This time, it was personal.
Since Donald Trump was inaugurated in January, University President Peter Salovey has taken a cautious approach in responding to the policies of the new administration, avoiding direct criticism of the president even in the wake of controversial episodes like the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia or the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris climate treaty.
But last week — motivated by concern for Yale students and the lessons of his own family history — Salovey adopted a more aggressive posture.
After Trump announced plans on Tuesday to roll back the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, Salovey delivered a forceful response in a campuswide email, calling the decision “deeply disappointing” and vowing to defend Yale’s undocumented students. The email came on the heels of a strongly worded letter he sent to the White House last week — his first direct outreach to the president — urging Trump to defend the program.
“As the grandson of immigrants who came to the United States with dreams of a better life, I take this issue personally,” Salovey wrote, shortly after Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the rollback of DACA. “We will not come together as a country if we play on fears or exploit the issue of immigration for political advantage.”
At a rally on Cross Campus on Tuesday evening, students expressed gratitude for Salovey’s aggressive response to the rollback of DACA, an Obama-era program that protects from deportation undocumented immigrants, known as Dreamers, who arrived in the U.S. as children.
The email “shows the utmost support for DACA,” said Bessie Bauman ’21, as she marched in a crowd of more than a thousand protesters last week.
Salovey told the News he would have liked to attend the DACA rally, but he was busy hosting guests of the university, including Chief of Naval Operations John Richardson, who was on campus for the official dedication of Grace Hopper College.
After the U.S. withdrew from the international climate treaty in June, Salovey released a statement pledging to combat climate change by cutting emissions and promoting a clean-energy economy. But in that statement — as well as in an email about the violence in Charlottesville — he avoided directly criticizing Trump.
Salovey’s cautious statements on Trump are likely the product of “careful judgments that presidents have to make all the time,” said Judith McLaughlin, an expert on university presidents at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
“They’re speaking on behalf of the institution. As much as they want to speak as individuals, they really can’t,” McLaughlin said. “And that’s a burden for people sometimes.”
The immigration debate has always resonated deeply with Salovey. In his first first-year address as president of Yale, Salovey told the story of his immigrant grandparents’ journey from Warsaw, Poland and Jerusalem to a small apartment in the Bronx.
“The current situation feels quite analogous to my family’s history,” Salovey said in an interview last week. “Our DACA-protected students were brought here as young children by their parents for essentially the same reason — families looking for opportunity.”
It remains unclear whether Salovey will follow up his email with concrete lobbying efforts. Trump has given Congress six months to produce a legislative alternative to DACA before the program is entirely phased out. Salovey said he plans to write to Connecticut’s congressional delegation to express his support for “a clear path to citizenship for Dreamers.”
But he does not have a trip to Washington scheduled in the near future. During his last trip to the Capitol in April, Salovey met with Yale alumni in Congress, including Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole GRD ’74, a Republican, to discuss federal funding for scientific research.
By contrast, Harvard President Drew Faust has made four lobbying visits to Washington in 2017 and met with high-profile politicians like Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Vice President Mike Pence. Earlier this year, a Harvard spokesman told the Crimson that Harvard will spend more money on lobbying in the coming months to push back against Trump policies that hurt universities.
Salovey said he would not rule out spending more this year on lobbying. But he noted that he has not discussed the question with Richard Jacob, the associate vice president for federal and state relations.
Jacob did not respond to a request for comment. Over the last five years, Yale has spent between $430,000 to $640,000 on lobbying, according to the public records on OpenSecrets.org. Most recently, the University spent $500,000 on lobbying activities in 2016.
As a charitable 501(c)(3) organization, Yale is not permitted to interfere in elections or spend more than $1 million per year on lobbying.
However, that spending limit applies only to legislative affairs, said Lloyd Mayer, an expert in nonprofit law who teaches at the University of Notre Dame. That means Yale has significant legal freedom to advocate against policies enacted by the executive branch.
“On attempts to influence the actions of the executive branch, Yale’s free to do as much as it wants as long as it falls under its educational mission,” Mayer said. “And given the broad range of things Yale does, it’s hard to imagine what would be out of bounds.”
But the legal constraints on nonprofit organizations are probably not the only factor at play in Yale’s decisions, said Erynn Beaton, a nonprofit expert at Ohio State University.
“Another consideration is you have a lot of stakeholders in a university and taking a political stance can be a problem for working to the benefit of multiple stakeholders,” Beaton said.
Yale declined to disclose how many students at the University are covered by DACA.
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