Former United States Ambassador to Poland Victor Ashe ’67 will run for a seat on the Yale Corporation, a position he hopes would allow him to increase transparency between the notoriously closed body and the broader Yale community.
Ashe’s campaign platform emphasizes reforming the Corporation election process while taking into account alumni voices — changes which would address the mysterious nature of the Corporation and its activities. The Corporation consists of the University president and 16 members, six of whom are alumni fellows elected yearly by Yale grads to serve for a six-year term. While a committee of faculty, administrators and alumni typically put University-approved candidates forward for a yearly election of alumni fellows, Corporation hopefuls can also appear on the ballot as petition candidates if they collect around 4,200 signatures from alumni.
“Yale University stands at the peak of our higher education system in America,” Ashe told the News in an interview. “I mean, it’s totally one of the top universities, not just in America, but in the world — and [one] power of a university is promoting a free and open discussion of issues. Why would that not apply with a corporation as well as to a public policy issue?”
A former editor for the News, Ashe has dedicated much of his life to public service in his home state of Tennessee. He served as mayor of Knoxville for 16 years and worked for 15 years as a state legislator. He moved to the federal government in 2004, serving as the U.S. Ambassador to Poland under former U.S. Presidents George W. Bush ’68 and Barack Obama until 2009.
Ashe and multiple other alumni told the News that the candidates chosen by the University committee are typically presented to alumni with only a picture and a short biography. According to Ashe, these descriptions say nothing about the candidates’ views, and in past years, attempts by the News to interview these candidates have been blocked.
As a result, Ashe said, increasing transparency is the cornerstone of his campaign.
“Like many, I often have no idea for whom to vote as I do not know what any candidate would want to do if elected to the Yale Corporation,” Ashe wrote on his campaign website. “All appear to be wonderful, upstanding citizens who have been successful in their chosen fields. However, I would like to have some insight into what their goals are as a Yale Corporation member. What do they consider to be the major issues facing Yale?”
According to former University Secretary Sam Chauncey ’57, the last petition candidate to win a seat on the Corporation was Chairman of the Connecticut State Board of Education William Horowitz ’29 in 1965. Though the headlines at the time focused on Horowitz’s religion — he was the first non-Protestant trustee — his win represents a rare exception for the Corporation, which has seen the unsuccessful campaigns of other notable alumni such as William F. Buckley Jr. ’50 and the Rev. W. David Lee DIV ’93 in subsequent decades.
In line with his goals for openness, Ashe hopes to relax expectations for petition candidates. He pointed out a recent change regarding petition candidates, which now require individuals declare their intent 14 months before the actual election — this year, for example, the deadline for the May 2021 election was March 15. On his website, Ashe noted that this rule means a candidate for the Yale Corporation must give more advance notice than someone running for president of the United States.
In contrast, the Corporation announces the candidates it selects via committee just a few months prior to the election.
“As a result, by the time we hear who it is that the administration would prefer to see on the Yale Corporation, the time to dissent is too late, having expired a year earlier,” Ashe’s website reads. “This presents a serious governance issue.”
Ashe also told the News that in Tennessee, hopefuls for public office need only collect 25 signatures to make it onto a ballot — in a state of around 7 million people.
According to Associate Vice President for Institutional Affairs Martha Schall, the alumni fellow election process is an “interesting and fairly technical affair.” She said two documents — the University’s charter and the far more detailed Miscellaneous Regulations of the University — guide the process. Ever since the signature-gathering process moved online from a paper format two years ago, Schall said, there has been a “fair amount of confusion” over the details — therefore leading to the updated regulations. In an email to the News, Schall said the Corporation updated the Miscellaneous Regulations of the University at their December 2019 meeting to make the process “clearer and smoother” for those who wish to petition to be on the alumni fellow ballot.
Schall added that the signature process now involves a third-party online vendor, so the University needs more time — about two months — to organize signature-gathering logistics and verification.
“With this early notification, we have the time needed to be ready to support [petitioners’] signature-gathering process from the first moment when they can start their effort on Commencement Day,” Schall wrote.
As of April 7, the Corp has yet to announce the candidates for the May 2020 election. According to Chauncey, the Corp announced the candidates for last year’s election on April 11, 2019.
Two alumni have attempted in the past two years: Georgetown Law professor Nicholas Rosenkranz ’92 LAW ’99 and journalist and former campus conservative James Kirchick ’06. Both Rosenkranz and Kirchick failed to gather the required number of signatures to be listed on the ballot.
The Yale Corporation also includes two ex officio members: the governor and lieutenant governor of Connecticut.
Valerie Pavilonis | firstname.lastname@example.org