Beverly Gage’s resignation from the Grand Strategy program is but one more example of Yale’s weakening commitment to academic freedom in the face of donor power. University President Peter Salovey recently told the Yale Daily News that while academic freedom is “sacrosanct,” there is an obligation to honor the agreements Yale makes with donors. But as Brian Leiter, a professor at the University of Chicago, recently put it, “[Yale] has legal obligations to its donors, to be sure, but its primary obligation is not to take on legal obligations that violate academic freedom.” Salovey’s failure to explicitly privilege academic freedom over all else tacitly opens the University’s doors to bold donors who want to shape what goes on within its classrooms.

Donors already wield great influence over universities, so the last thing Yale should be doing is giving them more power. Unfortunately, the last few years has seen the University cozy up to donor demands. The most recent and salient example is that Nicholas Brady 52 and Charles Johnson 54, who endowed the Grand Strategy program, successfully pressured Yale’s administration to name a conservative majority to a newly-implemented advisory board to oversee program appointments. This is not the first time Johnson has exerted unprecedented influence on the University. In 2016, Salovey announced that one of the two new colleges on Science Hill would be named after Benjamin Franklin, a personal hero of Johnson, whose $250 million gift funded the college’s construction. Historically, however, colleges were named by the University’s president or its trustees, not donors. And a $150 million donation by Stephen Schwarzman 69 has fundamentally reshaped and altered Yale’s civic center, The Commons.

Recent events at Yale suggest the growing influence of donors over University decisions. At best, this is bad PR. At worst, it is a forfeit of University autonomy. This trend seems less surprising given that Yale increasingly sees itself as a corporation in the education industry. Indeed, in 2009, the Yale Daily News uncovered Yale administration memos calling students “customers.” As we have seen too clearly and painfully during the COVID-19 pandemic, money is not everything. When it comes down to it, Yale has a duty to choose academic freedom over money every time it is faced with a choice wherein the latter threatens the former. It is that simple. Honoring donor agreements is a legal responsibility, but it is not and should never be a fundamental principle of the University. At the end of the day, a university is a place to learn, not a playground for billionaires.

I am disturbed as a student and as someone who cares about academic freedom by Salovey’s failure to stand up to donor influence. To put it bluntly, the President’s agreement to enact previously ignored bylaws to set up a majority conservative advisory board in the wake of donor outrage was a choice to see out prior legal obligations at the expense of academic freedom. A University president must protect academic freedom always, explicitly, and no matter the cost; Salovey has not done so. Brian Leiter has called for Salovey’s resignation or removal by the Board of Trustees, and I am inclined to agree with him. Additionally, the newly-implemented advisory board should be disbanded. We cannot let Yale off the hook. If we let the administration relax, the next time a donor comes knocking with demands which subvert the maintenance of academic freedom, we may not be so lucky. This is the moment to have a reckoning and demand answers and accountability from Yale’s administration. In other words, this is far from over.

Correction 10.8: A previous version of this letter implied that University President Peter Salovey was involved in creating the 2006 gift agreement. He was not President at the time. The letter has been updated to reflect this.

DYLAN CARLSON SIRVENT LÉON is a Sophomore in Pauli Murray College. Contact him at