Every student leader who interacts with a university’s central officers comes to understand its core operating principles: students come and go in an instant, and good policy requires longer-term thinking than the lifetime of a two- to six-year degree. The idea that lasting change, when it happens, comes from committee meetings, focus groups and lengthy reports forces us to accommodate our visions for a better university to the necessity of incrementalism.
I learned this lesson firsthand as an undergraduate at Harvard, where I worked as one of the primary student leaders in a long-standing but ill-supported effort to improve the campus climate around spiritual, religious and ethical life. No doubt, many of you are engaged in similar struggles today, fighting to make Yale, your teams, your clubs and your departments more representative of the people you are and the values you hold. The work is hard, and change feels negligible if it happens at all. But change is necessary, especially when we’re trying to be good ancestors.
On rare occasions in places like Harvard and Yale, a larger opportunity for structural transformation appears and gains enough steam to be viable and within reach. Anti-war protests in 1969 led to a fundamental reevaluation of Harvard’s relationship to the military-industrial complex and to marginalized communities in the Boston area. Anti-Apartheid protests in the 1980s and 1990s ultimately led Yale to divest from Apartheid South Africa. More recent student-led organizing around divesting from fossil fuels and prisons has already transformed the investing practices of both institutions, even as the movements carry on. In each of these moments, our forebears and classmates have called our institutions to live up to the values they espouse, not out of spite, but out of deep belief in what these places can be at their best.
Another such moment is on the horizon here in New Haven today. Within an hour of University President Peter Salovey’s retirement announcement, the Board of Trustees launched a presidential search committee without any student members or meaningful channels for student participation. My alma mater has included a formal student advisory board in each of its three presidential searches since 2006. The vast majority of Yale’s peer institutions and America’s major research universities have included students on presidential search committees and advisory boards for decades.
In response to the Yale trustees’ exclusion, our student governments passed with supermajorities a resolution that condemns the trustees’ decision and calls for maximum feasible student participation in the search for President Salovey’s successor. Elected by the Yale College Council, the Graduate Student Assembly and the Graduate and Professional Student Senate, three student committee members would participate and vote in the entirety of the presidential selection process. This ensures that the larger committee — currently composed of corporate executives, a former college president and faculty members — would pay attention to not only the candidates’ public relations skills but also their ability to lead, mentor, interact with and gain the trust of the young people who they will interact with on a daily basis. The President’s job includes fundraising, but it also requires setting a broad vision for campus life that is far more valuable than the size of Yale’s endowment.
Including student members also ensures that whomever the committee selects will already have student champions on campus before they even start the job. These student committee members would serve as part of the larger, elected student advisory board. This board would amalgamate the concerns and aspirations of the student body and report those findings to the search committee. The trustees should also give this board the chance to hear from and informally weigh-in on the committee’s finalists. No search firm, outside consultant or trustee can replace the candid insight of peer-to-peer feedback, especially when it’s easier to count their time away from campus in decades than in years.
Logistics comprise most of the potential criticism of this proposal. Open elections ensure that the students involved in the search process represent the vision of the broadest cross-section of their peers. Administrators and trustees skeptical of the time commitment of student involvement have eight months to align their schedules and pick a new president. Concerns about confidentiality can be handled with a simple signature and a brief explanation of the records rules governing all Board of Trustees proceedings. Defense of a selection process without students is a dangerous and disheartening vote to sustain the historical gate-keeping and exclusionary practices of Yale and so many of its peers.
It is high time that Yale faculty, administrators and trustees match their faith in our ability to ignite change after we leave campus with the opportunity to shape Yale while we are still here. Few of us will be students for much of the new President’s tenure, but we will always be Yale alumni. And in another decade, when a new President comes along, we will all look back on this moment and remember the rare opportunity we had to make Yale a better place. I dearly hope we seize it.
BENJAMIN J. SCHAFER is a third-year PhD Student in the Yale History Department studying the late-twentieth-century United States. He is a graduate of Harvard College and Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge. He authored the original resolution on student involvement passed by the GSA and YCC. Contact him at email@example.com.