Fourteen members of the Yale Corporation met with students over breakfast at Mory’s Friday morning as part of a new initiative to increase the visibility of the Corporation on campus and better include undergraduates in administrative decisions.
The meeting marked one of a few times since the 1980s — when the trustees met more regularly with undergraduates — that a group of students sat face to face with the entire Corporation. But while the Corporation continues to promise greater transparency and openness in its decision making, students who attended the breakfast — a combination of undergraduates and young alumni selected by the Yale College Dean’s Office — told the News they are skeptical that the meeting will lead to substantive change on issues like financial-aid reform and naming.
“I wasn’t sure if our conversations went anywhere,” said Jinchen Zou ’18, one of the attendees. “The effort that they’re making to reach out is genuine, but I don’t know what will come out of it.”
Last year, as racially charged protests swept campus, many students complained that the Corporation — the University’s governing board and top policy-making body — was deaf to student concerns and overly secretive in its decision to keep the name of Calhoun College.
Over the next few months the Corporation hopes to change that perception by holding informal meetings between individual trustees and students. On Thursday, Senior Fellow Donna Dubinsky ’77 held the first of those meetings over lunch in Jonathan Edwards College. Unlike the Mory’s breakfast, the Jonathan Edwards lunch was open to all students.
At the hourlong breakfast at Mory’s — which fell during the Corporation’s annual September retreat, usually devoted to strategic and business issues — all 16 trustees, along with University President Peter Salovey, met with students in small groups to better understand the experiences of Yale undergraduates.
“I will say I think at the end of the session, Yale Corporation members have a more sophisticated understanding of the complexity of student life … [and] what diversity and inclusion actually mean, and what, in 2016, creates stress for students,” said Salovey, who presides over Corporation meetings.
Of the issues students discussed, Salovey said he was particularly struck by hearing students’ anxieties about postgraduate life and by their desire to have closer relationships with faculty members.
Dubinsky said one of the themes emphasized throughout the meeting was how socioeconomic status affects the Yale College experience. Both Dubinsky and Salovey said issues of race and transparency were not at the heart of Friday’s discussion.
“The overall theme was definitely inclusion,” Dubinsky said. “How do we make Yale an inclusive place? How do we make Yale a place that everybody who comes can benefit from? That was definitely the top line, and that’s what spurred the whole discussion, was realizing that people told us last year that they didn’t feel included at Yale.”
In the spring, students criticized the Corporation for announcing several highly anticipated naming decisions during the final week of classes. Earlier this month, the Corporation attracted fresh scrutiny after the News reported that trustees committed to the name of Benjamin Franklin College in 2013 but waited roughly three years to announce the name.
But despite the Corporation’s attempt to bridge the gap between Yale’s top decision-makers and the student body, those students who attended the breakfast said trustees should do even more to win back the trust of undergraduates.
Nia Jones ’19 said she left the breakfast impressed by the attentiveness of Corporation members but also surprised by how little the trustees knew about undergraduate life. Jones said one Corporation member was shocked that most students must vacate their dorms within a day after final exams end. Jones added that she was frustrated students had only an hour to talk to the Corporation about issues like income inequality and sexual harassment policy.
At the end of the breakfast, Jones said, she “just listed a bunch of things that we should’ve spent more time on.”
Zou told the News that although the Corporation members seemed genuinely interested in undergraduate opinions, students had few opportunities to ask their own questions during the meeting.
“We didn’t really get an opportunity to ask them questions, which I wish there was an opportunity to do kind of the reverse strategy,” Zou said. “It felt a little more like [the Corporation members] were trying to get in touch with their undergraduate selves.”
Steph Barker ’19 said she was “skeptical but hopeful” that the trustees will act on the concerns discussed during the meeting. She added the breakfast might have dispelled at least some of the mystery that seemed to hang over the Corporation during last year’s naming debate.
“This definitely was one way of making that cloud evaporate,” Barker said. “But in other ways, it was just a perpetuation of that. I mean, breakfast at Mory’s with 30 selected students? It’s not really the same as engaging with the whole community.”
Correction, Oct. 3: A previous version of this article stated that 16 fellows of the Yale Corporation met with students. In fact, two were absent due to other conflicts.