Credence to whom: Who votes for Yale’s trustees
ast May, as students finished up their online classes and finally shut their laptops, Yale’s alumni booted up their own computers for one annual ritual that wasn’t halted by the pandemic: the Yale Corporation election.
The process was simple: read about the two candidates — both alumni themselves — in a voter guide and make a choice. Maurie McInnis GRD ’96 graduated Yale with her Ph.D. in the History of Art and climbed through the ranks of academic administration to become the provost of the University of Texas at Austin, before moving on as president of Stony Brook University. Carlos Moreno ’70 studied political science as an undergraduate and eventually became an associate justice of the Supreme Court of California before serving as the U.S. ambassador to Belize. Just like every alumni member of the Yale Corporation, past and present, McInnis and Moreno lead in their fields as model Yale affiliates.
After the polls closed on May 17 and the votes were tallied, Yale announced the results on May 23: Carlos Moreno had clinched the Corporation seat. While a later announcement from Yale pointed out that 18,135 alumni voted and that the University saw a 7 percent increase in voter turnout from the previous year, the release did not mention the total number of eligible voters — 146,481, according to Vice President for Institutional Affairs Martha Schall, which means that only about 13 percent of alumni had cast a ballot.
According to former U.S. Ambassador to Poland and former mayor of Knoxville, Tennessee Victor Ashe ’67, the lack of voter participation in Corporation elections is “so meager, it’s embarrassing.” It “speaks volumes” about the way Yale engages with alumni, he added.
Ashe’s concern about the election is personal. Largely backed by the William F. Buckley Jr. Program, he is running for a spot on the Corporation in 2021 as a petition candidate. While a committee of alumni typically collect nominations from their peers and vet candidates who are then presented to alumni at the start of the voting period, non-nominated Corporation hopefuls can take a less-traveled route: landing on the ballot by collecting 4,394 signatures from supportive alumni on their petitions. In multiple interviews with the News, Ashe complained about the lack of voter turnout and the general secrecy of Corporation elections when it comes to nominated candidates, who typically do not campaign or give interviews about their perspectives before or after being voted into the trusteeship.
Still, Schall emphasized that voter participation did see a 7 percent increase from 2019. The reason why, she said, could be better communication between Yale and its voter base, especially in the form of emails from the Yale Alumni Association, or YAA, and other alumni leaders.
“In addition to this outreach, in the past three years the University has invested in making the voting website available and accessible on all platforms and devices,” Schall wrote. “We plan to continue these practices and types of engagement.”
But Ashe is not alone in his concerns. He is joined by fellow Corporation hopeful Maggie Thomas FES ’15, who served as a climate policy advisor to Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign. According to her campaign website, she is running on a platform of environment-conscious investing and inclusive governance. Beyond Thomas, interviews with 13 members of the broader Yale community — from recent alumni to current professors — revealed various speculations as to why most alumni don’t vote. Each individual proposed different solutions, ranging from changing voting rules to hosting public forums. But many agreed on one central matter: Low voter turnout is a problem for the Yale Corporation and more broadly, the University’s future.
THE CORPORATION AND ALUMNI: A HISTORY
The Corporation is the main governing body of the University, comprising 16 members and the University President. Ten of those members are successor trustees who can serve two six-year terms, while the remaining members are “alumni fellows” elected by alumni every year for staggered six-year terms.
In an interview with the News, former University Secretary Sam Chauncey ’57 explained that in 1701, 10 ministers founded Yale and became the original Trustees — one of whom was Israel Chauncey, from whom Sam Chauncey is descended. In the 1790s, the state of Connecticut added six state officials and the governor and lieutenant governor of Connecticut to the Corporation in exchange for financial assistance to Yale. In the 1870s, however, Yale replaced those state actors with six “alumni fellows.”
Chauncey also told the News about some notable Corporation election proceedings. While several alumni have tried to run as petition candidates, only two have claimed victory in the general election: William Horowitz, class of 1929, and Stanhope Bayne-Jones, class of 1910. Horowitz, Chauncey said, ran twice in the 1960s, lost the election the first time and won the second, becoming the first Jewish person to ever serve on the Corporation. In the 1970s, founder of the National Review William F. Buckley Jr. ’50 made it onto the ballot, but lost to former Secretary of the Army Cyrus Vance ’39 LAW ’42. And in the past two years, conservative journalist James Kirchick ’06 and Georgetown Law Professor Nicholas Rosenkranz ’92 LAW ’99 both suspended their campaigns after failing to gather enough signatures.
