Tennessee, country tunes and typical pleasantries were among the points of conversation in a four-minute phone call between Victor Ashe ’67 and University President Peter Salovey two springs ago.
Ashe, the former mayor of Knoxville, Tennessee and United States ambassador to Poland who was running for a coveted spot on the Yale Corporation, had qualified as one of the first petition candidates on the ballot in 18 years. Salovey had called to inform Ashe that he had lost the election and then had a short, polite conversation with him.
A mere four hours later, Catherine Bond Hill GRD ’85, then the senior trustee for the Yale Corporation, issued a public statement announcing that the petition process by which Ashe and other alumni pursued a seat on the board had been terminated — which meant that alumni could no longer vie for membership on the Board of Trustees without first receiving nomination from the Yale Alumni Fellow Nominating Committee. Salovey knew all about the decision, Ashe claimed, but didn’t have the “fortitude or the decency” to tell him during that call.
“When he called me that day to tell me that I did not win, he had at the same time orchestrated [the termination], and the Corporation met in secret without conferring with anyone,” Ashe said.
Salovey did not respond to a request for comment on his interactions with Ashe.
Ashe would not have the chance to speak with the president again until last May, when he returned to campus for his 55th class year reunion. At a Timothy Dwight College dinner event, Ashe approached Salovey. The former mayor had a 10-minute conversation with Salovey, who told him that the effort to eliminate the alumni petition process came from the Corporation, not himself.
But Ashe believes “that sort of dodges the issue” since Salovey chairs the Corporation meetings.
“He’s a leading member of the Corporation,” Ashe said. “That didn’t happen without his involvement. I mean, to suggest that somebody else on the board was behind it is duplicitous. It’s disingenuous.”
In December, Connecticut superior court judge John Burns Farley allowed a formal complaint that Ashe and Donald Glascoff ’67 filed against Yale to move forward. The complaint claimed breach of contract, arguing that the University had failed to uphold legal obligations to alumni.
When Ashe and Glascoff refer to “Yale” in their lawsuit, they are referring to the Yale Corporation, the University’s board of trustees. But Yale and Harvard University are unique in that they are the only two American universities for whom the university president also serves as chair of the board. Both alumni admitted that they had no idea how much influence Salovey had in the actual decision making process, given the secrecy of the proceedings.
“That’s the case here,” Glascoff, a legal attorney, said. “Certainly, President Salovey has to satisfy his boss. His boss is the trustees and [he has] to keep them advised and thoroughly involved in the process of running the institution.”
Salovey’s role is to serve as a conduit between the campus community and the trustees. On the other hand, Salovey’s fellow 16 trustees — who include corporate CEOs, government officials and presidents of other universities — advise him on most pressing decisions, from endowment investments to high budget developments. Their meetings, held behind closed doors, remain secret for 50 years. While Salovey is expected to make the final decisions, the trustees retain the ability to appoint — and fire — a sitting president.
In the last few years, the Yale Corporation has become a target of public criticism, especially by students and alumni. Ashe and Glascoff’s lawsuit, which will move forward this year, is joined by a January referendum put forth by the Yale College Council where an overwhelming majority of undergraduate students voted to democratize trustee elections.
As students and alumni search for accountability at Yale’s highest ranks of leadership, many have expressed confusion over Salovey’s role behind the closed doors of Yale’s most powerful governing body. The News spoke to 20 alumni, students, faculty, administrators and trustees familiar with the University about the evolving dynamic between the Yale President and the Corporation.
“I can’t think of a time in which the trustees took over in a sense, and told the President this is the way it’s going to be and then they announced it,” said Henry “Sam” Chauncey ’57, a longtime administrator at Yale who served as University Secretary from 1963 to 1977 under former Yale president Kingman Brewster Jr. “It’s just unique.”
The basic philosophy, Chauncey said, was that the person who runs an institution knows that institution best. He added that if a board initiated a proposal for a course of action that the president did not like, the president would quit.
Chauncey described a historical relationship between the president and the trustees that is very different from the one that exists today. Once in the 1960s, Brewster asked the board of trustees to review his performance for the previous several years of his presidency. Brewster wanted to confirm that the board had confidence in him, Chauncey said, even though the president already had popular support from the students and the faculty.
