The Yale Corporation’s decision last month to eliminate petition candidacies in Alumni Fellow elections has caused quite an uproar. I know just how much of an uproar, because I registered as a petition candidate for the 2022 election.
I’ve received hundreds of calls and emails from Yale alumni and faculty and have spoken or corresponded with nearly every one of them. Their disappointment and anger are sincere and well founded. They were joined in their opposition by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Senate, which issued a statement urging the Corporation to revoke its decision, calling it an “antidemocratic and secretive policy change [that] speaks ill of a board charged with overseeing an institution devoted to enlightenment.”
Corporation members and Yale’s management should be listening. It appears, however, that the decision is final and not open to discussion.
If so, Yale is missing an opportunity to demonstrate leadership in governance and in welcoming the open exchange of ideas, a concept that President Peter Salovey has frequently called “essential to the mission of a great university.”
Alumni said they felt betrayed and disrespected. While they represented the entire political spectrum, their objections to the decision were the same. All were concerned about Yale’s attitude toward its alumni and principles of transparency, fair elections and open inquiry.
They said they had lost the ability to cast informed votes, because the Yale Alumni Association Nominating Committee chooses its candidates behind closed doors, announces their names just days before voting begins and forbids them to discuss their views. They found the timing of and rationale for the Corporation’s announcement jarring. It came hours after the 2022 petition period opened, and more than two months after petition candidates had registered. There had been no open dialogue with alumni or other groups. The rationale: Petition candidates are too committed to special interests to represent the interests of the University.
The hundreds of alumni who contacted me said they saw future elections as a travesty: little information on candidates, exclusion of unfamiliar views and scorn for outsider candidates and their supporters. Often calling it “voter suppression,” they said the Corporation’s decision belied Yale’s commitment to the open exchange of ideas and showed that Yale didn’t trust its own graduates’ judgment.
The Corporation’s responsibilities
Yale’s charter distinguishes alumni as the only stakeholders who elect members of their group to the Corporation. According to the 1970 report of the Commission on Alumni Affairs, charged with improving Yale’s relations with alumni, “The alumni body can be considered the living symbol of the purpose of the University.” After extensive dialogue with alumni and others, the report’s recommendations included maintaining the petition process.
The Corporation’s email announcing its decision stated that its members have a “fiduciary duty to represent the interests of the university above their own.” Few would disagree. But the statement does raise a fundamental question: What in this context does “the university” mean? In other words, to whom is the Corporation actually accountable? Faculty? Students? Alumni? Staff? Donors? Yale’s administration?
In fact, it isn’t clear if there is anyone who actually evaluates how the Corporation does its job. Nor is it clear what recourse stakeholders have if they feel that job isn’t being done. Can the Corporation do whatever it wants? Probably. But should it? If the University is to operate optimally, with the trust and loyalty of all of its stakeholders intact, the answer must be a resounding no.
This is not an unusual situation at universities, but it’s a difficult one to navigate. Therein lies Yale’s opportunity to lead.
An opportunity for Yale
All great universities are at a crossroads in determining their role in a changing society. But Yale is known for having fostered a grand liberal arts tradition that brought together a diverse range of disciplines and perspectives to produce groundbreaking research and encourage students to form their own worldviews. Yale can stand taller on this tradition than any other university, and there’s no better time than now.
This episode could be the catalyst for a renewal of this grand tradition, reflected in a broader, more open view of governance and justified by the foundational freedom of expression policies established in Yale’s 1974 Woodward Report.
Imagine if the Corporation were to announce that having listened to alumni, faculty, donors and students, it is expanding Yale’s governance model to include formal, regular, open dialogue with all major stakeholder groups and to adopt certain policy changes. One of these would reinstate Alumni Fellow petitions, complemented by election reforms including, for example, reducing the number of required signatures — eliminating the need for significant funding — and giving all candidates equal opportunities to discuss their priorities in University-funded materials and events.
This would not cause Yale to lose face. On the contrary, it would position Yale as a leader at a time when universities are confronted with difficult decisions about governance and accommodating diversity of thought. Sending a message of openness and transparency both internally and externally would lift Yale above the fray. Wielding lux et veritas, Yale would lead the way toward a new higher education culture, one that transforms static institutions that shrink from questioning idées reçues into vibrant, evolving communities of free and open inquiry.