Figure of Speech: Jamie Kirchick’s Run for the Yale Corporation

Figure of Speech:
Jamie Kirchick’s Run for the Yale Corporation

Published on September 16, 2018

“I assumed college kids didn’t want to be policed and coddled and now we have a situation where students are basically begging for the administration to micromanage their lives,” said James Kirchick ’06, leaning back in the desk chair in his D.C. office at the Brookings Institution.

Two months ago, Kirchick — a journalist and former notorious campus conservative — announced his candidacy for alumni trustee of the Yale Corporation, also known as the board of trustees. He chose to run in part because he feels that “there doesn’t seem to be anyone on the board of trustees who is representing [his] viewpoint.” Kirchick is the first candidate in 16 years to campaign for a seat on the Corporation without University support. In order for his name to officially appear on the ballot, he needs 4,266 signatures — 3 percent of the total number of ballots distributed in last year’s election — by 11:59 p.m. on Oct. 1. As of early September, his campaign estimates that it has garnered 1,500.

In a June op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Kirchick announced his candidacy and vowed to protect free speech, even amidst attacks by “fashionable opinion.” His goal is “to restore Yale values.” To spread his message, Kirchick has appeared in Yale clubs across the nation, sent mail to alumni and mounted a full-fledged media tour. With the support of the William F. Buckley, Jr. Program — whose mission is to increase ideological diversity on Yale’s campus — Kirchick hopes to restore the right to free expression, a right he believes came under attack on Yale’s campus during a series of protests during the fall of 2015.

In the fall of 2015, then-Associate Master of Silliman Erika Christakis sent an email to the college, expressing frustration with an earlier University statement that urged students to refrain from dressing in racially or culturally insensitive Halloween costumes. Students, upset by the suggestion that the right to free speech should supercede other concerns, later approached then-Master of Silliman Nicholas Christakis in the college courtyard. They criticized the email as racially insensitive and demanded an apology.

The confrontation alone, which was filmed and went viral on social media, was not the sole impetus for Kirchick’s campaign. Rather, according to Kirchick, it was the University’s decision in 2017 to award two of the students involved — whose contentious standoff with Nicholas Christakis in the Silliman courtyard was widely shared on the internet — the Nakanishi Prize, dedicated to graduating seniors who have enhanced “race and/or ethnic relations at Yale College.”

Kirchick was appalled that Yale had honored “the ringleaders of that mob.” Nothing like that would ever have happened while he was an undergraduate in the early aughts, he said. The rhetoric used in the Silliman confrontation was not a way to speak to a fellow student, let alone an elder, he added.

Kirchick resents this growing intolerance and dogmatism in the student body. He noted that the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a campus free speech advocacy group, labelled Yale with a “yellow light.” The yellow light is one of four designations — green, yellow, red and warning — designed to compare the protection of the right to free speech at colleges nationwide through a uniform standard. As the intermediate designation, a yellow indicates that the university in question has ambiguous regulations that allow administrative exploitation and subjective application. According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, such policies include Yale’s definitions of sexual misconduct, consent and harassment, as well as complaint procedures for racial or ethnic harassment, among others. In comparison, both Harvard and Princeton received a red light, a graver assessment of policies that unambiguously restrict free speech on campus.

“A lot of the alums looked at [the Christakis controversy] and [said], ‘What the hell is going on?’” Kirchick said.

As member of the Yale Corporation, Kirchick promises to uphold the pillars of the Woodward Report, the 1974 booklet on the University’s free speech policy. He also intends to bring those principles into the Corporation, the governing and policymaking body of the University. The group’s 17 regular members, including University President Peter Salovey, ten appointed members and six elected alumni, convene five times annually, filing into the Corporation Room in Woodbridge Hall. Decisions that shape the future of the University, such as the coeducation of Yale College, the renaming of Calhoun and the expansion of the undergraduate population, rest in the hands of the Corporation.

