Amanda Mei

In 2013, University President Peter Salovey created a formal cabinet of professional school deans, University vice presidents and the provost,  to unite Yale’s leaders under one umbrella organization. Immediately after its inception, Salovey said the purpose of the body was to serve as a “feedback mechanism,” “a brainstorming mechanism” and “a way to help deans and vice presidents know what the other is doing and worrying about.”

Following the Nov. 17 campuswide announcement entitled “Toward a Better Yale,” in which Salovey announced several initiatives in response to campus conversations about racism and discrimination, administrators within Woodbridge Hall told the News that Salovey worked closely with his cabinet in developing the plan.

But interviews with the majority of professional school deans, several vice presidents, the provost, Salovey and his senior staff, as well as the review of emails between the President’s Office and the cabinet, suggest that most members of the cabinet, especially professional school deans, were excluded from the development of these initiatives. Rather, under a compressed time frame, an inner circle of cabinet officials — Salovey, University Provost Benjamin Polak, Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway, Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Tamar Gendler and University Secretary and Vice President for Student Life Kimberly Goff-Crews — worked with one another and the president’s senior staff to formulate action steps.

In hindsight, Salovey said he would have liked to give the cabinet more input and time to review the initiatives.


Most cabinet members interviewed were not substantially involved in the development process.

For some, like Vice President for Alumni Affairs and Development Joan O’Neill, this level of involvement felt appropriate. Graduate School Dean Lynn Cooley said it was reasonable that she was not heavily involved in the development process because November’s controversies emerged largely from Yale College. And Dean of the School of Medicine Robert Alpern said he “did not participate” in decision-making while Salovey developed the initiatives. But Alpern said Salovey shared the policies with him before their wider distribution to the Yale community.

But other University leaders were more upset about being excluded from decisions that affect the University as a whole.

“President Salovey said things to suggest that University leadership was engaged, and by implication that could mean people like me, but I was not engaged,” Yale School of Management Dean Ted Snyder said, adding that he does not know of any school deans who were substantively involved, other than Holloway.

Divinity School Dean Gregory Sterling said his role “was minimal” but that he “would like to have been more involved.”

“I wasn’t happy with the process at all,” Dean of the School of Public Health Paul Cleary said. “Everyone would have liked to have had more time for input and discussion, so I don’t think anyone was happy with it.”

Salovey said he had an in-person cabinet meeting and a separate cabinet phone call during the most turbulent weeks of November. Polak also hosted a call with the deans. Both administrators emphasized that several of the initiatives announced on Nov. 17 had been in the works prior to the campus controversies.

Cooley said deans were “pretty plugged in” to the extent it was possible to include more than a dozen voices substantively. But during the cabinet meeting, she added, Salovey focused primarily on the feelings students had shared with him rather than potential efforts to address them.

Salovey said the basic agenda of the in-person meeting was to develop a shared understanding of campus happenings, not to discuss the details of potential responses.

Similarly, Snyder said the conference call centered on campus happenings but “was not a discussion of policy.”

“I think some of the deans would have liked to have been more involved in the details of some of the initiatives, especially as they play out in the schools, and I respect that,” Salovey said. “I think we learned some lessons for the next time we are developing broad policies in a very discrete time horizon.”

Cooley said once the initiatives were drafted, the President’s Office gave the cabinet a “very compressed” timeline to offer comments. Sterling said while the contents of Salovey’s announcement were shared with the deans in advance, they were not given much time to provide feedback.

Snyder said deans’ lack of opportunity to engage with the President’s Office prompted conflict between “several deans” and Salovey.

“The cabinet was briefed on Salovey’s statement ‘Toward a Better Yale’ on the 17th — the same day it was released — and only because of objections was a three-hour window created for comments,” he said. “Initially, no time was given, so we objected, and then we got the three hours. But nothing was going to change. And, at that point, I don’t think it was reasonable to believe anything would change.”

