UP CLOSE: Under Salovey, Yale Corporation gains influence

Under Salovey, Yale Corporation gains influence

Published on April 7, 2016

It is near midnight on Nov. 12, 2015, and 200 students are marching on University President Peter Salovey’s house in the cold. Advocating for a more diverse and inclusive campus, they present Salovey with a set of demands. Their list includes, among other things, renaming Calhoun College, eliminating the title of master and naming the two new residential colleges after people of color. Just five days later, Salovey responds to campus concerns with a series of initiatives, one inviting the community to listening sessions with the Yale Corporation on naming. But the three issues remained unresolved.

For more than seven months, the 17 members of the Yale Corporation, including Salovey, who chairs each of the body’s meetings, have been deliberating whether to rename Calhoun and eliminate the title of master. They have not yet announced a decision. The Corporation has also been debating what to name the two new residential colleges. This decision has not been reached either.

In November, student activists demanded that Salovey address these issues within days. But for such unusual and significant items, who makes the actual decision: the president or the Corporation as a whole?

To the surprise of former University leaders dating back 60 years, the answer now seems to be the Corporation.

Interviews with Corporation members, former University President Richard Levin and various current and former administrators reveal that past presidents did not see the Corporation as a body that could or should make these types of decisions. Rather, they viewed the Corporation as a feedback mechanism that always accepted presidential recommendations — including on nonroutine issues like these three.

“The Corporation simply never would have controlled these decisions,” said former University Secretary John Wilkinson ’60 GRD ’63, who served in the position under former University Presidents Bartlett Giamatti and Benno Schmidt in the 1980s. “[Giamatti] would have pulled out his hair and just started screaming if he were just another member of the Corporation on something this big. He would have had a fit.”

But Salovey has taken a different approach.

He told the News that upon his ascension to the presidency in 2013, Corporation members expressed a desire to become more involved in difficult decisions — a request he says fits his “collaborative leadership style.” As the Corporation prepares to meet this weekend, he said it is impossible to tell exactly when these three issues will be settled, but that the aim is for them to be resolved by the end of the academic year. When making certain far-reaching decisions, he said he sees himself as just another member of the Corporation and would like the body to reach a consensus at its own pace.

“For nonroutine decisions that have broad and long-term implications, I think consensus, if it can be reached, is a better approach than simply asking for a vote on the president’s recommendation,” Salovey said. “So rather than the usual process of coming with a specific recommendation and asking the Corporation to endorse it, in the case of the naming of the new colleges, Calhoun College and the title of master, we’ll instead lay out options for them to consider.”

In the months that the Yale community has waited for these issues to be resolved, both Harvard and Princeton have decided to eliminate the title of master and settled their own naming debates relatively quickly.

And in these months, the implications of Salovey’s consensus-based approach have become clearer: Some praise it for encouraging thoughtfulness and fostering prudence early in his tenure; others lament that the model has prolonged the decision-making process, distributed accountability across the Corporation and inhibited student access to those with power.


In justifying the Corporation’s control over the three naming issues, Woodbridge Hall administrators often point out that the Corporation named the first residential colleges in the 1930s and that the title of master is included in the University’s bylaws, which can only be altered by the Corporation. To Salovey, the long-term implications of these decisions necessitate extended conversations within the Corporation without the guidance, or restriction, of an overriding administrative recommendation. His aim is for a consensus to emerge.

But former University leaders paint a picture of a historically different type of decision-making process for nonroutine issues — one in which Corporation members served as advisers and always followed the recommendations of the president.

“It was not about consensus,” Levin said of his relationship with the Corporation. “While there is a healthy relationship between the president and the Corporation, the body is a sounding board for the ideas of the president, dean and officers. They give feedback, but they rarely actually decide the issue.”

(Amanda Hu, Production & Design Staff)

Levin added that after consulting with individual Corporation members, he would submit recommendations that were virtually never rebuked.

Wilkinson and Sam Chauncey ’57 — who served as special assistant to former University President Kingman Brewster between 1963 and 1972 and secretary of the Corporation from 1973 to 1982 — went one step further. According to them, the University presidents under whom they served would have actively controlled the three issues the Corporation is currently deliberating.