The six alumni trustees are elected by Yale graduates across the University’s schools, and in most election cycles, all candidates are appointed by the Alumni Fellow Nominating Committee. Yale’s alumni population chooses between these cherry-picked candidates, whose resumes often boast finance and consulting gigs such as McKinsey, or who have the name-brand power of Maya Lin ’81 ARC ’86 and Janet Yellen GRD ’71. But, with the selectivity of the cohort, two candidates, prior to Kirchick, have successfully petitioned to be included on the ballot and won the general election.

These candidates — one, the first Jew and another, a local New Haven pastor — have sought to usher in major change to a notoriously secretive body, once a group of Protestant ministers. But in the past, when candidates like Kirchick have upended the usually quiet election process for alumni trustee, Yale powers-that-be have not hesitated to initiate a counter effort to maintain the status quo.

To Kirchick, a seasoned political commentator, upsetting the status quo is his trade. Since his days as an undergraduate in Pierson College, Kirchick himself has long challenged “fashionable opinion.”

GAINING NOTORIETY

During Kirchick’s freshman year, the Graduate Employees and Students Organization — the precursor to Local 33 — held a protest demanding recognition from the University. Glancing down from his fifth floor Lanman-Wright dorm room, a freshman named Jamie Kirchick shouted, “Go teach a section!”

Over the course of his undergraduate career, Kirchick continued to argue against graduate student unionization both in person and in print. As a columnist for the Yale Daily News, he adopted controversial stances — so controversial that he recalled the “dirty glances” he used to receive from passersby across the street. Once, he received a threat from a graduate student over his pieces about graduate student organization in the News, in which the graduate student warned she would jeopardize his grade if she were ever to teach a class in which he was a student. Kirchick said he reported the threat to the Yale College Dean’s Office.

Though the Yale Daily News was not Kirchick’s only extracurricular — he was the vice president of the Independent Party in the Yale Political Union and a member of the the Dramat, the comedy group Fifth Humour and the Jewish society Shabtai — it was by far his most prominent platform.

When asked what he thought about being a controversial figure, Kirchick replied, “I guess it’s just a certain type of masochism.”

Kirchick describes himself as a “classical liberal” and “aggressively centrist.” To his fellow classmates, however, Kirchick was “the pre-eminent conservative at Yale” at the time, one who threw himself into battles with the campus liberals, said former classmate Aryeh Cohen-Wade ’05, who did not know Kirchick personally.

“Jamie, as we all called him, then was was just one of these few people that did enough unusual things that pretty much on campus knew who he was,” Cohen-Wade said. “At a place like Yale, if you’re known by the whole campus, there’s probably something very strange about you.

When the Wall Street Journal op-ed announcing Kirchick’s candidacy was published, Cohen-Wade’s small group of friends from Yale was shocked. He added that, to run for the Yale Corporation at Kirchick’s age, one must have a high opinion of oneself.

In February of his freshman year, Kirchick sat in the back of a room in the Afro-American Cultural Center for a lecture by Amiri Baraka, former poet laureate of New Jersey. Months earlier, the writer had drawn criticism for claiming Israeli workers had knowledge of the September 11 attacks and was later stripped of his honorific for those remarks. At Yale, Kirchick recalled, Baraka read that poem, “Somebody Blew Up America,” and received a standing ovation.

During the event, Kirchick, who is Jewish, asked Baraka to defend his remarks with facts and sources. Baraka asserted that he had read it in Arabic newspapers, Kirchick said, scoffing at Baraka’s claim 15 years after the fact

But noting the freshman’s skepticism, the writer — in front of a crowd of Kirchick’s peers — announced that the teenager appeared to have “constipation of the face” and required a “brain enema.”

In wake of the invectives, the former News columnist penned an editorial condemning the affair as one of “the most disturbing events of [his] entire life.” Kirchick criticized the event not for the personal insults Baraka spewed but for the Afro-American Cultural Center’s and Black Student Alliance’s decision to invite the controversial poet to campus and for the praise he received. Kirchick claimed the organizations demonstrated a disregard for “civil discourse on campus.”

