Courtesy of Aydin Akyol

On Oct. 1, the deadline for Yale Corporation petition candidates to gather signatures passed, capping off more than six months and $40,000 spent on the two current campaigns.

The candidates, Maggie Thomas ENV ’15 and Victor Ashe ’67, had to declare their intent to run for the Yale Corporation — the University’s principal governing body — in March of this year. Over the next six months, they each worked toward collecting the 4,394 required alumni signatures to qualify for the Corporation’s ballot. And while both candidates reached the threshold weeks ago, they have continued to campaign: Ashe estimates he has amassed around 7,000 signatures, while Thomas reported 4,642 as of Sept. 27.

The two will hear whether they have officially qualified for the ballot sometime in October, Thomas said, when Election Services Corporation, the third-party organization tasked with overseeing the election, verifies that there aren’t any duplicate or invalid signatures.

“The Corporation does have a lot of power and influence,” Alexandra Newman ’05, president of the Yale Club of Chicago and an engaged alum, told the News. “They oversee the appointment of the Yale president, they have influence over the endowment and hiring decisions.”

Candidates can get on the ballot for the Corporation’s May 2021 election in one of two ways, either collecting the requisite signatures or by being nominated and approved by the Alumni Fellow Nominating Committee. The processes play out in stark contrasts, with petition candidates running political ads and speaking at forums — similar to candidates running for public political office — and the nominated candidates adhering to a tradition of not campaigning or publicly sharing their views.

The two petition candidates have already outlined their positions, which differ widely on key issues, funding sources and outreach efforts.

Thomas, a former climate policy advisor for Senator Elizabeth Warren and Washington Governor Jay Inslee, is running on a platform of ethical investing, climate activism and improving relations between Yale and New Haven. Thomas has outlined a detailed plan to divest from fossil fuels and reinvest $157 million of Yale’s endowment into projects that benefit New Haven.

Additionally, Thomas called for reform to the Yale Police Department, including disarming officers and examining the department’s budget and use of force.

Both candidates are promoting transparency within both the election process and the Corporation’s proceedings. But Ashe has centered his campaign on the issue.

Ashe, the former mayor of Knoxville, Tennessee and former United States ambassador to Poland, spotlighted the issue of the Corporation’s meeting minutes being kept confidential for 50 years.

“I haven’t run into anyone who can offer a rational justification for a half century embargo,” Ashe said. “I mean, this isn’t the CIA or secret Korean War strategies.”

Additionally, Ashe identified free speech — how it is being “honored and handled” — and this year’s 3.9 percent tuition increase as areas of chief focus for his campaign.

He objected to the longstanding tradition that the nominated Corporation candidates do not reveal their positions on any of the key challenges the University is confronting. 

E.J. Crawford, Yale Alumni Association senior director of communications and marketing, explained that the long-standing tradition of the alumni fellow candidate not campaigning stems from the fear that qualified candidates would not accept a nomination if they were expected to launch a campaign. Additionally, he said, the position is not a political one. 

“Alumni fellows are going to be called upon to make decisions in the best interest of the university, not to represent a political ideology,” Crawford said.

Newman, who moderated a forum between Ashe and Thomas at the Yale Club of Chicago, said that the club did not endorse a specific candidate, but wanted to educate and engage alumni on the petition process as a whole. Choosing between the alumni fellow candidates who do not campaign feels like a “coin toss,” she said.

According to the Yale Alumni Association website, this practice helps ensure that trustees are not bound to particular factions or ideologies and helps avert an “arms race” to fund campaigns. But the petition candidates have already drawn lines in the sand and financed two expensive campaigns.

Ashe’s candidacy is funded by the Buckley Program, his own earnings and private individuals who have sent checks, said Harry Levitt ’71, who is active in Ashe’s campaign. In recent years, the Buckley Program — an organization promoting intellectual diversity at Yale and largely perceived as a conservative group in the style of its namesake — has provided financial backing for two petition candidates who had ultimately unsuccessful runs.

By contrast, Thomas is the candidate representing Yale Forward, a coalition of students and alumni focused on climate issues. Her candidacy is fueled by alumni donations and grassroots organizing efforts. In the coming months, she plans to recruit a class champion: a member of each graduating class that will keep alumni engaged in her candidacy in the months leading up to the election. Additionally, Thomas has hired three paid interns.

According to the two candidates, getting onto the ballot doesn’t come easy or cheap. For Thomas and her campaign manager, Scott Gigante GRD ’23, it is a full-time job — and the two have other full-time jobs as well, Thomas added.

“You don’t reach 4,394 signatures for free,” Thomas said. “And it is a Herculean effort.”

A full-page advertisement in the Yale Alumni Magazine comes to $4,500, Ashe said. The Buckley Program sponsored one for Ashe’s candidacy, while Yale Forward sponsored one for Thomas’. The half-page advertisement Ashe submitted for a coming issue, which he paid for out of his own pocket, cost $2,250.

Additionally, Ashe has spent his campaign money mailing letters to alumni with an included pre-stamped return envelope.

Newman said she has received three letters written by Ashe that included his cell phone number and she has also received mailers from the Buckley Program that endorsed Ashe’s candidacy. Additionally, Newman has seen Facebook advertisements for each candidate and has received text messages and emails from Thomas’ campaign.

According to Levitt, Ashe has sent out about 30,000 letters. Each letter costs about a dollar to both mail and include the pre-stamped return. Ashe said he was unsure of the exact figure, but that his campaign has spent more than $20,000 to finance itself, while Thomas’s has spent around $20,000.

“I think that kind of highlights a problem in the system where alumni are spending that kind of money to petition to become a candidate,” Newman said. “I personally feel that the money could better benefit Yale in other ways, especially with financial aid.”

But the candidates both said they had to mount a full-scale campaign to get the necessary signatures, particularly because the University did not help them reach out to alumni. Yale did not provide them with alumni contact information, Thomas and Ashe told the News, so both candidates have devoted their time to scraping the alumni directory for ways to get in touch.

The last Yale Corporation meeting was held on Oct. 3.

Rose Horowitch | rose.horowitch@yale.edu