In February, Fossil Free Yale held a public demonstration outside Woodbridge Hall to protest the secretive nature of the Yale Corporation. For an hour, FFY members 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. Students, faculty and alumni have expressed similar concerns about the Corporation’s lack of transparency for decades.
This year, the Corporation will respond — including by considering a comprehensive plan on increased transparency and accessibility.
The Corporation has long operated in secret, with meeting minutes sealed for 50 years and meeting dates and agendas kept strictly internal. Despite longstanding rules on confidentiality, Corporation Senior Fellow Donna Dubinsky ’77 told the News that she will propose a plan to increase visibility this year, aiming to do so at the body’s December meeting. In taking this unprecedented step, Dubinsky said she is seeking to demonstrate that transparency will be a focus of her tenure as senior fellow.
“My intention is to put together a wide-ranging plan for transparency and accessibility, to get everyone to give me their thoughts on it, and to make sure we’re agreed. And I’d like to do that this year,” Dubinsky said. “I think people want to know we’re real people and have access to us, as much as anything.”
Dubinsky said one basic action step she will present to the board for approval will be to offer regular opportunities for students to interact with Corporation members. She declined to detail other components of this proposal, preferring to first debate them with Corporation members and work toward a consensus. The University has recently held sporadic teas with Corporation trustees.
University President Peter Salovey — who also said he has been exploring ways to bolster the board’s transparency — pointed to the Corporation’s confidential agendas as an area for improvement. He explained that after each of the five annual board meetings, he would like to release a statement on the issues discussed.
Salovey added that he has instructed General Counsel Alexander Dreier LAW ’95 to investigate the best practices of the boards of other top-tier schools.
“I’ve asked our general counsel to look at what other institutions look like, essentially what the Ivy Plus group does with respect to the transparency of board deliberations,” Salovey said, referring to the group of Ivy League schools and institutions like Stanford and MIT. “It would be premature to say we’re going to do this and not that. But we’ll have the data in front of us and then make some decisions based on what the Yale Corporation would be comfortable with and what appears to be best practices among our peer institutions.”
Still, Salovey said there are limitations to possible reforms. He emphasized that Corporation members must feel as though they can express their points of view “without concern for public humiliation or embarrassment.” A certain amount of confidentiality must remain in place, he said, though a better balance can be struck.
Various campus groups have long called for a more transparent and accessible Corporation. That includes FFY’s February protest featuring stuffed mannequins.
“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,” FFY member Mary Claire Whelan ’19 told the News after that demonstration. “So by having them here, we can metaphorically speak to members even though they historically haven’t spoken to us.”
Demands for a more transparent Corporation yet again emerged in April after Salovey announced that the University would retain the namesake of Calhoun College and name one of the new residential colleges after Benjamin Franklin. While the Corporation had jurisdiction over those decisions, none of its members appeared publicly to explain them. Instead, Salovey held a naming town hall in which students derided and demonstrated against him, and at which several attendees questioned the role of trustees.
Eli Ceballo-Countryman ’18, a leading student activist on campus, said that students deserve credit for pushing the Corporation toward transparency.
“Isn’t it beautiful when student activism creates change?” Ceballo-Countryman said. “It’s not just about the past two years, but the pressure the Corporation was under during the anti-Apartheid protests and push for ER&M. FFY has also done a huge amount of work to push the Corporation out of hiding. Good for [Dubinsky], but let’s recognize that students have been trying to move these mountains for a long time.”
Ceballo-Countryman added that until Dubinsky shares more of her plan, she does not trust that it will include substantial reforms, citing the past secrecy of the Corporation.
Speaking as a faculty member, Emily Greenwood — who chairs the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Senate — said Dubinsky’s proposal “sounds very promising.” As justification for a more transparent process, Greenwood cited the revelation that the Corporation internally committed to naming Franklin College three years before announcing the name publicly.
“Faculty have always asked for more two-way communication with the Corporation, for the Corporation to involve faculty in their deliberations and give faculty the chance to voice their priorities and concerns … The sooner the FAS Senate can be brought into discussion on issues that impact Yale as a teaching and research university, the better,” Greenwood said.
Professor Jay Gitlin ’71 MUS ’74 GRD ’02 — the unofficial historian of the University — said the Corporation should focus on integrity more than transparency. Some agenda items must be kept secret, he said, but what matters is that students trust the Corporation’s intentions and process.
“I say to them good luck in whatever is to come next. It will be an interesting year,” Gitlin said.