Tim Tai, Photo Editor

A Yale College Council referendum, which opened Jan. 30, saw students vote overwhelmingly in favor of more democratic trustee elections.

Over 2,000 students — almost 90 percent of referendum participants — voted in the affirmative to the referendum’s 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?” Approximately 30 percent of Yale’s undergraduate population voted in the online referendum. 

The Yale College Council sent a letter to the Board of Trustees on Feb. 6 with the results of the referendum and several policy recommendations aimed at “achieving democratization.” These recommendations do not directly address the trustee election process. Rather, they are intended to “open the door” to the possibility of achieving democratic trustee elections in the future, according to the letter. 

“The connection between Board members and members of the Yale community has dissolved,” the YCC letter reads. “Democratization is something that may take a long time — longer than our time spent here as undergraduates. As members of the Yale College Council, we believe we must restore the link between the Board and the students, faculty and staff at Yale.” 

The Yale Corporation, also known as the Board of Trustees, consists of the University President, 10 “successor trustees” appointed by the current Board and six “alumni trustees” elected by University alumni from the broader community. The governor and lieutenant governor of Connecticut retain positions on the Board.  

The Corporation holds significant power at Yale, ruling on issues ranging from budget oversight to administrative appointments and long-term University priorities.

In May 2021, the University took unilateral action to jettison the long-standing alumni fellows petition process, which allowed Yale alumni to petition for candidacy in the annual trustee election. Now, only candidates chosen specifically by the University’s Alumni Fellow Nominating Committee may appear on the ballot.

Many students and alumni have renounced the decision over the past two years. In addition to alumni petitions and student government resolutions condemning the change and imploring the University to reinstate its former election process, Victor Ashe ’67 and Donald Glascoff ’67 sued Yale for the change, arguing that the new policy violates Yale’s legal obligations to its alumni.

“One of the reasons students and alumni feel unhappy is because they feel unheard,” Ashe said. “They have no seat at the table, and the University has demonstrated little interest in listening to them.”

Ashe said that he was not surprised by the overwhelming student support for a more democratic trustee election process. He said that if the University were to conduct a similar referendum for alumni, he would expect the alumni — like students — to vote overwhelmingly for democratization.

 Ashe argued that this is why the Corporation scrapped the petition process unilaterally rather than with an alumni vote. 

“There’s a huge divide between what the administration thinks and what students and alumni think,” Ashe told the News. “Alumni are treated as useful for donations, but otherwise as a nuisance.” 

When contacted for comment, University spokesperson Karen Peart referred the News to President Peter Salovey’s letter in response to the YCC. The letter acknowledged receipt of the YCC’s letter and encouraged the YCC to “continue conversations about matters of interest to students” with the Corporation’s student liaisons.

“The board of trustees always welcomes input from students, faculty, alumni, and staff,” Salovey wrote in the letter. “The board of trustees is not designed as a representative body for the current Yale community; they are fiduciaries and therefore must act in the university’s best interests, today and for Yale’s future.”

Salovey also noted that trustees engage in “varied, ongoing formal and informal meetings and discussions” with members of the Yale community, including students.

Naina Agrawal-Hardin ’25, an organizer for the Yale Endowment Justice Coalition — which campaigned to increase referendum turnout last week — said that she was not surprised to learn that students supported democratization.

“The Board’s recent elimination of the alumni petition process and continued inaction on fossil fuel divestment (despite students’ strong support for the cause) have made it clear that the Corporation is not listening to the Yale community, and their current structure leaves us powerless to do anything about it,” Agrawal-Hardin told the News. “I’m eager to see how they respond to student proposals for more accountability in light of the referendum results.” 

In its letter to the Corporation, the YCC outlined four main policy proposals: to make Corporation meeting minutes and agendas publicly accessible; to allow students to appear before committees of the Board and to streamline ways to connect students with trustee members; to establish a committee exploring ways to improve the structure of the Yale Corporation; to hold an annual public meeting to discuss the Board’s goals and solicit community feedback.

YCC Senator Kyle Hovannesian ’25 said that whether the Corporation actually institutes the changes depends on whether members really value student opinion. He said that, after speaking with “over a hundred” students last week, he encountered some who voted no simply because they felt nothing would come of it.

“The results will show the Yale Corporation that there needs to be some sort of change, and they would benefit greatly from accepting the YCC recommendations,” Hovannesian told the News. “Students would have a more vested interest in the state of our University and would get more involved.” 

The Corporation will next meet on Feb. 11, 2023.

Correction, Feb. 9: A pervious version of this article stated that nominees for the board of trustees were selected by the University. They are in fact selected by the University’s Alumni Fellow Nominating Committee. The article has been updated to reflect this.

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.
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.