Outraged and offended: Corporation cuts petition process, alumni react
The process, which has been in place since 1929, was increasingly used to push Yale for change.
Yale Daily News
The Yale Corporation has amended the University’s regulations to get rid of the petition process onto the Corporation ballot, making the sole path to Trusteeship through official nomination.
Senior Trustee Catharine Bond Hill Ph.D. ’85 outlined the rationale for the change in a Monday email to alumni. The decision was announced on the day the signature-collection period opened for the 2022 election, in which three alumni had declared their intent to petition. To collect enough signatures to get onto the ballot, candidates often run a quasi-political campaign, receiving backing from special interest groups, Bond Hill wrote. She said that Trustees should be open to different ideas and views and not beholden to outside organizations. Additionally, the time and money to run a campaign could discourage qualified candidates from accepting a nomination.
But opponents of the change argue that it allows the Corporation to entirely control Yale’s direction. The only other path onto the ballot is through the Alumni Fellow Nominating Committee, which is made up of alumni representatives and University administrators. The candidates the committee puts forward are instructed not to share their views on any issues the University faces, leaving alumni to vote on a candidate based solely on a short biographical statement.
“They’re in overtime on voter suppression,” said Victor Ashe ’67, a petition candidate in the 2021 Alumni Fellow election. “How much more suppression can you do than taking away the election process — limiting it to two handpicked candidates?”
In recent years, the Trustees had considered reforming the petition process, Bond Hill said. This year, given the recent rise in the number of petition candidates, they undertook a focused review of the process. The Trustees reviewed “relevant literature from experts in governance and discussed best practices with others who serve as fiduciaries at universities and nonprofits,” Bond Hill, Chair of the Trusteeship Committee, wrote in an email to the News. On May 18, the Trustees voted to get rid of the petition process as a path onto the ballot.
The past two years have seen a sharp rise in the number of petition candidates. Two qualified for the ballot in the 2021 election, while three recently declared their intent to run in 2022. All of the candidates placed issues of transparent governance and reforming the election process at the center of their platforms.
Ashe plans to ask the Connecticut legislature to amend the Yale charter to restore the process and allow all Yale alumni to vote. Currently, the five most recent graduating classes are not eligible to vote in the election.
“At least 20,000 Yale alumni live and vote in Connecticut,” Ashe said. “That’s a powerful voting bloc and I doubt if they appreciate having their vote diminished.”
Margie Marshall LAW ’76, a former senior Trustee, said the Nominating Committee has a “far-reaching and highly democratic process” of deciding on candidates to nominate for the Corporation. The Nominating Committee solicits names from alumni and conducts a review process before putting forward candidates.
According to Donna Dubinsky ’77, former Senior Trustee, the Committee took input from the Corporation to specifically recommend candidates who would complement the existing Trustees’ strengths.
Both Dubinsky and Marshall said that the petition process has become increasingly politicized, and that the role of a Trustee requires impartiality.
“In recent years, petition candidates have been supported by well-funded organizations, sometimes with paid, professional staff, who ‘sponsor’ petitioners, communicate on their behalf with university offices, and support public relations efforts on the candidates’ behalf,” the current Trustees’ document stated. “Petitioners and their supporting organizations increasingly conduct themselves like political campaigns.”
The Trustees identified potential outcomes of this shift. One was that candidates backed by a particular organization would be beholden to special interest groups once they made it onto the Corporation.
Trustees must act as fiduciaries focused on the long-term health of the institution, Bond Hill said. In governing a university, they must deliberate and resolve issues through compromise. This differs from a legislative body, in which the majority opinion wins.
Dubinsky added that the role of a Trustee is not to make policy. The Trustees do not make decisions, she said — rather, they offer advice and approve decisions by Yale’s President and officers.
But Andrew Lipka ’78, formerly a 2022 petition candidate, countered that the Trustees do “more than balance the budget.” They are in charge of granting or refusing tenure, hiring and firing Yale’s president and deciding on the University’s priorities.
Dubinsky said that if multiple trustees are elected by the petition process and advocate for specific interests, it could change the nature of the meetings by creating a “two-tier architecture.”
But Paul Mange Johansen ’88, said that given the history, it is “essentially impossible,” for the scenario the Trustees outline — in which multiple petition candidates make it onto the board — to come to fruition. Petition candidates must collect more than 4,400 signatures to qualify for the ballot; the last successful petition candidate ran in 1965. There is a four in 100 billion chance that the board would have six petition candidates, he said.
“I am outraged by this decision,” Mange Johansen wrote in an email to the News. “The process was already highly undemocratic to begin with, and now it is absolutely impossible for it to be democratic.”
In response to the decision, Mange Johansen resigned as Director of the Alumni Schools Committee. Felicity Enders ’94 also decided to stop conducting interviews for Yale until the petition process is reinstated.
“By ending petition candidates, there is now no mechanism for alumni outside the ‘in group’ to get in,” Enders wrote in an email to the Trustees. “This completely insulates the Trustees against new ideas. I am especially outraged as a Black woman … Processes like this mean diverse voices will be even less likely to be heard.”
Scott Gigante GRD ’21, head of Yale Forward, an organization which puts forward climate-conscious candidates for the Corporation, added that every person has outside interests. Even if candidates are not supported by a particular group, they will have some biases or personal opinions, he said.
“The Corporation claims to be concerned that petition candidates may place their own interests above those of the university,” Gigante told the News. “This claim is not only patently false and insulting to candidates who spend countless hours working toward the betterment of their alma mater, but also deeply shortsighted given that every person comes with biases and ideology, and it is only petition candidates whose ideology is publicly known. … At a time when the school claims to be lifting up unheard voices, it is literally shutting down one of its few true avenues for expression.”
Gail Lavielle GRD ’81, who planned to petition for the 2022 election, added that the suggestion that a petition candidate with “organized support” would bring an “agenda” to the Board is “offensive.” Lavielle and fellow candidate Lipka were independent candidates.
“Not only would it be highly inappropriate to serve in such a manner, but it would also be folly to expect that a single new member could walk in and impose an outside agenda on a board of trustees,” Lavielle told the News. “Our alumni will be forced to vote – if they choose to vote – for candidates about whom they will have received but little information. There will be no opportunity for dialogue, exchange of ideas, or questions. Where are the lux et veritas in this?”
But Marshall said that candidates should not publicly share views on specific issues Yale faces when they are not yet on the Board and do not understand how the institution functions.
“It’s always struck me as peculiar that one should have views about particular subjects that are not informed by knowledge of what the institution is doing or the challenges it faces,” she said.
In their statement to the University community, the Trustees noted an additional downside to the increasing politicization of the election process. It might dissuade qualified candidates from accepting a nomination to avoid having to spend time and money campaigning, they explained.
When people are asked to run for the Alumni Fellow position, they usually first question if they have to campaign, Dubinsky said.
Marshall added that it could have a “chilling effect” on the election process if people feel they must enter into a political campaign to join the Corporation.
Associate Vice President of Institutional Affairs Martha Schall declined to comment on a message from the Trustees to the Yale Community. Kimberly Goff-Crews, University Secretary and Vice President for University Life, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.