items,” Salovey said. “Basically the planning and strategizing of Corporation meetings themselves is something that we do together. Beyond that, Justice Marshall and I speak on the phone once a week at length. In those phone calls, our view is that anything going on at Yale, or in the world relevant to Yale, is fair game.”

Since 2004, Marshall has served in various positions on the Corporation: as an alumni fellow, a successor fellow and now the senior fellow. She emphasized that the positions differ little in substance.

“Once you are on the Corporation, it’s hard to remember who is an alumni fellow or who is a successor fellow,” she said. “The president listens no matter who you are. The Corporation works as a whole, and yet it is small enough that we can sit around the table but large enough that we can have subcommittees.”

Senior Advisor to the President Martha Highsmith said it is a “tribute” to Marshall that after stepping down from her position as an alumni fellow in 2010, she was invited back as a successor fellow and given an honorary degree from the University in 2012.

Highsmith said Yale is unique in that the University president chairs the corporation. Still, Highsmith said that Marshall serves as the president’s “confidante” and works to ensure that Corporation meetings are as efficient and effective as possible. She added that Marshall frequently visits campus, partly because her granddaughter recently attended Yale College.

During the racially centered controversies of the past semester, for example, Salovey said he and Marshall spoke regularly.

In late October, Marshall said it was too early to have opinions on controversial issues like the naming of the new residential colleges and the potential renaming of Calhoun College and the title of residential college “master,” because the Corporation had yet to discuss them. She added that the skills she gained while serving as chief justice and the respect she holds for her peers on the Corporation often lead her to adjust her opinions during Corporation meetings.

“The deliberations of the Corporation are very careful, and they are on some occasions — I can’t think of any at a particular time — subject to an actual vote. More likely, a very strong consensus will emerge,” she said.

MARSHALL AND YALE

Before attending the Law School, Marshall — who is originally from South Africa — said she had no intention of remaining in the United States. But following the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy in 1968, she said she felt “very lost.” She then grew involved with the anti-apartheid sanctions movement and decided to go to law school to learn more about the United States.

“In a nutshell Yale Law School changed my life, so I have extremely strong feelings about Yale,” she said. “I learned to argue in a careful, civilized way with people whose views I disagreed with entirely while here. South Africa at the time was a totalitarian and racist regime, and I had experience with that. So one of the things I love most about this entire campus, not just the law school, is the constant engagement with ideas that fluctuate.”

Marshall said that upon graduating from law school, she never would have expected to serve in the positions she did — especially as a justice. However, she said the foundational skills she learned at the Law School, as well as its “enormous reputation,” made differences “across the world” for her.

While serving as a lawyer, vice president and general counsel of Harvard and chief justice over the past several decades, Marshall remained involved with Yale in two major ways: advising law school applicants and organizing alumni events.

Marshall said her most important contributions to the University include actively serving the Law School’s alumni association, primarily in Boston. Soon after graduating from the school, she started inviting Yale professors to visit the city to meet with its graduates, the goal being to form a mutually supportive community.

As a “complete outsider” who did not know any lawyers or judges when applying to law school and as one of the few women in her law school class, Marshall said she feels indebted to those who offered her a helping hand. As a result, she said she has tried to return the favor by helping people decide whether and where to go to law school.

“My career has taken me in directions where I don’t have a huge amount of money, but I have tried in as many ways as I can to give back to Yale,” she said. “I always say to people if any part of your Yale education has been life-changing for you — I don’t think you realize how life-changing it will be while you are in the University — give back in anyway that you can.”