Yale Daily News

The Yale Graduate & Professional Student Senate, or GPSS, recently passed a resolution condemning the Yale Corporation’s elimination of the petition process for the Yale Alumni Fellow Election, and now seeks additional avenues for change.

Last fall, over a thousand alumni signed a statement calling on the University to reinstate the alumni fellow petition process to secure a spot on the ballot for the Yale Corporation, the University’s highest governing body. The alumni fellow petition process, which was revoked in May 2021, allowed eligible alumni to petition for a place on the ballot by obtaining signatures from three percent of eligible voters in the months preceding the election. The GPSS resolution condemned the policy change, called for the reinstatement of the petition process and requested that the Yale Corporation Board submit to questioning about the decision. The GPSS plans to involve the Yale Alumni Association in its future advocacy efforts.

“We were both awed and dismayed when — it felt like under the cover of the night — they announced that they would stop allowing petition candidates,” J. Nicholas Fisk GRD ’23, who serves as a GPSS Senator, said. “It’s hard to read this as anything other … than that they were afraid of the kinds of candidates who were petitioning.”

After learning of the new policy in spring 2021, Fisk and fellow senator Evan Cudone GRD ’23 began researching the legal underpinnings of the change. 

According to the GPSS resolution, the University justified its decision by noting the increase in petition candidacies in recent years and the possibility that “politicization of the petition process would hinder petition candidates’ ability to perform their fiduciary duty” since they could be beholden to constituents that supported their candidacy, rather than the University as a whole.

Fisk and the GPSS argue that these justifications are not sufficient.

“It seems like they had made the decision about what they wanted to do and then gave the minimum justification for it,” Fisk said.

The University could not be reached for comment Tuesday night.

Fisk noted that the Yale Corporation already has policies in place to protect Board members’ ability to perform fiduciary duties despite potential conflicts of interest. 

For instance, Fisk said, meeting minutes — including member voting records — remain confidential for 50 years. Moreover, Fisk said many board members likely have conflicts of interest far more compelling than a pre-election petition constituency, given many of their high positions held in large corporations.

“There was a lot of speculative fear mongering in their original rationale,” Fisk said. “They said it’s possible that all six alumni fellows could be petitioned candidates, but … it’s never happened even with two people, much less an entire board. I feel like they have insulted my intelligence by putting out this rationale and expecting it to be satisfying … There may be principled reasons to do this, but [the Board] sure didn’t give them to us.”

Last year, two petition candidates made it onto the ballot. One was a candidate representing Yale Forward — a coalition of students and alumni that seeks to address the climate crisis by supporting Corporation candidates who endorse University divestment from fossil fuels and other climate initiatives. Founded by Scott Gigante ’16 GRD ’19 ’21, the organization also advocates for making the Corporation more democratic and representative.

Gigante said he is proud of the Senate for its statement.

“I [would] really like to applaud the Senate for making this statement in favor of democracy,” Gigante said. “We know that democratic involvement in these elections has been relatively limited over the course of the history of Yale Corporation, even in terms of the democratic involvement that is still allowed.” 

According to Gigante, the petition process had previously acted as a “democratic circuit breaker” for alumni to express discontent with the slate of nominated candidates.

“​​Having a nominating committee makes a lot of sense, so long as there’s a way around it, in case the nominating committee fails to understand what the voters want,” Gigante said. 

Gigante said that the petition process for nominating candidates for the Yale Corporation began over 100 years ago — and only 250 signatures were needed at that time. 

In subsequent years, Gigante said, the signature requirement was raised. When the first female candidate petitioned to be on the ballot in 1984, the Corporation increased the barrier to entry to one percent of eligible Yale alumni. Later, the requirement was raised to three percent, where it stayed until the May 2021 elimination of the petition process. In 2021, three percent of eligible alumni voters equated to 4,394 signatures. 