“Consensus was absolutely never the way it worked,” Chauncey said. “It isn’t like Brewster or Levin or Schmidt or Giamatti would walk in with some background research and say, ‘We have this problem — I don’t know what the hell to do about it so let’s figure it out …’ Trustees are there to receive a recommendation, to talk about it, to make honest criticism and to have a vote.”

Granted, the nature of the presidency has evolved over the past few decades. As demonstrated by campus controversies in November, the University sits on a national stage, within which the president can face pressures from both within and without. Still, Salovey said if he were to attend Corporation meetings without recommendations, he would come prepared with broader options for consideration.

Chauncey and Wilkinson said the various presidents under whom they served would have made recommendations on Calhoun, master and the residential colleges to which the Corporation would have undoubtedly adhered.

“I never saw a recommendation turned down,” Wilkinson said.

Chauncey explained that when Ezra Stiles and Morse Colleges were named in the early 1960s, then-University President Alfred Whitney Griswold submitted these two names to the Corporation, which readily approved both. On the contrary, Salovey said in February that he submitted roughly two dozen name possibilities for the new colleges to the Corporation for discussion.

William Nordhaus ’63 GRD ’73, an economics professor who served as provost from 1986 to 1988 and a vice president from 1991 to 1992, said that during the time he had access to Corporation meetings as a high-ranking officer, presidential recommendations almost always guided the body. In his experience, the president is the chief executive officer of the University and controls major decisions, while the role of the Corporation is to dissect those decisions before approving them.

However, this historically unilateral presidential approach prompted disbelief and opposition from current Woodbridge Hall administrators and Corporation members, many of whom said such a model would undermine the Corporation’s role in University governance.

Chauncey said that even though the title of master is in the University’s bylaws, Brewster would have publicly announced whether he wanted the title altered and the Corporation would have fallen in line at its next meeting.

But Corporation Fellow Charles Goodyear IV ’80, who has served with both Levin and Salovey, argued that the Corporation “owns these [three] decisions.”

“That is not the way governance works,” he said. “If the president said we’re naming a college after Adolf Hitler before we met, would the Corporation say he’s a strong president so we agree with him? Absolutely not … The people of the Corporation historically are not shrinking violets, and if they are the ones who had accountability for the decisions, they will own it … We aren’t going to be patsies … I wouldn’t want to be a part of that board.”

Still, Wilkinson said during his time, the value of the Corporation stemmed not from its decision-making power, but from its ability and responsibility to ask the president probing questions about his recommendations.

Yet this former model of dominant presidential recommendations guiding the University seems to have faded, at least for these three decisions.

“It depends on the issue, and [Salovey] is great at this: He loves to listen, and he does that extremely well. If there is a strong view from Corporation members, it is unlikely that [Salovey] is going to stand up and say ‘I am going to do something completely different,’” Goodyear told the News in October.


(Tresa Joseph, Production & Design Editor)

Under Salovey, the Corporation has gained a degree of influence through its increased involvement in nonroutine decisions and the pace at which they are made. Salovey said while he is sensitive to members of the Yale community who would like matters to be settled more quickly, the reverberations of these decisions will be felt for generations and necessitate patience.

“In my opinion, a weighty matter before the Corporation is not best decided by simply putting it up to a vote and seeing if there is a majority — I think it’s best decided when there has been a full and thorough vetting of that issue where everyone has been heard, and then, a consensus emerges,” Salovey said.

Secretary and Vice President for Student Life Kimberly Goff-Crews and Vice President for Development and Alumni Affairs Joan O’Neill said rather than submit official recommendations on these three issues, Woodbridge Hall is looking to frame the Corporation’s conversations as it works toward a consensus. They explained that Woodbridge Hall administrators are providing the Corporation with background information on the three issues, drawing from listening sessions and surveys presented to the Yale community.