“I wish the Yale students today would behave in a similar fashion,” Kirchick said of his method of response: writing an op-ed as a retort and conversing with fellow students. He compared his response to that of the students who confronted Nicholas Christakis in the Silliman courtyard. Still, Kirchick contends he would not even know how to converse with someone who found the Christakis email racist. If any rational person found it offensive, “We have a real serious problem,” he said.

As an undergraduate, Kirchick had a fondness for those who brought controversy to campus. The News columnist was a member of the Yale College Students for Democracy, which supported U.S. involvement in the Iraq War, and a chapter of a conservative think tank known as the Middle East Forum. The latter invited Daniel Pipes, the founder of the Middle East Forum, to speak on campus. Pipes had drawn controversy for his remarks on Islam, stating that “Western European societies are unprepared for the massive immigration of brown-skinned peoples cooking strange foods and maintaining different standards of hygiene. … All immigrants bring exotic customs and attitudes, but Muslim customs are more troublesome than most.”

During Pipes’ 2003 lecture, the room in Linsly-Chittenden Hall was packed. Cohen-Wade, who attended the event, recalled that Betty Trachtenberg, then-dean of student affairs, served as a bouncer at the door, in anticipation of protest. At least a third of attendees donned black clothing and black gags across their mouths, in opposition to Pipes’ derogatory comments about brown-skinned peoples and Muslims. Cohen-Wade speculated that Middle East Forum President Eliana Johnson ’06 may have cherry-picked questions for the Q&A session after Pipes’ remarks to alternate between critical comments and queries from the contingent of neo-conservatives on campus.

But Kirchick recalled the event as a model for controversial campus speakers. Attendees protested and asked questions, without forcing the event to be shut down.

Matthew Louchheim ’04, the former President of Yale Students for Democracy, said he remembered a kind of “knee-jerk pacifism” of many students at the time. But Louchheim, who met Kirchick through the  Independent Party, said that the aspiring Corporation candidate was never one to shy away from challenging conventions.

“To be honest, he didn’t identify as a conservative back when we were at Yale,” Louchheim said. “He was willing to stick his neck out. … He cares more about pursuing the truth than he does about offending people.”

In his freshman year, Kirchick also published an editorial with Johnson, a good friend, in FrontPage Magazine. The piece, published not long after the fall of Baghdad, directly criticized the remarks of professors who spoke at an anti-war teach-in, calling them “nihilists” and their remarks “a spectacle of self-aggrandizement.”

“If Jamie believes in free speech on campus, why did he write an article for a national conservative magazine, impugning the patriotism of professors who are protesting the Iraq War?” Cohen-Wade questioned. “I don’t really trust Jamie Kirchick’s definition of [free speech].”

The piece resulted in a public back-and-forth between Kirchick and Johnson and professor James Sleeper. After its publication, Sleeper wrote an op-ed in the News of his own, in which he noted that two freshmen — whom he did not refer to by name — had “arrive[d] here primed to attack professors in public.”

Kirchick and Johnson then appeared on Joe Scarborough’s show on MSNBC, condemning the professor for his remarks. Scarborough criticized Sleeper for calling the young students “Fedayeen Uncle Sams” and signs of a “neo-Stalinism.” Kirchick and Johnson demanded an apology, to which Sleeper responded with another op-ed in the News claiming that the alleged “ad hominem epithets” were exaggerations.

Today, tension remains between Kirchick and Sleeper. Sleeper declined to be interviewed for this story but sent a link to a video along with a statement. The video shows Kirchick, donning rainbow suspenders, appearing on Russia Today, a network paid for by the Russian government. At the time, the live panel intended to discuss the awaited sentencing of the leaker Chelsea Manning, then known as Bradley.

In an act of protest, Kirchick refused to discuss Manning’s sentencing, citing a hostile and violent climate for gay people in Russia and the “gay propaganda law,” which prohibited exposure of minors to content that normalized homosexuality.

“Being here on a Kremlin-funded propaganda network, I’m going to wear my gay pride suspenders and speak out against the horrific, anti-gay legislation that Vladimir Putin has signed into law,” Kirchick said in the video.

