Hoping to champion environmental causes, Maggie Thomas FES ’15 — former climate policy advisor for Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign — plans to run for a spot on the Yale Corporation.
Thomas spent the beginning of 2020 on board the senator’s campaign team, but when the candidate suspended her bid, Thomas refocused her efforts on her own candidacy. She will attempt to run for a coveted spot as one of the Corp’s six alumni fellows, elected yearly by Yale grads to serve a six-year term. If she qualifies for the 2021 ballot as she hopes, Thomas would be one of 17 total members on the Yale Corporation.
In an interview with the News, Thomas emphasized climate-conscious investing as the cornerstone of her campaign.
“I really feel like the University is at an inflection point,” Thomas said. “Yale has this opportunity to be a leader in a global transition to a 100 percent clean energy economy, and whether it be world-class education and research or rapidly building a zero-emissions campus or implementing a first-of-its-kind ethical investment strategy, I feel very strongly that Yale can continue to show how a world-class university can lead in our fight against climate change.”
A committee of faculty, administrators and alumni typically nominate candidates who the University then approves to run for an open spot each year, but Corporation hopefuls who do not secure a nomination can alternatively collect around 4,300 signatures from interested alumni to appear on the ballot. In accordance with recently updated regulations, potential petition candidates must declare their interest 14 months in advance of the actual election, meaning that Thomas aims to make it onto the 2021 ballot.
According to Thomas, her campaign will base specific policy recommendations on three main points: climate action, endowment justice and inclusive governance. Part of the climate action pillar involves “complete and swift divestment” from fossil fuels with regard to all University assets, she said.
Thomas’ climate-conscious campaign was launched by Yale Forward, a coalition of students and alumni “seeking to address both the symptoms and the causes of Yale’s insufficient response to the climate crisis,” according to their website.
Yale Forward Managing Director Scott Gigante GRD ’23 said the protest at last year’s Yale-Harvard game was a catalyst for promoting climate-concerned candidates. Nathán Goldberg — co-founder of the peer organization Harvard Forward — echoed Gigante.
“There’s a lot of grassroots momentum that’s come from the action at the Harvard-Yale game last year … A lot of people reaching out to the coalition as alumni and saying, ‘Hey, what can we do?’” Gigante said. “There’s a lot of energy around organizing and participating in [what] a lot of alumni see as a cause worth fighting for.”
Thomas also said her campaign will build from work that student activists have already accomplished. In an email statement to the News, Endowment Justice Coalition organizer Nora Heaphy ’21 wrote that she sees Thomas’ campaign as part of “an unprecedented wave of grassroots organizing” from alumni inspired by the protest at the Game.
“We’re incredibly excited about the possibility of electing a young Yale alum to the Corporation who will advocate for endowment justice and represent the vast majority of Yale students in supporting fossil fuel divestment and cancelling Puerto Rico’s debt,” Heaphy wrote.
While Thomas told the News in an email that “the fight for economic justice” in Puerto Rico is intertwined with a need for climate and environmental justice, Yale Forward’s website does not have any particular policy points that deal with Puerto Rican debt.
Heaphy also added that Thomas’ proposed bid fits into the larger effort by campus climate groups that advocate for divestment. Other schools such as Oxford University have recently pledged to divest, Heaphy wrote, and she hopes that having a climate-focused Corporation member could be a first step in pushing Yale to follow peer institutions, possibly without the need for students to enter the streets and protest.
After graduating from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, Thomas worked for billionaire and ex-presidential candidate Tom Steyer ’79 at the nonprofit NextGen America. She then secured a position as a deputy climate director for Washington Gov. Jay Inslee before joining Warren’s campaign team. As an official within the campaign, Thomas said, she knew that Warren’s run was ending before the candidate announced it publicly. She was “staring down the barrel of unemployment” when Goldberg messaged her on LinkedIn with a proposal from Yale Forward to run as a petition candidate.
Despite the endorsements of prominent members of the Yale community — such as former FES Dean Gus Speth ’64 LAW ’69 — Thomas must still collect 4,394 signatures to secure a spot on the ballot.
Though this process comes during the coronavirus pandemic, Thomas does not expect to be hindered much by the virus. All Yale Corporation petition candidates collect signatures digitally regardless, and she plans on using her campaign website and phone calls to reach potential supporters.
In addition to her focus on climate, Thomas’ age also distinguishes her campaign. She attended Trinity College in Hartford from 2006 to 2010 and graduated from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies in 2015, making her markedly younger than most members of the Yale Corporation.
“There often is a disconnect between the Corporation and one of the University’s most important assets, which is its students,” Thomas said. “And it leads to decisions that are not always reflective of the current zeitgeist of the student body and of young alumni.”
Per University regulations, undergraduates are not permitted to vote in alumni fellow elections until five years after they graduate. In questioning this policy, Thomas noted that the University does not wait until five years after an undergraduate’s commencement to begin soliciting donations.
Thomas also said she will work to promote transparency between the Corp and the rest of the Yale community — a goal she shares with fellow Corp candidate Victor Ashe ’67. In an interview with the News, Ashe criticized the lack of information the Corp provides about University-approved candidates. Yale typically presents these candidates to alumni with only a short biography and a picture, according to Ashe and other alumni interviewed by the News.
Ashe and Thomas also noted the mystery surrounding Corporation meetings and their proceedings. Thomas cited one specific regulation that requires all Corporation minutes be sealed until 50 years after that particular meeting.
“We should be looking forward to seeing those 1970 meeting minutes any day now,” Thomas said. “We need to bring Yale and the governance of the board a bit more into the 21st century.”
As of Sept. 27, Yale’s endowment was valued at $30.3 billion, up from $29.4 billion the year prior.
Valerie Pavilonis | firstname.lastname@example.org