Lawsuit over Yale Corporation petition process heard in court
The recent lawsuit brought against Yale for its supposed breach of the University Charter progressed to the State’s Superior Court, which will rule on the case by mid-January.
Aydin Akyol, Senior photographer
Victor Ashe ’67 and Donald Glascoff ’67 appeared in court on Sept. 19 to present their oral argument against the University in a lawsuit over Yale’s trustee election process.
The hearing is the latest development in a saga of alumni outrage over changes made to the Yale Corporation’s petition process last year. The judge presiding over the case will make a decision on or before Jan. 17, 2023.
The Yale Corporation — the University’s 16-member Board of Trustees — reserves six seats for so-called “Alumni Fellows.” The Corporation is the University’s highest governing body, with members in charge of granting or refusing tenure, hiring and firing Yale’s president and setting the University’s policy agenda.
For almost a century, Yale alumni could petition to run for those six positions by gathering enough signatures and running a quasi-political campaign with backing from special interest groups.
The Corporation scrapped the petition process in May 2021 and limited the path to trusteeship to the Alumni Fellow Nominating Committee, which nominated the Corporation’s ten other members and now nominates for all seats. The decision was met with swift alumni backlash, and a lawsuit from Ashe and Glascoff, who contend that the decision violates the University’s legal obligations to its alumni.
As the lawsuit continues, here’s what to know about the timeline so far and what to watch for moving forward.
Yale Corporation eliminated the petition process
The Corporation said its decision to abandon the petition process last year came after extensive consideration of the process, which it argues is no longer in the best interest of the University.
For one, the Corporation claimed that the petition process engenders intense candidate politicization.
“The petition process has been seldom and intermittently used since its introduction in 1929,” then-Senior Trustee Catharine Bond Hill wrote in a May 2021 letter to alumni about the Corporation’s decision. “But in recent years, it has been embraced by issues-based candidacies, with intense campaigning by petitioners who are materially supported by organizations that seek to advance specific platforms.”
The letter went on to state that alumni fellows are meant to be fiduciaries — officials capable of bringing independent judgment to University issues — not elected representatives.
Another issue, the University argues, is the very campaigning required to gain enough votes to successfully petition.
“In their tenor, cost and time required, these contests may discourage many qualified and desirable candidates from accepting nomination in the first place,” Bond wrote.
Ashe and Glascoff sue
Ashe was one of three petition candidates in the 2021 Alumni Fellow election, which was interrupted when the University announced that it would scrap the petition process.
On March 7, 2022, Ashe and Glascoff filed a formal complaint against the University for breach of contract and violation of the Connecticut Revised Nonstock Corporation Act. Ashe and Glascoff allege that, in eliminating the alumni petition process, the University violated its legal obligations to alumni.
Ashe and Glascoff contend that, under the University Charter, eligible Yale alumni have the legal right to vote for alumni trustees of their choosing, and, moreover, the right to put themselves forward as candidates.
The University Charter is embedded in Connecticut State Law. For Ashe, the lawsuit in part hinges on the interpretation of an 1871 act stipulating “six persons to be chosen from among such graduates” to serve as alumni fellows on the Board of Trustees.
“The critical question is who gets to choose the persons from among such graduates, alumni directly or a committee chosen by Yale,” Ashe wrote.
The University filed a motion to dismiss the complaint on June 3, 2022, and the recent hearing, which was held in Hartford before Judge John B. Farley of the Connecticut Superior Court’s Hartford Judicial District, gave each side a final opportunity for oral argument.
Ashe contends that, for the Corporation to legally modify this process, the change must be made pursuant to an alumni vote.
“Instead, the Corporation chose a stealth process to move alumni participation to the sidelines,” Ashe wrote in an email to the News. “The limits on nomination and election are not consistent with the Yale Charter.”
Ashe told the News that a fundamental question of the case is that of Ashe and Glascoff’s legal standing as plaintiffs: regardless of whether the Corporation breached the Yale Charter, do Ashe and Glascoff have a legal right to sue the University?
According to Ashe, because the Corporation violated rights enumerated to alumni in the Charter, “all alumni have standing to sue the University under both common law and the Connecticut Revised Nonstock Corporation Act.”
Ashe and Glascoff also voiced concerns about the nomination process, claiming the committee is “not representative of anyone except its members.”
They argue that the Nominating Committee is unduly entangled with University administration and unresponsive to alumni.
“Nominees are selected, in secret, by a limited group of alumni and University employees,” Ashe told the News. “No issues are debated, and background checks seem weak and inadequate. Diversity of thought is not considered … Even if all 149,000 alumni want a particular person to be on the Corporation, if the Committee does not want that person, that person will not be a candidate.”
Ashe commented that, whichever way the decision goes, the opinion will be well-read and “probably appealed by the losing side.”
Student and alumni support
Last fall, over a thousand alumni signed a statement calling on the University to reinstate the petition process.
In December, Ashe helped create a legal defense fund called Restore Yale to support his lawsuit. So far, over 345 alumni from more than 44 classes have donated, he said.
Ashe and Glascoff’s complaint has also received support from the Yale Graduate & Professional Student Senate, which passed a February resolution condemning the Corporation’s elimination of the petition process.
Undergraduate students may soon take action, too.
The YCC has begun discussing the issue and will consider passing its own resolution, according to speaker of the YCC Senate Ryan Smith ’24.
“Student and alumni input should be central to Yale’s decision-making process,” Smith said. “There’s a lot of discussion in the YCC about how we can best advocate for a more transparent and democratic Yale Corporation.”
Berkeley College Senator Kyle Hovannesian ’25 told the News that he would like trustees to be elected by all members of the Yale community, rather than nominated by a committee. This way, he said, the Corporation will be more responsive to its constituents than it is now.
Hovannesian wants to hold a referendum on the issue, asking the student body if it believes the trustee selection system should shift to one in which they, along with other Yale community members, may vote for trustees.
“The problem with the Yale Corporation is the fact that power is completely centralized to them without any system of checks and balances,” Hovannesian said. “To make every trustee position an elected one will ensure that the people who are directly impacted … will have a say in who is making decisions and that the Board can’t get away with whatever it wants.”
Ashe and Glascoff are represented by Eric Henzy of Zeisler and Zeisler, P.C., a Bridgeport-based law firm. The University is represented by Jonathan M. Freiman of Wiggin and Dana, LLP, a New Haven-based law firm.