“The board said, ‘No, we don’t do that’,” Chauncey told the News. “When you’re appointed the president of Yale, you have the job.”
But Brewster threatened to resign if the board did not follow his instruction — so the trustees folded, and set up a “really elaborate six month process of reviewing the president.” The results came back with a “stunningly positive review” from everyone except alumni, given his relatively progressive University policy at the time.
That good faith dynamic appeared to be University policy for several decades until the late 20th century.
Former University President Richard Levin, Salovey’s predecessor, told the News that the Corporation had a “lot of anxiety” when he took office in 1993.
Faculty unhappiness over budget cuts, dated infrastructure and a precarious relationship between Yale and New Haven had intensified over the 1980s and 1990s before Levin took office. A murder on campus and high crime rates in the surrounding city, Levin added, all contributed to the sense that Yale’s leadership needed to make changes and needed to make them fast.
While Levin said the corporation had “taken a risk on a young president” when they selected him, they didn’t stop there. The trustees also made several large-scale reforms to their own role in University governance, many of which survive to this day. The Corporation began to develop policies that would make them more involved, Levin said. They wanted to make sure there were “no surprises” when it came to developments on campus, good or bad.
“The motivation for this was that the Corporation had failed after my predecessor left,” Levin said. “That they had really not been aware of the magnitude of the problems on campus and that they wanted to be better informed.”
Levin would organize an executive session during every Corporation meeting, when he would speak to the trustees and update them on campus developments. He looped them in during early stages of development, rather than presenting policies or initiatives that were already “fully worked out.” But as Levin grew into the role, Corporation members expressed their faith in his judgment and took a more hands-off approach to his decision-making.
“Rick had been there for many, many years when I came onto the Corporation,” Francisco Cigarroa, a former trustee who served in the last three years of Levin’s presidency and the first three years of Salovey’s tenure, said. “He certainly had formed a lot of experience underneath him and had established a lot of trust with the board and so, you know, the board gave him a lot of leeway.”
When University leadership discussed timing for the construction of Benjamin Franklin and Pauli Murray Colleges, Levin said that many members of the corporation were “very eager to expand” and thus preferred for those schools to be built sooner than later.
Levin disagreed, and after a “push and pull” between him and the board, the project was delayed for several years. The University did not yet have the financial resources to “do it right,” Levin said, so he resisted moving forward.
Under Levin, the general consensus was that the trustees were not decision makers. To most, their job appeared to be counseling, shaping, advising and supporting the president, including on issues of governance. When Levin stepped down in 2013, the trustees expressed a desire to be more involved in difficult decisions when they considered Salovey as the university’s next president.
It’s difficult to succeed a highly successful president such as Levin, Cigarroa told the News. The presidential search committee, which included Cigarroa, saw two notable attributes in Salovey. First, he had heavy experience in administrative positions, including as Yale’s provost, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and dean of Yale College.
Second, Cigarroa said, Salovey “brought in a different personality.” As a social psychologist in the classroom and a clinical psychologist in the field, Salovey’s “human leadership” caught the attention of the Board.
“Compared to the candidates that we were interviewing, certainly he was able to connect with the trustees and with people he met better than most,” Cigarroa said.
And indeed he did. After a unanimous Corporation vote, Salovey was inaugurated as the 23rd president of Yale in October 2013.
“I’m a first year, just like you!” newly appointed University President Peter Salovey proclaimed to a crowd of incoming Yale first-year students that same year, a grin on his face.
Salovey enters the scene
“Those first couple of years were difficult,” Nancy Better ’84, a longtime fundraising chair for the University and capital campaign co-chair, said.
She was referring to a string of campus controversies, many of which related to racial tensions, that began in 2015.
Two years into his presidency, Salovey became a polarizing figure. In 2015, former Head of Silliman College Nicholas Christakis and Associate Head Erika Christakis faced student backlash after the latter sent out an email dismissing concern over cultural appropriation in Halloween costumes. Salovey received criticism first, for his handling of the incident, and then for siding with the Christakis.
