The Yale Corporation unveiled a series of initiatives on Monday designed to make the group more transparent and accessible, from regular meetings with campus organizations to a new website explaining the Corporation’s responsibilities.
The new initiatives, which come in the wake of months of student demands for greater transparency from the Corporation, are designed to educate the community about how the body functions and give the campus a greater voice in administrative decisions.
The website provides short biographies of the Corporation’s members as well as a schedule of its meeting dates, which were previously kept secret. And starting immediately, Yale will informally change the Corporation’s title to the Board of Trustees in the hope of dispelling the common misperception that its members — volunteers who will now be known as “trustees” rather than “fellows” — have a financial stake in the University. The body’s official legal title will remain the Yale Corporation.
In addition, the Corporation will hold listening sessions with various University groups in the leadup to its five annual meetings, typically held in February, April, June, October and December. Before the next meeting on April 8, three trustees are scheduled to meet with a group of female graduate and professional students, and Senior Trustee Donna Dubinsky ’77 plans to give an interview to the Graduate Student Assembly’s new podcast.
“Any one of [the initiatives] alone isn’t earth-shattering, but the idea, taken all together, is that they’re a clear move in the direction of more accessibility for the Corporation, more understanding of the Corporation and more communication with the Corporation,” Dubinsky said. “As a group, they’re a really positive step.”
But the initiatives unveiled on Monday are also notable for several controversial policies that will remain unchanged. For years, Yale undergraduates have criticized the Corporation for refusing to publicize its agenda before each meeting and sealing the meeting minutes for 50 years. According to Dubinsky, there are no plans to alter those long-standing policies, although University President Peter Salovey will now relay a selection of meeting highlights to the local press after each session.
“We thought about it, but in the end, we decided that it is really critical that the Corporation can operate in confidentiality when it needs to and that they can have candor in the boardroom,” Dubinsky said. “It is fundamental to the smooth functioning of the Corporation that trustees can speak freely and know they can say what’s on their mind.”
Not all the initiatives are aimed at students. Starting in September, a different trustee will be paired each year with the dean of every Yale school and the dean of Yale College as part of a system designed to familiarize the Corporation with the University’s various academic units. And on top of that initiative, the University will prepare a monthly report for the trustees highlighting recent scholarship by Yale faculty members.
Over the years, the Corporation has faced criticism from student activist groups like Fossil Free Yale and Next Yale. But student frustration came to a head last spring, when the Corporation elected to keep the name of Calhoun College and announced that one of the two new colleges on Prospect Street would be named after Benjamin Franklin.
“There’s been some very fair criticism that we are not as open as we could be, and I think that’s what we’re responding to,” Dubinsky said.
That response began last fall, when the Corporation met with 30 undergraduates over breakfast at Mory’s to discuss building names, among other topics. The Corporation also spoke with a group of graduate and professional students at its meeting in December, before beginning private discussions about the initiatives unveiled on Monday.
Nathan Lobel ’17, the policy coordinator for Fossil Free Yale, said that while the accessibility initiatives are a positive step for the Corporation, none of the changes announced on Monday will make the trustees truly accountable to students.
“It’s always heartening to see that the Corporation is taking steps in the direction of greater openness and transparency, but I’m concerned that they think their biggest problem is their name,” Lobel said. “However well-intentioned they might be, they are completely unaccountable to the people [whom] their decision is impacting.”
Lobel added that the Corporation should address the accountability issue by releasing its agenda and minutes, and inviting Yale students, faculty and staff members to meetings.
Over the decades, the Corporation has not always faced such criticism from students. In the 1970s and ’80s, trustees would sleep in the residential colleges the night before a meeting and then speak to undergraduates over breakfast the following morning, according to former University Secretary John Wilkinson ’60 GRD ’63, who served in the position under former University presidents A. Bartlett Giamatti and Benno Schmidt.
“During my seven years as secretary of the University, I never heard anyone say that the Corporation was not accessible,” Wilkinson said.
But times have changed. In February 2016, members of Fossil Free Yale gathered outside Woodbridge Hall with four stuffed mannequin suits propped up on chairs — a striking visual demonstration meant to evoke faceless members of the Corporation.
Still, despite those widespread complaints, many undergraduates remain unfamiliar with even the most basic, publicly available information about the Corporation, whose members are all prominent Yale alumni with backgrounds in academia, business and other fields. A News survey distributed in January found that 70 percent of students were unable to name a single Corporation member, aside from Salovey.
Dubinsky said she hopes that the new website and the name change will become less suspicious of Yale’s highest governing body.
“When students hear ‘the Corporation,’ they really develop mistaken impressions about it that we can really improve with a different name,” she said. “They have a very limited knowledge, and then when they hear that, they’re drawing the wrong conclusion.”
This post was updated to reflect the version that ran in print on March 28.