“It’s part of a desperation for public attention and vindication that began in 2003 when, at 18, he went on Joe Scarborough’s MSNBC show to denounce professors opposed to Iraq War drum-beating,” Sleeper wrote in a statement to the News. “He veils a seemingly unquenchable, neo-connish craving for revenge by touting his gayness and devotion to free speech. It ill-suits him for any role in governing Yale, let alone in defending liberal education against the real threats to it.”

Questioning why his sexuality was relevant, Kirchick called the comment, on the part of Sleeper, a “low blow but characteristic.”

Indeed, as his old friend Louchheim noted, Kirchick does not shy from controversial comments or quips, whether directed at a professor or then-Dean of Yale College Peter Salovey.

As a senior, Kirchick co-authored the script for the senior class skit, performed on Class Day. In that year’s production, the graduate student union kidnapped Salovey threatening to shave off his mustache unless the University recognized their group.

But Trachtenberg, the dean of student affairs at the time, cut the jest, which she believed was disrespectful.

Afterward, Kirchick bumped into Salovey, who lauded the script. Kirchick told the Yale College dean the story of the axed mustache joke, which delighted Salovey, who called the plot-line “brilliant,” Kirchick said. Salovey questioned why the storyline had been censored in the first place, he added.

In this instance, he and Salovey saw eye to eye, Kirchick said: Both opposed oversensitivity. In moments like these, the University president has offered appropriate recognition of the right to free speech, but, in some cases, the administration has fallen short of those principles, he said.

“A HAPPY WARRIOR” 

The night of the Yale Daily News 125th celebration in 2003, Kirchick bumped into William F. Buckley Jr. ’50 and his son Christopher Buckley ’75 while the two toured the paper’s headquarters. The elder Buckley had once served as the chairman of the Yale Daily New and his son as the founding co-editor of the Magazine. William F. Buckley, like Kirchick, published columns in the News. He too often disparaged Yale liberals and weighed in on the controversies of his times, most notably defending then-U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy in his anti-communist efforts. Buckley was once called “the most dangerous undergraduate in the history of Yale” for his controversial editorials attacking the liberalism and atheism that he claimed overwhelmed the campus. Buckley later hosted the popular television program “Firing Line” and founded the National Review, a magazine with a conservative editorial stance.

Face-to-face with Kirchick, Buckley told the student that his wife would be unable to attend the banquet for the News’ celebration later that evening and asked Kirchick to fill her empty seat at the table. Though Kirchick could not attend due to an evening showing of a student-written production, the two began corresponding. As an undergraduate, Kirchick even helped then-New York Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus research archival documents for a biography of Buckley.

For his present campaign, Kirchick said he drew some inspiration from his conservative predecessor’s 1965 run for mayor of New York City. Then, Buckley ran an unlikely campaign as an ideological conservative.

During the campaign for New York City mayor, Buckley was once asked what he would do if he won.

“Demand a recount,” he retorted.

“I think I’m more inspired by that,” Kirchick said, chuckling. “I’m trying to come at this with sort of being a happy warrior. … Levity, that’s what I take from Buckley.”

Like Kirchick, Buckley also ran for the Yale Corporation. Buoyed by the popular reception of his treatise “God and Man at Yale,” Buckley looked to effect some real change at his alma mater. In the book, he criticized Yale for its seeming secularity and hostility toward religious beliefs, as well as its emphasis on collectivism. Similarly, Buckley’s campaign for alumni fellow of the Corporation stood in direct opposition to actions by the Yale administration.

“[Buckley] thought there should be more ideological diversity on campus,” said Al Felzenberg, who authored a book on Buckley and taught a seminar on his life at Yale. “He thought … that religion and capitalism were downplayed if not ridiculed.”

Kirchick’s and Buckley’s campaigns took a decidedly reminiscent tone. Each candidate recalled the better days at Yale. Both lamented an emerging ethos on campus that seemed to suppress ideological minorities. Where Buckley advocated for the rights of the religious, Kirchick said the same for the campus conservatives.