Roughly 200 undergraduate students marched to Salovey’s home on Hillhouse Avenue to protest institutional racism at Yale. They pointed out two things: one, that Salovey’s first campus wide email since the Christakis controversy outlined an initiative to tackle tobacco use on campus, and two, that Salovey’s later email addressing the scandal spoke about affirming students’ freedom of speech instead of racial tensions at Yale.
But this was not the only criticism Yale faced at the time. That year, students demanded that Calhoun College be renamed — it is now known as Grace Hopper College — and that the title “master” be abolished — it has now been replaced as “head of college.”
In that same 2015 interview with the News, Salovey said that decisions about renaming and naming residential colleges fall under the domain of the Yale Corporation.
When it came to the Calhoun renaming, the News reported in 2015 that Salovey and the other 16 members of the Yale Corporation spent seven months deliberating over whether to rename Calhoun College and eliminate the title of master. In April 2016, Salovey announced that the college would not be renamed — only to reverse that decision 10 months later.
University stakeholders were unhappy with the extended process that was required to make a final decision. A 2019 News investigation found that major donors were doubtful of Salovey’s ability to effectively lead the University through a fundraising campaign because of his handling of the Calhoun renaming.
Trustees who were in the room during the Calhoun deliberations described Salovey’s decision-making process as very collaborative. Hill told the News that when she became a trustee, Salovey was determined to engage the trustees in Corporation meetings when it came to large issues.
“He seemed very open and honest and engaged with the board,” Hill said.
Paul Joskow GRD ’72, who served as a trustee from 2008 to 2020, said that Salovey can recognize mistakes, and is willing to engage in consultation and collaboration to correct those mistakes.
“He recognizes that an autocratic leadership style is an unsuccessful approach,” Joskow said.
Salovey has prioritized collaboration in his dealings with the Corporation. The three trustees who spoke to the News for this story all independently attested to Salovey’s ability to listen empathetically.
Chauncey said that during the Griswold and Brewster administrations, presidents typically tried to personally bond with the trustees to foster a good working dynamic.
“That makes for a really good relationship, because if you disagree with a friend, that can be usually done much more effectively than if you disagree with someone you don’t like,” Chauncey said.
In this respect, Salovey has conducted himself similarly to his predecessors. When Cigarroa was a trustee in the early years of his presidency, he would enjoy dinners with Salovey and his wife, Marta Moret. Cigarroa added that Salovey was easy to connect with on a human level, a sentiment shared by many of those who were interviewed by the News.
“He has a way of making people very comfortable,” said Randy Nelson ’85, a co-chair of the Yale Development Council. “I think it’s just generally, people like to be understood and heard. They like to feel that they’re important and Peter has a way of making everybody feel important.”
In describing his dynamic with the Corporation, Salovey says that when it comes to managing the University’s day-to-day operations, he often reports a decision to the trustees “that has already been made.” But when it comes to governance, or processes by which issues will be decided or voted upon, he will tend to “lay out options” and “be receptive to their feedback.”
“My experience as a psychologist … helps me try to understand the vantage point and perspective by which a trustee or a group of trustees might be coming [from], particularly if they disagree with me,” Salovey said.
One of the 17
By the time that Ashe vied for a Corporation seat in 2021, many former University leaders had already made note that, following Salovey’s inauguration, the dynamic between the president and the Corporation had appeared to have drastically changed.
The perception that Salovey was merely a voice at the table instead of the Corporation’s final decision-maker only became more prevalent among students and alumni in light of the trustees’ decision following Ashe’s failed election.
“I write on behalf of the Yale Board of Trustees to inform you of a change to the process for electing Alumni Fellows to the board,” Hill, the senior trustee at the time, wrote in a letter addressed to alumni in May 2021.
She said that the petition process had recently been embraced by candidates who had particular issues or reforms in mind, which current trustees found incompatible with their goal.
“It is because Yale’s fiduciaries must represent the interests of the university above their own or those of any backers that we find the prospect of cause-based elections so troubling,” Hill said.
