Courtesy of Maggie Thomas

Maggie Thomas FES ’15 and Victor Ashe ’67 are running against one another for a seat on the Yale Corporation, but on a Tuesday panel, they focused on their shared goal: increased transparency and accessibility for the Corporation’s election process. 

The Yale Club of Chicago hosted a virtual panel discussion with Thomas and Ashe — two petition candidates running for the Corporation’s alumni fellow position.  

The Yale Corporation, the University’s principal governing body, holds elections once a year to select an alumni fellow, filling one of six positions that become vacant after staggered six year terms. The ballot can also include candidates nominated by the Yale Alumni Association committee, as well as candidates who successfully petitioned. Individuals in the latter group must receive signatures from three percent or more of the eligible voting population. As of Sept. 8, both Thomas and Ashe claim to have reached that threshold, which this year sits at 4,394 signatures.

“As active and engaged alumni, we hope that the event will give attendees an insight into Yale Corporation alumni elections,” wrote event organizers Liz Adams ’78 and David Applegate ’75 in an email to the News, “as well as the opportunity to hear from the two petition candidates, Maggie Thomas and Victor Ashe.”

The candidates answered questions from an audience of about 25 Zoom attendees as well as the panel’s moderator Alexandra Newman ’05, president of the Yale Club of Chicago.

Thomas, who previously worked on both the Washington Governor Jay Inslee and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren presidential campaigns, is running as a part of Yale Forward, an organization formed by alumni concerned with Yale’s response to the climate crisis. She emphasized that although her platform stresses the need for Yale to be a leader in climate action, she also prioritizes inclusive governance and endowment justice. 

Ashe, who was previously the Mayor of Knoxville, TN and a U.S. Ambassador to Poland, is running a campaign that calls for broad internal changes to the Yale Corporation, including more transparency. Both he and Thomas agreed that the Corporation must adjust its election process and government structure.  

Ashe pointed out that he and Thomas, as petition candidates, have garnered the support of nearly 11,000 alumni, which he said was close to 60 percent of the average alumni turnout for trustee elections. 

“11,000 alumni who want change,” Ashe said, adding that the Yale Corporation “ought to ask themselves what’s going on and why.”

Both candidates also called for an end to the Board of Trustees policy of sealing meeting minutes for 50 years. For her part, Thomas said that her unsuccessful attempts to access records from 50 years ago make her question whether the Corporation permanently locks away materials, despite their professed standards. Both candidates also agreed that the threshold for signatures for a petition candidate should be lowered. 

Thomas summarized all of these changes under her platform tier of inclusive governance, adding that barriers such as these explain why so few petition candidates run and even fewer win. Before Ashe and Thomas, an alum successfully petitioned onto the ballot 18 years ago and the last such candidate to eventually win a spot on the Yale Corporation was William Horowitz ’29 in 1965.

After the event, Thomas added in an email to The News that both she and Ashe hope to reduce the financial barriers that restrict many individuals from funding campaigns.

“To gather this many signatures online, as we have done, or by direct mail as Victor has done, is a full time job,” she wrote. “Reducing the signature requirement would be one way to remove the influence of money in this election and dramatically broaden the type of candidate who can appear on the ballot.”

Unlike petition candidates, the Yale-nominated candidates typically do not campaign and rely on Yale to spread information about their ideas to alumni. Still, both Thomas and Ashe said they feel the need to actively campaign for the election, a process Ashe thinks may put his Yale-nominated opponents at a disadvantage.

Both campaigns plan to continue attending panels like the Tuesday event at the Yale Club of Chicago with the hope of talking to as many eligible alumni as possible.

The voting deadline for all eligible alumni for the 2020 election was Sunday, May 17 at 11:59 p.m. ET.

Madison Hahamy | madison.hahamy@yale.edu

Correction, Sept. 17: An earlier version of this article misattributed Ashe’s quote about 11,000 alumni who want change to Thomas. It was unclear about which election the voting deadline pertained to. The article has been updated to reflect this information.