Two petition candidates have officially qualified to get on the ballot for the May 2021 Yale Corporation election. But they say that the petition process — as well as its alternative, a closed-door nomination — is unnecessarily onerous and should be reformed. 

Maggie Thomas ENV ’15 and Victor Ashe ’67 have both qualified for the ballot with about 4,840 and 7,128 signatures, respectively — above the required threshold of 4,394. The petition process is one way candidates can get on the ballot for the University’s highest governing body. The other path to the ballot is through a nomination from the Yale Alumni Association’s Alumni Fellow Nominating Committee, which consists of alumni volunteers and Yale administrators.

Though the two paths lead to the same endpoint, their associated processes differ greatly. For example, nominated candidates are encouraged not to reveal their views on any issues the University faces; in contrast, the petition candidates say they must run full-fledged campaigns to collect the necessary signatures. Both petition candidates say that the campaign process is riddled with confusing rules and conflicting advice.

“There are no rules,” said Martha Schall, associate vice president for institutional affairs, of the petition process. “The University and the Alumni Association are in an interesting position in which we hope and assume that people will not campaign, so we really don’t have any structure of oversight or rules and regulations around it because it’s just a practice we’ve had.”

The petition process

Per Yale’s miscellaneous regulations, petition candidates need signatures from at least 3 percent of the number of alumni eligible to vote. Reaching this threshold indicates candidates have the support of at least a small group of alumni, Schall explained. Three out of the five most recent petitioners have met the threshold, she added, arguing the number of signatures is not excessive. But both of the petition candidates and their supporters argued the number of signatures is inaccessible, and gathering them has nearly become a full-time job.

The petition route is rarely successful. The last successful petition candidate, William Horowitz ’29, was elected to the Corporation in 1965 and only had to collect 250 signatures. Thomas voiced concerns that the number of signatures may be a barrier to people who hope to launch a petition candidacy.

“There is no way to run a completely digital campaign where you collect signatures from almost 4,400 Yale alumni all around the world without spending money,” Thomas said. “You simply can’t do it. In fact, we tried and then we realized we needed money to do it.”

Both campaigns have used targeted Facebook ads to reach voters. Scott Gigante GRD ’23, Thomas’ campaign manager, explained that the campaign paid Facebook to show ads in the feeds of anyone who had Yale listed as their school and was over the age of 24. Executive Director of the William F. Buckley Program Lauren Noble ’11 confirmed the program has also helped sponsor social media ads for Ashe’s campaign.

The Buckley Program — which brings speakers to campus and is largely perceived as conservative — has supported Ashe’s candidacy, though Ashe has stated he is not running on their behalf. They have provided funding for mailings, ads in the Yale Alumni Magazine and on social media. Because the Buckley Program is a nonprofit organization, Noble told the News, campaign contributions are tax-deductible. Noble added that the program is “proud” to support Ashe’s efforts to change the election process.

Ashe’s campaign focuses on increasing the transparency of the Yale Corporation, repealing the 50-year embargo on the Corporation’s meeting minutes, promoting issues of free speech and reducing tuition increases.

Thomas is running as a representative of Yale Forward, an organization that promotes climate action. Her platform is largely focused on issues of climate change, particularly ensuring that Yale leads on combating the climate crisis to help protect “students of today and tomorrow” — what she considers to be the hallmark of the trustee role.

Her campaign has raised about $20,000 through largely grassroots donations, and has accessed potential voters with text messages, emails, Facebook posts and an ad in the Yale Alumni Magazine. Donations to her campaign are similarly tax-deductible.

Both candidates have had to develop clear-cut platforms to convince people to sign their petitions, they said. This puts them at odds with the candidates that the nominating committee puts forward, who are not supposed to reveal their opinions on topics relating to the University.

Ashe has claimed that the process is unnecessarily convoluted and therefore discourages people from running, leaving the nominated candidates as the only options for alumni to choose in the spring elections.

“They can’t have their cake and eat it too,” Ashe said. “On one hand they say their process is not political and that’s supposed to be a good thing. On the other hand they create a process for the petition route that is political. How are we going to get 4,400 signatures without going out and asking people and giving people a reason to do it? You can’t just call up and say ‘I’m Victor Ashe and I’m a nice guy and I’m wonderful, will you sign my petition?’”

The nomination process

The vast majority of Corporation candidates do not go through the petition process. Rather, they are nominated by a committee of the YAA Board of Governors composed of alumni.

