This article has been updated to reflect the version that ran in print on Feb. 22.
A week after the Yale Corporation met privately inside Woodbridge Hall, Fossil Free Yale held its own meeting on Beinecke Plaza to speak out against the notoriously secretive body.
Roughly 45 students gathered Friday outside the President’s Office to express frustration with the University’s official governing board, which many claimed inhibits student participation by conferring privately, not officially disclosing its agenda and keeping meeting minutes confidential for 50 years. For an hour, students voiced their concerns in the company of four stuffed mannequin suits sitting in chairs on the plaza — figures meant to stand in for the faceless members of the Corporation.
“They are here to represent the fact that the Corporation is present, and it has a big impact on our lives, yet face-to-face interactions we have with members are negligible,” said FFY member Mary Claire Whelan ’19, who helped design the mannequins. “So by having them here, we can metaphorically speak to members even though they historically haven’t spoken to us.”
Strung between two trees on Beinecke Plaza were dozens of small orange tags bearing students’ thoughts about the stakes of their battle for divestment, about the Corporation’s power over the University and about their vision for Yale.
The “speak-out” signals a shift in tone and strategy for FFY, a group that has previously staged sit-ins and demonstrations and delivered petitions to University administrators with a specific focus on divestment from the fossil fuel industry. At the student-centered event, members lamented not only a lack of engagement on the issue of divestment but also the secretive model of the Corporation and the group’s failure to sufficiently engage with students on other topics — especially those concerning racism and discrimination on campus.
“We are going to converse with each other in a way that the Corporation is not conversing with us,” FFY member Cassie Darrow ’18 said.
But University President Peter Salovey said because the Corporation is tasked primarily with guiding the long-term strategy of the University, its confidential model supports the body’s mission.
“Although it is certainly advantageous for corporation fellows to interact with campus constituencies, such as students and faculty, they also need to think about Yale from a long-term perspective as opposed to one rooted in day-to-day management,” Salovey said. “The confidentiality of their agenda and deliberations maximizes their ability to discuss issues honestly with each other and to consider what is in the long-term best interests of the University.”
Still, Alina Aksiyote ’16 said at the speak-out that it should not be acceptable for the University to operate without taking student opinion into account, and FFY member Janine Comrie ’19 said the group has considered asking the Corporation to allow a third party, such as a student or faculty representative, into its meetings. While that would be a large change, Comrie said it would only be the first step toward increased openness within the secretive body.
An article in The Yale Herald on Friday, written by FFY Communications Director Chelsea Watson ’17 and Marissa Medici ’19, detailed FFY’s previous failed attempts to engage with both the University’s administration and its highest governing body. At the speak-out, Watson read excerpts from the article.
“I question the purpose of this autocratic governing body,” she read aloud.
Previously, FFY has tried to engage more directly with administrators. In past conversations with FFY, Salovey has told the group to work with the Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility, a group of students, faculty and staff members tasked with advising the Corporation on its investment strategy. In January, FFY had its eighth meeting with the ACIR since the student group was founded in 2012, where it presented a revised proposal for divestment — the third such revision the group has made since engaging with the committee.
But Watson said FFY has begun to realize that the committee has “limited power” over Yale’s investment decisions. In addition, FFY has never met with a Corporation member, she said.
The climate activist group has focused more attention this semester on gathering community support instead of petitioning the University to engage in conversations, Watson said. Comrie, a newly active member of FFY, said she came to the speak-out because she opposes the “secretive and closed-off” model of the Corporation.
“I am a freshman and I had an expectation about Yale and its sense of cooperation with students, so I was really disappointed about the Corporation’s process,” she said. “I feel like respect for students just isn’t there. They don’t take us seriously.”
Whelan, also a freshman, said that coming to Yale was both humbling and frightening. The social and political weight that Yale carries in the world puts responsibility on the University to lead, she said.
Other student speakers put FFY in the context of other groups that have recently called for the University to enact sweeping changes, from the campaign to change the name of Calhoun College, to the establishment of Next Yale in November, to groups that have called for the elimination of the Student Income Contribution.
FFY’s central message remains that Yale should stop investing in the fossil fuel industry. The Yale Investments Office does not publish information about how much of the endowment is invested in fossil fuels, but according to the YIO 2014 Endowment Report, the University has allocated 8.4 percent of its assets in natural resources.