Seeking to contextualize this shift in the decision-making process, Salovey said that, for routine issues, Corporation decisions are still directed by recommendations from him and other University administrators and that the Corporation’s jurisdiction over the naming of the two new residential colleges was decided under Levin. In explanation, Levin said he did not attempt to determine the names before retiring and that Corporation members are the stewards of the long-term health of Yale, thereby justifying their involvement.

Corporation members — who technically are not authorized to speak publicly on Corporation matters — agreed that Salovey has emphasized collaboration.

“Salovey is, I don’t want to say a consensus builder because that suggests a kind of softness — not at all — but he really wants an opportunity for people to weigh in,” Senior Fellow of the Corporation Margaret Marshall LAW ’75 said.

Salovey, Woodbridge Hall administrators and Corporation members all said it is important to remember that Levin was president for two decades while Salovey is less than three years into the role, which perhaps explains his more inclusive approach.

Donna Dubinsky ’77 — who has served on the Corporation since 2006 — said Salovey is more focused on hearing the perspective of the Corporation than Levin was.

By the end of his tenure, Goodyear said Levin grew “very confident” and was deeply familiar with the perspectives of various Corporation members.

A source who attends all Corporation meetings said by the end of his tenure, Levin became complacent and less focused on obtaining broad alignment. Several individuals interviewed went so far as to say Levin grew “dictatorial” in his approach to the Corporation and faculty-related issues, raising the possibility that Salovey’s style is being judged in a relative, not absolute, context.

“Salovey is, I don’t want to say a consensus builder because that suggests a kind of softness — not at all — but he really wants an opportunity for people to weigh in.”

—Margaret Marshall LAW ’75, Senior Corporation Fellow

For now, Goodyear said Salovey appears more focused on collaboration, which may be due in part to his academic background.

“He is a consensus guy; he is a psychologist; and he is very adept at [emotional intelligence]. That’s his style, but maybe 20 years from now he’ll come in and say ‘This is what we’re doing,’” Goodyear said. “But I do think [Salovey] is much more likely to canvass the Corporation.”

Indeed, Wilkinson said Salovey’s expertise suggests that the Corporation has not seized power from him or that he lacks the courage to make decisions. Rather, it suggests that Salovey is sharing influence willingly, Wilkinson said.

Dubinsky said Salovey approaches the Corporation with the mind of a psychologist, while Levin did so through the lens of an economist, enabling Levin to identify tradeoffs and constraints and guide the University through particularly difficult periods. She added that Salovey’s collaborative style fits Yale’s current needs and that the University is fortunate to have “the right guy at the right time.”

In choosing a president to replace Levin, the Corporation chose Salovey, a world-renowned psychologist who had previously served as provost and dean of Yale College.

Goodyear, who led the presidential search, said a desire to move away from the characteristics of the Levin era did not factor into the selection process.

Yet Salovey said upon his ascension to the presidency, Corporation members expressed a desire to become more involved in addressing complex issues from the start.

“Both through a combination of my style and the desire of Corporation members when I interviewed each of them … we are willing to have a more freewheeling discussion in the Corporation room on important issues that might not involve their reacting to specific recommendations,” Salovey said.

As chair of Corporation meetings, Salovey said he has and will continue to express his opinions on current naming issues. And interviews with Corporation members suggest his opinions do carry significant weight because he is the president of the University. But there is an important distinction between Salovey sharing his point of view with the Corporation and submitting a recommendation for the body to ultimately abide by. And even Salovey emphasized that, for unusual matters, while he is not afraid of making recommendations, it is not his prerogative to dictate what the body decides or to formulate a timeline for the Corporation’s decision-making.

“As president of the University, I can organize the discussion; I can provide materials in advance; I can express an opinion,” Salovey said. “But I think it would be a mistake to push for answers before the group is ready.”


This year has been the first real test of Salovey’s leadership style. The naming of the two new residential colleges, the potential renaming of Calhoun and the potential elimination of the title of master are arguably the most far-reaching and complex decisions Salovey has faced since assuming the presidency.

“I have been on the Corporation for 10 years, and very few things we have grappled with have been at this level,” Dubinsky said.

