For some time now, Yale University has admirably expressed a “strong commitment” to the promotion of diversity and equal opportunity. In a statement released for the 2016–17 academic year, President Peter Salovey noted that “The success of Yale’s educational and research missions depends on the diverse backgrounds, experiences, and accomplishments of our faculty, students, and staff.” However, Yale’s method of selecting members for its board of trustees, those who ultimately have final power over the university, belies this fair-sounding assertion.
The fact that the Yale community is not particularly friendly to diverse voices is no surprise to its students. The same year that President Salovey’s statement was released, the Yale Daily News found that almost 75% of Yale’s undergraduates “believe Yale does not provide a welcoming environment for conservative students to share their opinions on political issues,” while more than 98% believe that Yale welcomes liberal opinions. A 2020 survey examining how students at 55 elite schools felt about their campus’s climate revealed a similar divergence: Yale was rated 3rd by liberal students and 40th by conservatives.
This kind of deep-seated polarization does not appear from nowhere, but rather has its roots in policies designed to exclude voices that challenge mainstream opinion. Elements of this are evident at the highest level of Yale’s governance: its board of trustees, known as the Yale Corporation. Alumni choose six of the 19 seats on the board. So far, so good. But “choose” is a euphemism: The process by which candidates can come forward for consideration can only be described as Byzantine. While alumni can petition to be added to the ballot, most candidates are pre-selected by a nominating committee. How does the committee choose its nominees? It is impossible to know, as board minutes are sealed for 50 years in a remarkable effort to limit transparency and accountability.
Before this year’s election, it had been 18 years since a petition candidate (i.e., one who was not pre-selected by the nominating committee) appeared on the ballot and 55 years since one had been elected. The gauntlet for the independent candidate is daunting: Once, it took 250 signatures to qualify for the ballot, but now it takes nearly 4,500. Candidates petitioning to run must announce their candidacy a year in advance, while the nomination committee’s selections are revealed one month prior to the election.
The Yale Alumni Association suggests that these processes were designed to make certain that trustees “come to the board without binding commitments to particular constituencies, interests, or issues,” as well as to avoid “faction-based politics” and “professionalize[d] campaigns.” There is merit in this argument, but at the same time, this process is clearly designed to favor candidates “vetted” by current trustees and administrators. That works well for cozy collegiality but not for debate and challenge. By limiting robust alumni participation through restrictive structural barriers, the board has effectively claimed that the only body capable of ensuring that its members represent “diverse backgrounds, experiences, and accomplishments” is itself.
Against all odds, this year’s election features two petition candidates: Victor Ashe and Maggie Thomas. Although their platforms differ, both call for changes that will cause the board’s decision-making to be more transparent, as well as the election process itself. Despite the Yale Alumni Association’s assertion that the barriers to entry are designed to prevent campaigning, Ms. Thomas noted that reaching the signature requirement was “a full time job,” and both candidates stated that they have felt pressured to campaign actively.
Together, the two candidates collected nearly 11,000 alumni signatures to get on the ballot. This represents “11,000 alumni who want change,” Mr. Ashe said. It is easy to see why.