Of the 16 members of the Yale Corporation, 10 are chosen directly by the Corporation itself and are known as “successor trustees.” Gigante said these members tend to “over index for older white men who work in finance and business.” The other six members, known as “alumni fellows,” are voted in by Yale alumni who graduated more than five years prior to the election. 

Currently, the Alumni Fellow Nominating Committee chooses who goes on the ballot to determine the alumni fellows. Before the May 2021 switch, the petition process allowed other candidates to join the ballot if they met the signature requirement. 

Gigante took issue with some of the election practices, calling both the fact that the Alumni Fellow Nominating Committee includes a member of the Yale Corporation and the existence of the five-year rule preventing recent alumni from voting “undemocratic.” 

The “double dip” of exerting power with a member of the Yale Corporation on the Alumni Fellow Nominating Committee, Gigante said, can lead to unfair results that do not reflect the wishes of alumni. For example, Maurie McInnis GRD ’90 ’96, the president of Stony Brook University, lost the 2020 alumni fellow election — yet was appointed to the Yale Corporation as a successor trustee at the beginning of this year.

“This is such a brazen disregard of [the alumni’s] will not to place Maurie McInnis on the board,” Gigante said. “It is quite demonstrative of the fact that the Corporation chooses the candidates they wish to place on the board, not the candidates that Yale alumni would like to see on the board.” 

The Corporation eliminated the petition process after the 2021 election, in which Maggie Thomas ENV ’15 had been petitioning to be on the ballot — and had been endorsed by Yale Forward — before dropping out to accept an appointment as Chief of Staff of the Office of Domestic Climate Policy in the White House. 

Gigante and Fisk viewed the change as a direct response to the potential of Thomas’ election to the Board of Trustees.

“It was only when Maggie — the pro climate candidate who was not a candidate of this conservative free speech on campus argument, made it onto the ballot — that the Yale Corporation then went and changed the rules,” Gigante said.

Victor Ashe ’67, a conservative candidate who received support from the William F. Buckley Jr. Program, also petitioned to be on the ballot in 2021, but lost the election. Ashe and other alumni later sued the University for discontinuing the petition process.

Ashe and Thomas both advocated for the Corporation’s election process to be more democratic in their respective campaigns, which Gigante said also may have contributed to the decision to end the petition process. However, he said the minutes for Corporation meetings are sealed for 50 years, so he cannot be certain of what drove the removal of the petition process until 2071. 

“We can only speculate, but the fact that our alumni had the choice to vote for this conservative candidate who made it onto the ballot, and they did not, makes you ask the question, what is the Corporation afraid of in terms of allowing democratic participation in this election?” Gigante said. 

However, Fisk expressed his hope that with enough student and alumni coordination and with leverage from the Yale Alumni Association, the petition process could possibly be reinstated.

“The Yale Alumni Association should be likewise perturbed,” Fisk said. “I think the next phase of this is trying to get them on board with that because once [we] do, [we will] have more stakeholders involved, and it might be easier to apply some leverage.”

Fisk and Gigante also said that reforming the five-year rule to let recent graduates vote for the Yale Alumni Fellows could make the process more democratic. 

According to Gigante, that rule mirrors an earlier policy at Harvard University, which attempted to balance alumni involvement in elections, which were held in-person during commencement and thus had greater proportions of recent alumni. Harvard removed its rule over 50 years ago, but Yale’s version still remains in place.

“Yale College students are ineligible to vote until five years after [graduation] … which I think is trying to temper some of the more activist urges of the Yale base,” Fisk said.

The Yale Corporation has its next meeting on June 11. 

Evan Gorelick is Managing Editor of the Yale Daily News. He previously covered Woodbridge Hall, with a focus on the University's finances, budget and endowment. He also laid out the weekly print edition of the News as a Production and Design Editor. Originally from Woodbridge, Connecticut, he is a junior in Timothy Dwight College double-majoring in English and economics.
Sarah Cook is one of the University editors. She previously covered student policy and affairs, along with President Salovey's cabinet. From Nashville, Tennessee, she is a junior in Grace Hopper majoring in Neuroscience.