The Corporation’s increased influence over these major decisions has had sizable consequences. It is unclear to the Yale community who is to be held accountable on these issues, several former administrators and students said. Meanwhile, as the Corporation’s official agenda has grown in scope, the frequency with which the body meets has not increased — inevitably slowing decision-making.

Goodyear, Chauncey and Wilkinson all said Salovey’s approach has both stalled the process and made it more unpredictable. Even Salovey agreed.

“There is no doubt that striving toward a consensus takes more time than simply putting matters up to a vote,” Salovey said. “I’ve been wrong more often than right when I’ve hazarded a guess about when issues will be decided. It is very difficult to predict when [these] issues are going to be decided by them.”

Thirty-eight of 40 students surveyed said the University should be moving more quickly to resolve these three issues.

“It’s time to put these things to rest,” Jacob Bennett ’16 said.

Salovey said that he agrees the naming debates have received much attention — both inside and outside the Corporation — and that the time has come, or will come soon, to “move on.”

Unlike ongoing efforts to choose the names and masters of the two new residential colleges, Wilkinson pointed out that Stiles and Morse had both matters settled years before they opened through the influence of administrative recommendations. He also lamented that under Salovey, individuals who are physically detached from campus increasingly control major University decisions.

“The consensus model is not going to work very well when you’re talking about a multibillion-dollar Corporation,” Wilkinson said. “Corporations like this need a firm hand and firm leadership. What worries me is that Corporation members, no matter how good they are, are only guests of the University.”

In addition, the Corporation only has a small amount of time to discuss naming issues at each meeting. Each board meeting spans just three days, and the body’s confidential agenda includes many items outside of naming issues and the title of master.

“Corporations like this need a firm hand and firm leadership. What worries me is that Corporation members, no matter how good they are, are only guests of the University.”

—John Wilkinson ’60 GRD ’63, former University Secretary

With the Corporation focusing on these three decisions across several meetings, Nordhaus expressed concern from the outside that the body may be neglecting its more traditional responsibilities.

“Someone told me they’re not looking at investments because they’re spending all their time on the new colleges,” Nordhaus said. “I worry about that. Someone told me they’re spending time looking at different schools’ actions, and I worry about that. But I don’t see the agenda.”

One high-ranking administrator who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject said University employees expected decisions to be made more efficiently under Salovey because he rose to prominence within Yale, and thus understands the inner workings of the University. Instead, the administrator said, decision-making has slowed not only for these three issues, but also in areas like capital campaign planning and the development of broader University strategy.

Chauncey said Salovey’s model of consensus management risks robbing Yale of a true leader by distributing accountability throughout the Corporation, adding that other presidents would not have allowed such an increase in the body’s influence.

“Every other president would have resigned by now,” Chancey said. “But if a president doesn’t want to make a mistake, the trustees will keep filling the vacuum … It is my belief that an institution like Yale can only progress if there is someone who is willing to take the responsibility of leadership by making recommendations, including those that might run the risk of getting him or her fired.”

Salovey said that while he is willing to risk making errors, Corporation members have made their desire to be involved “quite clear.”

Indeed, Goodyear said once these three issues are settled, he expects them to be presented to the Yale community as Corporation decisions instead of presidential decisions. That is not the case for typical issues, he said, which represent the vast majority of decisions and are “owned” by the president and his administration. Senior Advisor to the President Martha Highsmith said examples of issues guided by administrative recommendations include the construction of new buildings, increases in the Yale College term bill, the hiring of an officer and the naming of a professor to an endowed chair.

It is, of course, too early to say that decisions made by consensus will be more or less effective than those produced by administrative recommendations, as these three issues are the first to truly test Salovey’s approach. While student memory largely extends only to Salovey’s inauguration, University faculty and administrators are still assessing his style in comparison to past presidents.

Wilkinson said one benefit of Salovey’s model is that full discussion and deliberation will prevent “knee-jerk reactions.” He cited the actions of Harvard and Princeton concerning the title of master.

Dean of the School of Management Edward Snyder noted that while the recommendation-based approach of previous presidents is commonly accepted in research on boards of governance, a more involved, consensus-based approach is as well.