The committee began deliberations this October, and will deliver its nominees to the University secretary by Feb. 1. The ballot can hold up to five candidates, including the petition candidates. There are about 75 nominees this year, Schall said. The committee has reached out to a few thousand engaged alumni to solicit suggestions.

Though the committee knows the candidates’ identities by February, they will not be revealed to alumni until April, when voting begins. Schall said the names are released when it is “logistically possible to open voting.”

The nominated candidates follow a long-standing tradition of not campaigning. Alumni who are eligible to vote receive a ballot with a write-up about the candidates’ careers as well as a headshot — with no information about their views — and then cast their ballot.

In 2016 and 2017, the Buckley Program unsuccessfully attempted to engage the nominated candidates in a forum to share their views, Noble wrote. Both times, she said, the University declined on behalf of the candidates, citing the no-campaign tradition.

Yale has justified its nominees not campaigning out of a concern they would become beholden to outside groups. Schall explained that it is important that trustees can discuss all issues with an open mind.

Additionally, the University does not want to lose out on qualified candidates who do not have the time or money to run a campaign.

“$20,000 is not chump change,” Schall said, referring to the dollar amount that Thomas’ campaign has spent so far — while Ashe’s has spent far more. “I respect that Victor and Maggie have put in a lot of effort to what they’re doing, that’s not something that every alumnus can do.”

But still, some alumni have asked for more information on where the candidates stand on certain issues the University is facing. At a Monday panel in which alumni volunteers explained the election process over Zoom to a largely alumni audience, the panelists explained that the Alumni Fellow Nominating Committee’s work is kept confidential to respect the privacy of people nominated who may not want it known they were not selected. Also, they said, members of the committee might get lobbied by supporters of specific alumni.

But according to Ashe, the lengthy, closed-door nomination process leaves alumni without time to consider the nominees.

“I think Yale alumni are hungry for change,” he said.

Campaign confusion — and possible change

At Monday’s panel, members of the YAA explained that this year’s election, which features more petition candidates than usual, is forcing them to reconsider long-standing traditions.

Yale’s alumni Facebook page, which is run by alumni volunteers, prohibits petitioning and campaigning. The alumni Facebook group has deleted or not accepted posts about the petition process and has closed comments on posts on the topic.

This complicates the campaign process, Thomas said, because she cannot use that free channel to reach alumni. The rule against campaigning on the page was likely developed for political elections, not the alumni fellow nominating process, she added. 

At the panel, one of the group’s moderators and Executive Officer for the YAA Board of Governors Billy Kolber ’86 said that he is concerned about electioneering for the trusteeship and the process falling victim to special interest groups or campaigns with deep pockets. Kolber said the main alumni Facebook group — which explicitly bars campaign posts — was not prepared for the petition process and is considering a way to equitably allow the candidates to share their views.

The YAA had instructed petition candidates to engage with other alumni through other channels — but even established alumni channels were not always viable options, Ashe and Thomas said. Early on in their candidacies, the two reached out to numerous Yale Clubs to hold forums to publicize the petition process. But the responses were mixed, with some clubs hosting forums or sending information to their mailing lists, and others saying they were not allowed to be involved in the election.

“Some clubs wanted nothing to do with this, and said it wasn’t their role or responsibility to engage in this election,” Thomas said. “It makes it really hard to collect the signatures that you need to collect when the main tactic that you’re supposed to be using to collect signatures isn’t working.”

In a prior interview, EJ Crawford, senior director of YAA communications and marketing, said that there are no official University rules as to how alumni engage with the petition candidates.

The five-year rule

All alumni, with the exception of Yale College graduates in the five most recent graduated classes, are eligible to vote in the election. At the panel, Kolber explained that there is little to no support for barring the youngest classes from voting.

Both Ashe and Thomas have suggested getting rid of this rule in their platforms.

Ashe said the rule is written into the University’s charter, which can only be changed in the state legislature. If the University opens the charter, it could be reviewed in its entirety. During the panel, Paul Mange Johansen ’88 asked whether opening the charter would allow the state to reconsider Yale’s tax-exempt properties, which are valued at about $157 million this year.

“The question I was asking was does it open up this particular can of worms,” Mange Johansen said in an interview with the News. “I know a lot of people are interested in having Yale pay more taxes and I know that’s something Yale does not necessarily want to open itself up for discussion about.”

The Yale Corporation is made up of 16 trustees, the University president and the governor and lieutenant governor of Connecticut.

Rose Horowitch | rose.horowitch@yale.edu