The task of the Yale Corporation — now restyled as a Board of Trustees — is daunting. Its role may, without exaggeration, compare to running a sovereign state. But not of the modern, democratic sort: Think enlightened oligarchy or Prussian despotism. The Corporation must preserve harmony among its stakeholders, past, present and future — but without the prestige of democratic legitimacy. So far, total secrecy has been the method of choice for enabling frank discussion and avoiding scrutiny. But not only does this backfire by worsening the image of the Corporation, it also evades necessary argument about whose interests we should prioritize at the University.
The tension between the Corporation and the Yale community is the same tension between democracy and expertise. The Corporation must both achieve desired results and appease the community. Vastly different stakeholders pit popular impulses against expert opinion. What is a good policy for Yale when Yale comprises discrete groups with discrete interests?
Yale is, among other things, a college of more than five thousand undergraduates; a university of close to six thousand graduate students and four thousand faculty; a community with hundreds of thousands of alumni of both the Wall Street and Grove Street Cemetery variety; a vast endowment; and an army of workers, cleaners, electricians, librarians. There is very little that connects one group to another, other than a vague idea of the Greater Good of Yale.
Opacity is thus a diplomatic balancing act. On the surface, this makes sense for the Corporation. Sealing the deliberation minutes — a policy the Corporation currently holds — achieves two objectives: It shields fellows from personal scrutiny, but also levels stakeholders by placing them in a position of darkness. Since no group knows how a decision came about — no one knows how tradeoffs were made between the claims of undergraduates, alumni, donors and faculty — it is difficult to challenge the specifics of decisions. The Corporation can, in theory, claim to represent each group equally while retaining the flexibility to favor one over another.
But opacity actually inflames public opinion, because each constituency becomes suspicious over how the process pans out. Opacity ostensibly creates a black box, but really creates a mirror of unverifiable fears, inklings and hunches. Consider the initial decision to not rename Calhoun. A cross-section of campus believed that the Corporation heeded the interests of alumni and donors over current students. But those punting for Calhoun weren’t ecstatic either: They thought the Corporation had failed to decisively come down in favor of the name, and had disregarded the voices of alumni in favor of 18-year-old students. Each was jealous of the other — and the Corporation suffered major legitimacy crises as a result of its secrecy.
But more than harming the Corporation’s image, sealed minutes and closed meetings preclude debate over the relative importance of each group’s interests, unwisely leaving the calculus to the discretion of trustees. The Yale community needs to judge the wisdom of its leaders, and understand their motives in important decisions. Each trustee holds a unique view of Yale’s future. One trustee sees good alumni relations as her telos. Another might think that is absurd, and that the current student body is all that matters. None of these positions are wrong per se, but they simply represent the whim of trustees in the absence of public disclosure. Without transparency about their deliberations, we cannot hold trustees — including the six elected alumni fellows — to account.
Recently announced measures will do little to improve transparency. Releasing meeting dates is pointless if we are not in the room — physically or vicariously — when said meetings are held. Soliciting student input is similarly pointless if students do not know how their views directly affect decisions.
Publicly stated justifications are the lifeblood of accountable decision-making. A ladder of mechanisms could achieve this, from the lowest rung of mandatory responses to well-circulated petitions, to the immediate release of all meeting minutes.
The Corporation should have to defend its decisions to the wider Yale community. And the community — while respecting the proper place of the Corporation — should steer the body toward comprehensive and democratic decisions.
Adam Krok is a sophomore in Saybrook College. His columns run on alternate Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .