Every year, the University tells candidates in the Yale Corporation’s Alumni Fellow Election that they should not campaign for the position. But this year, for the first time, the University has published that controversial rule in writing, in an effort to give it a more official status.
Last spring, more than 450 alumni signed a petition calling on the two candidates, Roger Lee ’94 and Kate Walsh ’77 SPH ’79, to participate in a free speech forum hosted by the William F. Buckley, Jr. Program. The News also invited Lee and Walsh for endorsement interviews — and both candidates initially accepted. But before the interviews could take place, University Secretary and Vice President for Student Life Kimberly Goff-Crews told Lee and Walsh to cancel the meetings, citing a University policy against campaigning in the alumni fellow election.
The rule was not recorded in the University Charter, the Corporation Bylaws or the Miscellaneous Regulations — and it was heavily criticized by student activists. This year, Goff-Crews said, the University decided to spell the policy out “to avoid further confusion.”
“The policy against campaigning was in practice but not formally recorded, so to avoid further confusion, we decided to incorporate that in written form,” Goff-Crews said. “The candidates have always been informed of the policy when the Association of Yale Alumni nominate them. The policy was enacted to ensure that the alumni fellow nominees will be stewards for the entire University.”
The candidates in the fellow election, who are usually nominated by the Association of Yale Alumni, compete to become one of the Corporation’s six alumni fellows, for a six-year term. Over the years, the election has mostly flown under the radar, but, in light of the ongoing debate on the transparency and accessibility of Yale’s highest governing body, the 2017 election drew scrutiny from students and alumni.
Last year, many alumni criticized the University for asking them to vote based solely on 500-word biographical blurbs about candidates, which do not say anything about where they stand on specific University issues.
“Yale’s refusal to let candidates state opinions about the University is part of its attempt to depoliticize the role of the Corporation and is a disappointing departure from its rhetoric of transparency,” said Ben Levin ’20, a member of Fossil Free Yale, which has long advocated for greater Corporation transparency. Still, Yale maintains that campaigning would damage the election process.
“We believe electioneering would require candidates to adopt particular points of view or agendas for the institution and that could be detrimental to their ability to serve on behalf of all campus constituencies,” Goff-Crews said. “Yale includes the bios of alumni fellow nominees on the ballot to show their professional experience and volunteer work on behalf of Yale.”
The campaigning policy — which is now formally recorded on the Alumni Fellow Election website — said “it has been a long-standing practice that alumni fellow candidates do not campaign for the position and stand for election solely based on the information included in the official election materials.”
The website explains that the policy is in place because some candidates do not desire or cannot commit to any campaigning activity and because it ensures the fellows will be elected “based on their ability to bring perspective and expertise to achieving the university’s long-term strategic goals — and not based on a specific issue or representation of a particular constituency or viewpoint.”
“It’s concerning that administrators believe enabling alumni to cast an informed ballot would detract from the university’s long-term strategic goals,” said Buckley Program Executive Director Lauren Noble ’11, who started last year’s petition. “Free speech is a critical issue on college campuses today. Why should alumni vote for candidates they know nothing about on any of the issues that matter? Administrators are presenting a false choice between a political slugfest and no information.”
Noble added that many candidates in the past have expressed their views on a range of important subjects and that the University’s “muzzling of the candidates” is “new and patronizing.”
Indeed, in some previous alumni fellow elections, candidates have spoken publicly about their views on major problems at the University. For instance, in 1972, the University solicited campaign statements from the Alumni Fellow candidates for the first time, according to an April 1972 News article, with one of the candidates, William Jones III ’64, even expressing his concern that the Corporation was “much too isolated from the University.”
Furthermore, some candidates who were not nominated by the AYA, including William F. Buckley himself in 1968, have vigorously campaigned, former University Secretary Sam Chauncey ’57 told the News last spring.
And in 2002, after the election between AYA nominee Maya Lin ’81 ARC ’86 and Rev. W. David Lee DIV ’93 — who entered the race through a petition drive and ran a vigorous campaign, giving media interviews and soliciting donations and endorsements — the trustees said that no restrictions would be placed on campaigning for the position. The decision came after then-Senior Fellow Kurt Schmoke ’71 requested alumni feedback on whether to change the election policies, with the majority of the 1,000 alumni respondents advising against restrictions.
This year’s Alumni Fellow election will start in early April and run through May 20.
Anastasiia Posnova | firstname.lastname@example.org