Ashe was largely backed by the William F. Buckley program, a political group which claims to advocate for free speech on campus and receives financial support from high profile conservative donors.
Hill added that there was concern that elections would “discourage many qualified and desirable candidates” from accepting a nomination, citing politicization and a costly campaigning process as barriers to entry. She acknowledged that there would be some who would “object to this decision” but felt confident the board was correct.
Michael Poliakoff ’75, a Yale alumnus who also serves as president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, told the News that he was “absolutely appalled” by the petition vote for two reasons. He said that it reflects what he calls the Board’s fear of diverse voices that have not been “vetted carefully” who could challenge the status quo.
“It’s as if the existing board is saying that we’re … just people who wave a handkerchief at reunions and sing ‘God, country and Yale’, and then start waving the checkbooks,” Poliakoff said of himself and other alumni.
Chauncey could not recall any announcement in which a senior trustee announced a decision to the Yale community ever being made in any presidency that he has been involved in at Yale since the 1950s.
Salovey defended the board’s decision, explaining that there was an important group within the board of trustees that “grapples with issues of governance” — the trusteeship committee. The president is not a voting member of that committee, but Salovey said that he attends those meetings as a “source of information,” noting that he votes in the final Corporation decision.
When it came to the decision to terminate the alumni petition process, Salovey said that he agreed with Hill’s concerns that she vocalized to the Yale community but that he had no special vote when it came to the final decision. He was only “one of the 17 [members]” when it came to that decision, Salovey said.
Salovey did not confirm how he himself voted.
Students call for change
It was Kyle Hovannesian ’25, a Berkeley College undergraduate senator, who first sparked the idea to advocate for change in the structure of the Yale Corporation through the undergraduate representative body.
Hovannesian, with a group of other student senators, wrote a letter to the trustees raising concern over alleged lack of transparency and community input in its decision making process. It was unlikely the Corporation would support democratization of trustee elections, Hovannesian said, but he also included in the letter what he thought were some other less significant and “pretty reasonable requests” for reform which he believed would give the trustees greater access to student input.
The Yale College Council held their referendum in January. They asked two 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 vote was overwhelmingly yes on both, with over 2,000 students voting in the affirmative — 90 percent of those who voted. As a result of the referendum results, the letter Hovannesian wrote was approved by the Senate on Feb. 5, and submitted to Salovey on Feb. 6.
Hovannesian told the News that he was disappointed with Salovey’s response to the letter. The president did not respond to any of the six recommendations, he said.
Salovey also did not publicly address the concerns raised by the results of the referendum.
“I feel like people didn’t really know what happened with the referendum,” Hovannesian said. “Like what was the point of it?”
But while the administration provided little response to students’ concerns, the referendum itself received wide media attention. A week after the referendum, the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece entitled “Make Yale Democratic Again.”
“It seems the wealthier American universities get — Yale’s endowment is $41.4 billion — the less open they are to different voices,” the op-ed read. “At a time when it’s become fashionable to cast any political disagreement as a ‘threat to democracy,’ some of the institutions that trumpet democracy the loudest don’t mind undermining it in their own governance.”
Still, Hovannesian cautiously avoids putting the blame on Salovey for his response to the letter.
“I don’t want to criticize his leadership because I don’t really know what else he could have done,” Hovannesian said. “Because his boss at the end of the day is the board of trustees. So he’s not going to anger them and lose his position, essentially.”
Salovey told the News that the culture among the Yale Corporation is to “try to support the decision that the leadership of the University wants to make,” backing him and the rest of his cabinet. But he also noted in interviews with the News that it can be difficult to make everyone at the University happy with every decision.
He added that the trustees are currently in discussion on how they can be more responsive to student input, which he believes will lead to “novel opportunities” for Yale students to interact with the Corporation.
“I think over time, as a leader, I’ve become better at making sure that everyone at the table, whatever that table is… has an opportunity to weigh in, is listened to, and their ideas are taken seriously,” Salovey said.
However, only 16 people at that table have the ability to fire him.
2023 marks Salovey’s 10th year as president of Yale University.
This post appeared in Yale News on April 17, 2023.