Still, Kirchick rejected the comparisons between his own candidacy for the Yale Corporation and that of Buckley. He noted that maintaining the rights of legacies in Yale’s admission process was the core tenet of the Buckley campaign. Indeed, Buckley lodged an attack against Yale’s admissions process for the advantages it gave to students from underrepresented backgrounds — a practice which Buckley called “egalitarian hocus-pocus.” Kirchick commented that his predecessor’s platform was “reactionary” in that respect.

Lauren Noble ’11 — Kirchick’s campaign advisor and William F. Buckley, Jr. program executive director — contended that his platform was “far superior.”

In his 1968 Corporation campaign, Buckley succeeded in  securing enough signatures to make the ballot but ultimately lost to Cyrus R. Vance ’39 LAW ’42, who would later serve as secretary of state under Jimmy Carter, in the general election. Vance, the favorite of then-University President Kingman Brewster, was not the last cherry-picked candidate to defeat an outsider in the race.

In 2002, the Rev. W. David Lee DIV ’93, a minister at the Varick Memorial AME Zion Church, successfully found his way onto the ballot, garnering 4,000 signatures along with $30,000 in union funding for his campaign. The minister boasted a long list of high-profile endorsements — including then-Mayor of New Haven John DeStefano and U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman ’64 LAW ’67. But the University alumni and administration had coordinated efforts to thwart Lee, who early on had signaled his allegiance to Yale’s unions. A group of alumni led by former University Secretary Henry Chauncey ’57 and Frances Beinecke ’71 spent over $80,000 on mailings to convince alumni to vote against Lee. Chauncey, who led the group dubbed “Alumni for Responsible Trusteeship, argued at the time that Lee would be beholden to special interests. Meanwhile, the Association of Yale Alumni spent over $60,000 on controversial mailings to educate alumni about Lee’s candidacy, the Association of Yale Alumni board of governors said at the time.

In the end, Lee lost; the minister received only 16.7 percent of the vote and was defeated by Maya Lin, the architect of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Women’s Table on Cross Campus.

Kirchick is similarly critical of the University, though on a largely different set of issues. If he were to gather the necessary signatures, the University could very well put another candidate like Vance or Lin — one who would secure a surefire victory for the Association of Yale Alumni  — to ensure his defeat. Nevertheless, Kirchick is not worried. He has not faced any institutional resistance yet.

“I’m joking that, if I get on the ballot, they’re going to choose, you know, Meryl Streep [DRA ’75] to run against me.”

CONTESTING THE ELECTION

Working alongside Noble, Kirchick has organized a national listening tour across America. His campaign has four pillars: reforming the Alumni Fellow Election to promote transparency, protecting free speech, promoting viewpoint diversity and reducing administrative bloat.

He noted that former Corporation candidate David Lee had the unions behind him in his 2002 race. But with a full-time job and little campaign experience, Kirchick is relying on word-of-mouth to publicize his campaign. He’s been asking class secretaries to mention his candidacy in the class notes at the back of the Alumni Magazine.

“[Campaigning] is a much bigger task than we set out for ourselves,” he lamented.

With about 1,500 signatures, Kirchick has a long way to go before he even secures a spot on the ballot. And the figure is only a guess. Yale uses a third party for the election services, obfuscating the process for assessing campaign progress, he added.

Indeed, for years, elections for alumni trustees have been anything but transparent.

In 2017, the News invited two alumni fellow candidates — Roger Lee ’94 and Kate Walsh ’77, both of whom were chosen by the Alumni Fellow Nominating Committee — for endorsement interviews, which the two accepted. Additionally, more than 450 alumni signed a petition calling for Lee and Walsh to participate in a Buckley Program free speech forum. But University Secretary and Vice President for Student Life Kimberly Goff-Crews instructed the candidates to cancel the meetings, citing a policy against campaigning in the alumni fellow election — a policy not recorded in the University Charter, the Corporation Bylaws or the Miscellaneous Regulations. After pushback from activists, the policy was formally recorded the following year. Yale Corporation Senior Trustee Catharine Bond Hill GRD ’85 questioned whether asking candidates to run would attract the best trustees for the Corporation.