Cleary also said he does not believe that any of the professional school deans’ comments “changed anything.” He added that that opportunity to provide feedback was the first time he was involved.

But Salovey said there was pressure to move fairly quickly, as the University had committed to releasing the initiatives before Thanksgiving break. Considering the difficulties of the time frame, Salovey said the cabinet was kept “very much in the loop.”

“Do I think there could have been even more outreach and interchange? Absolutely yes,” he said. “But do I also think that this was moving very quickly and that we needed to come to conclusions in a reasonable time frame, that is true too.”

Polak said the events of November were “fast-moving” and that many people from across Yale pitched in to help in whatever ways they could. Salovey said he believes vice presidents felt more involved than professional school deans for structural reasons, as he has a weekly meeting with the vice presidents.

Cleary said he understands that Salovey had to move under immense time pressure as a result of the rapid pace at which events unfolded.

“It was not optimal, and I was not pleased,” he said. “But I also want to express sympathy for the contingency under which [Salovey] and others involved were operating. The problem is people felt like they had something to offer and were eager to help the president and his officers, but they were not able to do so.”

Similarly, Sterling said that the urgency in November constrained the president. He added that, given these circumstances, he does not fault Salovey for his approach, as he made “the tough calls” required of a leader.

But given that the initiatives did not concern only Yale College, Salovey said cabinet members were justified in wanting more time to review them.

“In retrospect, I would have liked for them to have more time to contemplate it,” he said. “Would I have preferred that we had been in a position to have interacted more systematically and elicited input more broadly, the answer is yes.”


Beyond the development of University initiatives, cabinet members said they also were not part of Holloway’s decision to announce in an email to Yale College students that he was “fully in support” of the Intercultural Affairs Committee asking students to select culturally sensitive Halloween costumes — a message Silliman College Associate Master Erika Christakis had controversially pushed back against. They also were not consulted on Salovey’s decision to say, in an interview with the News, that he supported Holloway’s decision.

Snyder said he took issue with Salovey and Holloway’s independent approach because of its implications on the entire University.

“Where I was troubled was having Dean Holloway take a position in favor of the IAC and implicitly say therefore I don’t agree with [Christakis’] statements, and then having the stakes increase when Salovey endorsed Dean Holloway’s statement,” Snyder said. “That combination of statements in that context implicates the whole University.”

He added that to his knowledge, Salovey and Holloway formulated their reactions without consulting other cabinet members.

Still, Cooley said it seemed entirely appropriate for the dean of Yale College to respond independently of the cabinet, because the IAC falls under the jurisdiction of Yale College.

Cleary also said he found Holloway’s decision to support the IAC reasonable, and Sterling said, as a dean himself, he would have been “very upset” if his “hands had been tied and [he] couldn’t say something.”

Holloway said he did not consult the cabinet about his decision, adding that it did not even occur to him to do so because “it’s the president’s cabinet, not mine,” and because the matter concerned his constituents. He also said he would not expect consultation on a message the dean of a professional school was planning to send to his or her students.

“As a general rule, it’s not that every unit of Yale has complete autonomy, but there is a kind of respect for letting deans and their teams run their schools and not second-guessing each other publicly, so that deans and their teams are not always looking over their shoulders,” Salovey said. “They are entitled to the freedom to have that reaction and to write memos on many issues — not on every issue — that reflect the culture of that school.”

Sterling said Christakis works under Holloway, so it was his responsibility to respond to the issue at hand. The gravity of the situation necessitated a response from Salovey as well, he added.

But Snyder said Holloway and Salovey left the reach of their comments — whether they applied to Yale College or the entire University — ambiguous.

“When these statements come out, not only was there no input, but I think it’s fair to say that there was not an understanding — at least from some parts of the broader Yale community — what was the carry: Was the intention to focus just on Yale College, was the idea to provide guidance for all of Yale? It was unclear,” Snyder said. “I personally saw adverse consequences of having the dean of the college and the president of the University supporting the IAC and, during that time period, even though they were saying they believed in freedom of speech, there was no statement in support of the faculty who disagreed with the IAC.”