Stephen Schwarzman ’69 — the chairman and CEO of The Blackstone Group who donated $150 million to the University in May — said in his experiences with boards of governance, recommendation-based and consensus-based models each have merit.

“In my experience, both can work,” Schwarzman said.


By relying on consensus for nonroutine decisions, Salovey has ensured that Yale will not move as quickly, or impulsively, as Harvard and Princeton. Both universities decided to eliminate the title of master in the fall as college campuses across the nation were enveloped by conversations about racism and discrimination, and, in the past few weeks, each has addressed a naming issue of its own: Princeton will not rename buildings honoring former president Woodrow Wilson, and Harvard will change its law school seal, which featured the crest of an 18th-century slaveholding family. In comparison, Yale lags behind.

Unlike Yale, Harvard and Princeton formed special committees that recommended how to settle their respective naming issues. Similar to the approach of former Yale presidents, the Harvard Corporation and Princeton’s Board of Trustees readily approved those recommendations rather than formulate their own. Able to meet more frequently, these committees made decisions relatively quickly.

At Princeton, the 40-person board of trustees was responsible for determining whether to rename buildings honoring Wilson because of his racist legacy. Instead of the entire board settling the issue, however, a trustee committee of 10 put together a formal recommendation.

Princeton’s Assistant Vice President for Communications Daniel Day said forming a special committee enabled Princeton to reach a decision faster. The committee had nine meetings between early December 2015 and late March before submitting its recommendation to the entire board, he said.

In that same period, the Yale Corporation has met twice.

(Amanda Hu, Production & Design Staff)

Harvard also adopted a specialized approach. Rather than ask its Corporation to decide whether to alter the law school seal, Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow charged a committee of faculty, students and an alumnus with doing so in late November. On March 4, the committee recommended to the Harvard Corporation that the symbol be eliminated. The body accepted the recommendation just 10 days later, resolving the issue in under four months.

“The Corporation agrees with your judgment and the recommendation of the committee that the Law School should have the opportunity to retire its existing shield and propose a new one,” wrote Faust and Harvard Corporation Senior Fellow William F. Lee in a March 14 letter to Minow.

Liana Henderson-Semel, a Harvard freshman, said she appreciates the speed with which Harvard responded to concerns about the law school seal and title of master. A recommendations-based approach seems more effective than one based on consensus, she said, because issues this sensitive should be resolved quickly.

Kyle McFadden, a Harvard sophomore, said allowing select members within the Harvard community to formulate recommendations that are ultimately carried out ensures that the direction of the university is determined by those in tune with campus climate.

“If the Harvard Corporation were asked to decide these issues independently, I believe a violation of Harvard’s spirit of community would occur,” McFadden said.

Though Harvard and Princeton have moved at a faster pace than Yale, it seems that their presidents — both of whom publicly endorsed the committees’ recommendations — were less involved in decision-making than Salovey has been on Yale’s three issues.

“The president had no role in the Wilson decision,” Day said. “He was involved in deciding to accept the recommendation, but he was not a formal member of the committee. He wasn’t appointed. The board appointed 10 members, and he was not one chosen.”

But Woodbridge Hall administrators insist that the pace at which Harvard and Princeton have moved should not, and will not, impact Yale’s decision-making timeline.

Despite its relatively infrequent meeting schedule and the progress of Harvard and Princeton, Highsmith said the Yale Corporation has not held any special sessions independent of scheduled meetings to discuss the naming issues.

Salovey said while forming subcommittees can be an effective approach, especially in terms of speed, Yale remains committed to a different course.

“Yale has to be Yale and needs to make its decisions in a way that is consistent with our culture,” Salovey said. “I am completely admiring the efficiency with which Princeton and Harvard made their decisions and announcements. But I think we are just on a different path at Yale, with a larger set of interrelated issues arousing stronger feelings.”

Thirty-four of 40 students surveyed said the University should learn from Harvard and Princeton’s approach to addressing naming issues. But roughly half of those surveyed, such as Sithara Rasheed GRD ’16, emphasized that Yale could absorb the best practices of its peers while crafting an approach of its own.

