Yale Daily News

Many Yale alumni have protested the University’s decision to end the petition process to gain access to the Yale Corporation trustee ballot — leaving officially nominated candidates as the only options for voters — with some notable efforts aimed at withholding donations and negatively affecting the University’s finances ahead of the upcoming capital campaign.

Last spring, the Yale Corporation, the University’s highest governing body, voted to get rid of the petition process for the Corporation ballot. While an official committee of Yale alumni and administrators nominates one or more candidates per year, the petition process allowed non-nominated candidates to vie for a Corporation seat. Within the past two years, the petition process’s popularity grew, with several alumni campaigning to push Yale to change on issues of transparency and environmental stewardship.

The Yale Corporation argued that it abolished the petition process because it had begun to mirror recent political campaigns, a similarity which the Corporation said could harm its governance by linking trustees to outside organizations, as well as discouraging qualified candidates from running. Trustees must be neutral arbiters and open to compromise, it wrote in a May 25 statement.

But many alumni were incensed at the decision and have continued to protest it even months later. A GoFundMe opposing the change has raised more than $13,500 from around 70 donors to fund ads against the decision. Other alumni are contemplating suing Yale or the trustees, or lobbying the state to revise Yale’s charter and revoke its nonprofit status, said Andrew Lipka ’78, who had planned to run as a petition candidate for the 2022 election. Yale’s capital campaign is set to publicly launch Oct. 2. The campaign, which each president launches once during their tenure, relies primarily on alumni donations. 

Still others, like Lipka, have pursued more official channels, trying to collaborate with senior administrators to convince them to reverse their decision. Lipka argued that the abolition of the petition process particularly harms potential candidates who have served Yale but who are not “titans of industry [or] money-men.”

“That’s the very constituency that alumni would recognize in an election, in a fair election, as being the qualified ones,” Lipka said. “So therefore it’s a continuation of this incestuous behavior where this cadre of insiders seeks to continue their all-out dominance.”

In May, when the trustees announced their decision, it received immediate and fierce backlash. The Faculty of Arts and Sciences Senate published a statement of concern condemning the decision. In early June, the Wall Street Journal featured an opinion piece opposing the move.

At the time, Felicity Enders ’94 wrote that she was “especially outraged as a Black woman,” because the change meant diverse voices would be less likely to be heard.

“I’m disappointed in Yale for not incorporating alumni voices in an open and transparent fashion,” Enders wrote in a September email to the News. “I feel they have created an echo chamber without opportunity for outside voices. I love Yale and continue to expect the best from this institution.”

Nate Nickerson, vice president for communications, said that University President Peter Salovey and the trustees respect that some alumni oppose the decision, and that the trustees have signaled a desire to be closer to the alumni and exchange views with them.

Former senior trustee Catharine Bond Hill GRD’ 85 said that commentary has “quieted down” in the months since the announcement of the end of the petition process, and that the Trustees have not discussed further reforms to the process.

Lipka added that he has spoken with senior Yale administrators and tried to tell them that alumni concern over the decision is out of love for Yale. He feels the lines of communication are open and can see a scenario in which the petition process is reinstated or the election process is further reformed, he said. In a June interview with the News, Salovey indicated that further reforms to the election process might be possible as the Alumni Fellow Nominating Committee listens to feedback.

Jennifer Ebisemiju Madar ’88, chair of the Alumni Fellow Nominating Committee, said that the nomination process will not change for the 2022 election, but that the committee will proceed with its annual review of its mission and processes. The Alumni Fellow Nominating Committee solicits nominations from alumni. Composed of Yale administrators and alumni volunteers, it can nominate up to five candidates for the Corporation ballot. Last year it nominated one candidate, David Thomas ’78 GRD ’86, who ultimately defeated a petition candidate, Victor Ashe ’67.

The committee is emphasizing efforts to inform alumni of the nomination process, Madar added.

“The volume of commentary has slowed, but there are alumni who continue to share their thoughts with us,” Madar wrote in an email to the News. “We pass their comments along to the trustees, who acknowledge the breadth and depth of alumni sentiment, both for and against their decision, and we appreciate their passion as well as their care and concern for Yale.”

The pro-petition alumni-run GoFundMe will finance three editorials in the Alumni Magazine, the first of which will run in mid-September. The full-page advertisement will be titled, “Not Your Voice, Not Your Yale.” It calls on Yale to rescind its decision and lower the petition signature threshold, which had been set at more than 6,000 alumni signatures.

Comments on the GoFundMe centered on making the alumni’s presence known and felt by Yale, with a particular emphasis on hitting the University in its pocketbook.

“The University administration is not stupid, and no doubt they believe that despite protests in reaction to their fiat, the alumni have no legal influence,” wrote Lindsey Kiang ’63 LAW ’68. “A calculated and rational decision by the administration, to be sure. So may I suggest that the media statement for which we’re donating observe that if we alumni are not worthy of being heard, then perhaps our donations are similarly unimportant. As for me, there are many other non-profit organizations, and much more needy ones, right here in my own community as well as in the wider society.”

Paul Mange Johansen ’88 stopped conducting interviews for Yale admissions after the decision and has stopped giving the University, but will likely start up again if Yale reverses its decision. Frank Hotchkiss ’64, who organized the GoFundMe, echoed this sentiment.

Bond Hill explained that her experience in institutional management has taught her that changes make some people unhappy, and their response is often to withhold donations.

“But I would hope that if they’re committed and love Yale, that they realize all the incredibly good things that Yale is doing and will continue to support endeavors that they think are important,” Bond Hill said.

Lipka added that he opposes efforts that will harm Yale in the long term, including withholding donations, removing Yale from one’s will, suing the University or trying to convince Connecticut to revise Yale’s charter to alter its nonprofit status. Still, all of those efforts are ongoing, he said.

More than 1,000 alumni have reached out with support and to request guidance on how to move forward, Lipka said. He advised them to “keep their voice alive, to let the administration know that this is not going to go away … that we take our disenfranchisement seriously and we’re not going to forget about it,” Lipka told the News.

The Alumni Fellow elections are held each spring. Six alumni fellows are elected to the board, and 10 successor trustees are appointed by outgoing members.

Rose Horowitch covers Woodbridge Hall. She previously covered sustainability and the University's COVID-19 response. She is a sophomore in Davenport College majoring in history.