In November, Salovey developed an inner circle of high-level administrators — Holloway, Gendler, Polak and Goff-Crews — as well as Senior Advisor to the President Martha Highsmith and Chief of Staff Joy McGrath.

Goff-Crews told the News that the group attended several meetings where “organic” drafting of the initiatives took place. She said Salovey assembled the team, which she called the “heart” of the development process, to think about how the University could respond to student concerns.

“They would last as long as it took — I’m talking as long as it took. Many of us don’t remember getting sleep,” she said. “We talked about issues and explored ways in which we could respond to student requests.”

Cabinet members interviewed said the involvement of Holloway, Gendler, Polak and Goff-Crews stemmed from the areas over which they have jurisdiction, most publicly Holloway, as campus issues initially stemmed from Yale College.

Holloway told the News that he worked closely with the president as events unfolded.

“I was certainly deeply engaged and felt like side-by-side partners with President Salovey,” he said.

School of Nursing Dean Ann Kurth said her impression is that Holloway was “intimately” involved, and Sterling said Holloway was “obviously part of Salovey’s inner circle.”

Salovey added that Gendler, Holloway, Polak and Goff-Crews were given significant input into the crafting of that document.

Polak’s involvement, Salovey said, stemmed from the fact that several University initiatives involved resources he governs.

Salovey and other senior administrators interviewed said drafting the initiatives was a collaborative process. He added that a different person probably drafted each paragraph in his Nov. 17 email, based on their differing areas of expertise. But he emphasized that he controlled the final document.

“It represents pieces that were written by multiple people,” Salovey said. “But the final voice is mine. The final edit of the memo as a whole and the version that went out — I did that.”

Salovey said he also sought to take advantage of knowledgeable members of Yale faculty, often asking McGrath to find relevant experts on campus for him.

Still, the overall roles of Highsmith and McGrath remain a source of confusion for University leaders.

All eight professional school deans interviewed either declined to comment on the advisors’ roles or said they did not fully understand them.

Snyder said that the “key question” is who Salovey turns to inside of Woodbridge Hall. The answer is less-known now than it was with former University President Richard Levin, he said.

“I don’t know how it’s working or how involved senior staff is, so all I can do is draw the contrast,” Snyder said. “With other institutions and in the case of President Levin, I think people, including myself, were able to deduce who was important: Linda Lorimer, Dorothy Robinson. You could get a sense of individuals who were important in the kitchen cabinet sense. I don’t know what it is right now. I don’t know that others do. I just don’t know.”

Lorimer retired as vice president for global and strategic initiatives in April 2015 and Robinson retired as vice president and general counsel in August 2014.

Cleary said Highsmith seemed central to the development process, though he also did not understand her specific role. Highsmith declined to comment for this story.

Sterling expressed similar confusion, emphasizing that Highsmith and McGrath should not be involved in decision-making.

“I have no idea how involved [Highsmith and McGrath] were,” Sterling said. “They’re there in a support role — they’re not decision-makers. They can give advice, provide a read of situations, but they are not decision-makers. [Highsmith] has some responsibilities where she does make decisions, and [McGrath] has some, but that is not their roles. They are not the equivalent of a vice president or a dean.”

McGrath said she sat in on a number of meetings with Salovey to take notes, calling herself “another pair of ears.” Asked whether Salovey solicited her advice on potential initiatives, she said the two often worked off her notes and talked about them. But she emphasized that she is not responsible for developing initiatives.

“That was not my role,” McGrath said. “My role was exactly the same as it is always is. There is a lot of input coming in, there are certain things we’re trying to reflect on, there is activity obviously happening, the president is trying to stay connected with concerned students, with concerned faculty, with his leadership. And my role is to facilitate that. By that I mean making time for these conversations, gathering groups of people together, making sure things are happening in the order he wants. When things are moving very quickly, you have to be able to respond quickly and make it possible for people to have access to the president. I view my role as that.”