“We don’t have to behave exactly as they did, but the administration should be engaging with our peers on how to address these issues and learning from them,” Rasheed said.

“Yale has to be Yale and needs to make its decisions in a way that is consistent with our culture.”

—University President Peter Salovey

Snyder said the contrast in progress between Yale and its peers has highlighted a potential downside of Salovey’s more collaborative approach.

“The cost, of course, is a sense of difficulty in reaching a decision, and that cost side is underscored in people’s minds when they see other institutions moving more quickly — at some point you do need decisions,” Snyder said.


Salovey’s view of the Corporation may be part of a broader approach to the presidency. He said his professional background undoubtedly influences his leadership style.

“My work as a practicing psychologist certainly allows me to be comfortable with processes that involve a lot of listening with the dynamics of a group, with trying to lead a group toward a consensus,” Salovey said.

In 2013, he established a University-wide cabinet to solicit feedback from vice presidents and professional school deans, demonstrating a penchant for increased collaboration early on.

While discussing the role of the cabinet in response to campus unrest in November, Dean of the School of Health Paul Cleary emphasized that Salovey is highly committed to conversation and inclusion.

A previous investigation by the News found that the cabinet, originally meant to bring University leaders together, was largely excluded from the development of “Toward a Better Yale” initiatives last semester. Under pressure from the Yale community and the national media, Salovey responded to student concerns in just under two weeks.

Perhaps willing to take a more independent approach when under extreme pressure, Salovey’s actions in November suggest he prefers, but does not exclusively require, widespread collaboration.

One of the initiatives established in November involved listening sessions between two Corporation members, including Marshall, and the Yale community to discuss naming issues. On the surface, their establishment made sense: the Corporation controls these issues, and listening sessions fit a larger theme of collaboration. Salovey said there was no hidden message behind the sessions. Rather, he wanted to expand the numbers of University governors who heard directly from the Yale community.

On Nov. 12, students marched on University President Peter Salovey's house, demanding change. (Kaifeng Wu, Photography Editor)

But one problem with these sessions, Wilkinson said, is that they effectively undermined Salovey’s authority. Giamatti would have never proposed such an initiative and would have actively opposed it, he added.

“[Giamatti] would have insisted the senior fellow [who hosted the session] resign,” Wilkinson said.

Chauncey explained that past presidents encouraged trustees to dine with students and hear their points of view face to face. But Corporation members never represented the administration publicly in a policy-making role, he said

Had the senior fellow hosted a conversation about naming issues in the law school auditorium under Brewster, Chauncey said the president would have quit immediately.

“The idea that a trustee was going out with the purpose of bringing back a recommendation would have been unacceptable,” he said. “There were times where trustees would do something like that on their own, and Brewster would say, ‘It’s either you or me.’ Griswold would have done the same thing; Giamatti would have done the same thing; I would have thought Levin was even tougher.”

Indeed, these sessions shed light on one potential issue resulting from consensus management: Students no longer have one clear leader to turn to  or hold accountable.

Noticing the influence Corporation members held over these three decisions, activists told the News last semester that they wanted to speak to those with real power.

“[Salovey] understands he has a responsibility to fix things and is on our side, but the problem is he doesn’t have as much power as students think he does,” said Karleh Wilson ‘16, a member of Next Yale, during the height of campus protests last semester. “He needs the support of other people who have more power — the people who pull the strings he can’t pull.”

It has thus become unclear, to some students, whether they should approach Salovey or the Corporation to weigh in on highly charged issues. The presidency and historic precedent that comes with it suggest the trail ends with Salovey, but his consensus-based approach and collaborative nature suggest that, in this instance, he is just one of 17 Corporation members with a seat at the table.

Regardless of process, Salovey strongly emphasized that he is accountable for all decisions.

“Let me be clear: I consider myself the leader of this institution,” Salovey said. “I will own all decisions, whether I made them alone or I made them in collaboration with the Corporation or if they came out of a formal vote. I would be uncomfortable with any kind of notion that I hide behind Corporation decisions. Rather, on nonroutine, long-range decision-making, I would rather use a more collaborative process, but that does not mean I take any less ownership of the outcome.”


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