“What is the point of voting in such an election?” Noble, Kirchick’s campaign advisor said. “Agree or disagree with Jamie on any issue, at least he will tell you his views and wants to reform the process.”

As part of his campaign platform, Kirchick has proposed greater transparency in the alumni fellow election to allow voters to learn more about the candidates’ stances on key issues. Further, he lamented the obstacles, including an arduous process to even secure a spot on the ballot, for petition candidates.

“I think the way in which members of the Yale Corporation are chosen is frankly undemocratic,” he said. “They’re chosen by a combination of the administration and the Yale Alumni Association and presented to the alums.”

In his campaign platform, the candidate vows to “reform the rigged system,” in which he believes administrators “muzzle their hand-picked candidates chosen in an opaque process.” Kirchick believes that voters should be aware of contenders’ stances on key issues in higher education, including free speech on campus and graduate student unionization.

THE POLICY

The primary issue for Kirchick, though, is ultimately the administration’s attitude toward campus controversies. According to Kirchick, the way the University treated the Christakises was part of a broader trend, one in which the administration has placed a virtual “kick-me sign” on its back and exposed itself to ridicule.

He criticized Salovey’s response to the incident in May, in which a graduate student called the police on a black graduate student napping in a common space. In an email, the University president had announced a set of diversity and inclusion initiatives, including increased implicit-bias training for Yale Police officers and renewed efforts to build police-community relations. Kirchick said the University president was “falling on his sword” — just as he did three years ago, in the wake of the Christakis controversy.

“All of this new bureaucracy over an isolated incident of one student who apparently has a problem with this sort of thing,” Kirchick complained. “Why are we extrapolating from one isolated incident this claim that the YPD is racist? Yale University is racist? This is ridiculous. The University should be standing up to these slanderers.” In contrast, one-third of incoming first-year students reported that they think there is institutional racism at Yale — only 20 percent said there is not.

Kirchick suggested that the graduate student who called the police take up the issue with her therapist, rather than Yale instituting a set of new bureaucratic procedures and initiatives that would increase costs. He believes tuition has become far too high.

He opposes using a preponderance of the evidence as the standard in campus adjudications of sexual misconduct and believes cases should be arbitrated in a court of law — he alleged that University campuses have a tendency to “railroad” the accused and statistics of campus sexual misconduct are often overestimated. In his campaign platform, he noted the size of Yale’s Title IX staff, as well as other offices at the University related to gender and diversity, questioning whether Yale needed all its hires in these bloated administrative bodies.

“The accused do have rights in this country, whether they are black criminal defendants or white athletes at Yale, they have rights, and I feel like all too often those rights have been trampled upon,” Kirchick said.

According to a News survey distributed in fall 2016, nearly 75 percent of respondents said that Yale does not provide a welcoming environment for conservative students to share their opinions on political issues. He would relish the opportunity to bring the voices of alumni who fear this kind of climate to the Yale Corporation. Hill, the Corporation senior trustee, rejected the notion that the Corporation was uninterested in free speech. Further, she argued that the media selectively covers college campuses, focusing on situation where freedom of expression is jeopardized.

“My sense is that free speech is alive and well on college campuses across America,” said Hill, who is the former president of Vassar College and current managing director of the higher education arm of a research and consulting firm. “On most campuses, thousands and thousands of speakers of all different points of view come into campuses, and students are getting to hear from them and participating in discussion and debates and hearing those different points of view, and none of that gets reported.”

Kirchick is not worried that his critical stance on the University’s politics will be an issue in the Corporation Room in Woodbridge Hall. He noted that in boards of trustees where consensus is the goal, some principles are often sacrificed or overlooked. Most trustees on the Corporation are chosen by the administration, meaning that there’s no real skepticism challenging the consensus, Kirchick said, adding that disagreements are sometimes necessary, even healthy.

“I’ve never admired any writers who don’t have any enemies,” he said.

When asked his thoughts on likability, Kirchick responded:

“Overrated.”

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