McGrath also stressed that Salovey sought counsel from a large number of people, noting that his November included a wide variety of meetings with people from across the Yale community, including the in-person cabinet meeting and phone call.

Still, Vice President for Communications Eileen O’Connor said Salovey consulted with Highsmith and McGrath throughout the policy development process. And they were present at development-centered meetings, according to Goff-Crews.

Cooley said she could not speak to Highsmith’s specific responsibilities. But she did say that Highsmith was present at every meeting she attended.

Cooley commended Highsmith for ensuring that everyone’s views were heard and recorded during large administrative gatherings.

“Highsmith has a very long institutional memory, so she’s great to have there,” Cooley said. “She was effective at moving things forward calmly and efficiently.”

Salovey said while McGrath and Highsmith “might have been involved” in policy development, they focused primarily on process.

“In the buzz of all of that parallel conversation, all of those ideas coming in from multiple sources and different constituencies with different views, including alumni and folks off campus, I think [McGrath] and [Highsmith]  are playing very important roles in sorting it out, keeping it focused and sometimes framing ideas that need decisions,” Salovey said. “They might be involved in policy development, but they’re mostly involved in management rather than content.”


Some administrators have questioned whether November’s events revealed limitations of the cabinet during times of crisis.

Snyder said he was not surprised that the cabinet was given so little time to review the draft document of initiatives because the body in its current form is unable to decide upon important measures in the midst of a crisis.

“The bottom line is I don’t think the cabinet could have been effective,” Snyder said. “It is not a body that matches situations that require decision-making under a short timeline.”

He added that going forward, the University should work to establish an alternative means of communication, requests for input and meetings amongst administrators.

But Sterling said he thinks the cabinet “can function in crisis,” and Cleary said he believes the cabinet has an important role to play in University governance.

“I think we learned something on Nov. 17 — I don’t think anyone would say it was optimal, and if we were to do something in the future, I think everyone would probably approach it differently: to have more time for input, reactions, both on specific policies and framing,” Cleary said. “My guess is that if it were to happen again, that there would be more time for collaboration. It’s hard to balance input with timeliness. That’s the dilemma Salovey faced, and he did what he thought was best at the time. My guess is if he were to do it again he would try to give more time or get a draft out earlier.”

Salovey expressed mixed feelings about the utility of his cabinet during times of crisis.

In “fast-moving situations attracting considerable media scrutiny,” he said the cabinet should be used as the primary means of communication for University leadership.

But he said substantive engagement is in many ways impractical.

“For actual decision-making, you want to take representatives from that cabinet and pull them into a team that can react more quickly and provide good advice,” Salovey said.

Many administrators emphasized that while Salovey had to move quickly in November, he is at heart an inclusive president.

Sterling said Salovey ultimately created the cabinet in an effort to be collaborative, a statement Cleary echoed.

“Salovey has been an inclusive president — he created the cabinet in the first place — and deans always want to make all the decisions and be involved,” Cleary said. “So if there was a flaw, it was logistics, it was not a character flaw … He’s a listening, inclusive president.”

While McGrath said there is always room for improvement, she emphasized that Salovey established the cabinet to discuss matters of importance with deans and vice presidents together and will continue to do so in the future.

Goff-Crews reiterated that if a similar time of crisis were to arise again, there are areas in which the University could do better.

“Every time something happens on campus, you learn something you can do differently,” Goff-Crews said. “It was a really fast-moving situation, and I think we did the best we could in terms of communicating and including as many people as possible. But are there ways we could have done something better, of course. And something we are looking at now is lessons learned. Though I think we did a good job of keeping a variety of constituencies in the loop, we can always do better.”

David Yaffe-Bellany contributed reporting.