Courtesy of Yale Endowment Justice Coalition

In the early hours of Monday morning, banners appeared across campus in support of a Yale College Council referendum calling for the democratization of the Yale Corporation’s elections process. 

The banners, which read “Democratize Yale Corp. Vote Yes,” were placed at Payne Whitney Gymnasium, Phelps Hall and on a Berkeley College Wall, heralding in the student body-wide referendum, which opens on Monday at 9 a.m. and will close at 9 a.m. Friday. 

Set in place by legislation that passed the YCC Senate on Nov. 16, this referendum will consist of two yes-or-no questions: “Should the board of trustees for Yale Corporation consist of democratically elected trustees?” and “Should students, professors, and staff be eligible to vote for candidates for the board of trustees for Yale Corporation?”

The referendum, at least for me, comes from the understanding that there are so many problems that students face, yet we have no way to bring about solutions,” Kyle Hovannesian, who leads current YCC efforts to reform the Yale Corporation, wrote in an email to the News. “The right to vote is essential for change, and since we are denied the right to vote, we can not bring about serious change.”

The Corporation, also known as the University’s Board of Trustees, consists of the University President, ten “successor trustees” appointed by the current board of trustees, six alumni trustees elected by University alumni from among the community, and the Governor and Lieutenant Governor of Connecticut, both of whom serve ex officio.

Although they rarely interact with the student body directly, the Yale Corporation holds significant power over the University. Not only do they control the University’s budget, they also appoint the President and other high-level administrative positions, such as the Deans and the Provost. 

“Everything about the Board’s structure is designed to shield its members from accountability from their decisions, even as they claim to have the Yale Community’s best interests at heart,” read a Monday morning statement from the Yale Endowment Justice Coalition. 

A student advocacy group focused on the ethical allocation of University funds, the EJC argues that recent trustees appointed to the Corporation have been non-transparent about endowment spending. It also notes that many trustees have strong ties to the fossil fuel industry.

The EJC has already been campaigning to increase referendum turnout. Since the referendum was announced, EJC organizers have been hanging posters and tabling on Cross Campus to “educate students about the Corporation’s structure and get out the vote.”

“The Yale Corporation has final say on the endowment spending of Yale — that is, they decide on what Yale is invested in, whether that be fossil fuels or other incredibly damaging and unethical industries,” EJC organizer Tara Bhat wrote in an email to the News. “It’s high time that the people most affected by the Corp’s decisions get a (metaphorical) seat at the table.”

Hovannesian agrees, noting that it is important that the people most affected by the Corporation’s decisions — namely University students, faculty, and staff — are given the chance to voice their opinion. He is hopeful that the student body at large will agree with him.

I think the Yale community will agree, or I hope they do,” Hovannesian wrote. “I would find it hard to believe people don’t want the right to vote on matters that affect them as students and alumni.”

After the referendum, the YCC will summarize the results and provide recommendations to University President Peter Salovey in a Senate-approved letter.

This referendum is the latest in an ongoing saga of student and alumni backlash against the Yale Corporation’s unilateral decision to scrap the alumni fellows petition process in May 2021. Since 1929, Yale alumni could petition to run for election to the Board of Trustees. But after the Corporation limited the path to trusteeship exclusively to nomination by the Alumni Fellow Nominating Committee, Victor Ashe ’67 and Donald Glascoff ’67 sued Yale, arguing that the change violates the University’s legal obligations to alumni.

Following the filing of the lawsuit, over a thousand alumni signed a statement in fall 2021 calling on Yale to reinstate the alumni fellows petition process.

Ashe and Glascoff filed their formal complaint against the University on March 7, 2022, alleging breach of contract and violation of the Connecticut Revised Nonstock Corporation Act. Later that spring, the complaint received support from the Yale Graduate & Professional Student Senate, which passed a February resolution condemning the elimination of the petition process.

The lawsuit was heard by a Connecticut Superior Court on September 19, and, on December 15, Judge John Farley ruled that the suit has enough legal standing to proceed to trial this spring.

“This is a very significant development because it will be the first time that Yale has to explain and justify its actions in a court of law,” Ashe said.

Prior to this, Ashe said, the University has “thrown democracy to the wind.”

Interim Vice President for Communications Karen Peart declined to comment on the referendum and on the lawsuit’s progress to trial.

“I am very pleased that undergraduate students are holding a referendum,” Ashe said. “And it is my hope that President Salovey will embrace students and alumni as allies for making Yale the best institution possible instead of treating them as the opposition.”

Hovannesian hopes that this referendum will push the Corporation to become more transparent. As it stands now, meeting notes from Corporation meetings are made public exactly 50 years after the notes were taken, and University students and faculty play no role in the election or appointment of anyone on the Board of Trustees.

I think the main drawback to the current process is that it is so exclusive,” Hovannesian wrote. “Who gets to run, who chooses the candidates, and most importantly what those who are chosen do — all of that is a sort of a secret.”

The Board of Trustees will hold their next meeting on Feb. 11.

Janalie Cobb is an Audience Editor for the News and a former University staff reporter. She is a junior from Chicago in Davenport College double majoring in political science and psychology.
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.