The relationship between the Corporation and alumni was discussed in-depth in a 1970 report, commissioned by then-Yale President Kingman Brewster ’41 and the Corporation after “considerable discussion during the preceding months as to the effectiveness of the total alumni relations effort at the University.” That report, dubbed the Dwyer Report after commissioner Martin Dwyer ’57, notes that 50 years ago, about 33 percent of alumni voted in Corporation elections — about 20 percent more than in 2020.
Even though this number is about 20 points higher than current figures of alumni participation, Yale leaders were concerned even back in 1970 about a lack of alumni involvement with Yale, according to Harry Levitt ’71, Ashe’s de facto campaign manager, and the Dwyer report.
“And we still have that same challenge today,” Levitt said. “How do we get people to become interested again in what’s going on at Yale?”
The report also revealed other alumni concerns about the Corporation, such as that the Corporation was not sufficiently effective or representative. Ashe’s campaign has taken up these issues in his campaign. He pointed out that because nominated candidates do not campaign, alumni have no understanding of the candidates’ positions on key Yale affairs, while nominated candidates may not necessarily be aware of alumni concerns. As a result, Ashe said, alumni and the nominated candidates are disconnected.
“When only 13 percent of the alumni even bother to vote, that speaks volumes,” Ashe said. “Who should be given greater credence? Myself or Maggie, each of whom have to have [about] 4,300 signatures, or a third and fourth candidate who are selected in secret and they’re not allowed to discuss issues?”
THE CORPORATION, “A VERY EXCLUSIVE CLUB”
According to former Yale Club of Chicago President Scott Williamson ’80, nominated candidates have helped diversify the Corporation over the years. Most of the female successor trustees, Williamson told the News, gained their positions after first being elected as vetted alumni fellows.
In 2015, Williamson served as the Chair of the Alumni Fellow Nominating Committee, the group composed of alumni — most of whom also serve on the YAA’s Board of Governors — and tasked with identifying possible alumni fellow candidates to present a final list to the Office of the Secretary. Winnowing down lists of Corporation candidates is a drawn-out process, according to Williamson, and involves alumni submitting nominees before vetting the list further. During his time as Chair, Williamson spoke with the dean of every Yale school and several administrators to identify the type of candidate that could be an asset for Yale.
According to Williamson, the Committee generally seeks out candidates who are prominent in their fields, diverse in background, experienced in leadership, have some demonstrated interest in Yale, and “play well in the sandbox with others.” He noted that the Committee also tries to identify gaps in Corporation expertise — for example, when his Committee realized that one Corporation blind spot was alumni relations, current Trustee and founder of shared interest alumni group YaleWomen Eve Rice ’73 was selected as a candidate.
Generating diversity is one major consideration of the nominating committee, Williamson added. Since successor trustees tend to select replacements who are similar to themselves, he noted, the alumni fellow election tends to produce more “professional gender and racial diversity” within the Corporation.
Still, multiple alumni told the News that the Corporation could still improve its diversity, particularly when it comes to age and race.
Yale undergraduates are not authorized to vote in Corporation elections until five years after they graduate. Former President of Yale’s South Asian Society Dev Bhatia ’92 told the News that this rule disenfranchises a large group of alumni, a significant portion of whom are minority students, who are more likely to be interested in voting.
Using data from Yale’s Office of Institutional Research, Bhatia calculated that 21.3 percent of “ethnic minorities” who graduated from Yale since 1985 have done so in the past five years. Citing these statistics in a recent op-ed for the New Haven Register and in an interview with the News, Bhatia said that one can draw a straight line from the larger number of recently graduated minorities students to the policy ramifications when those minorities — and younger alumni in general — are barred from Corporation elections.
“Number one, you diminish overall results,” Bhatia told the News. “The most excited people are the recent graduates. If you’re not going to include them, you’re completely silencing the voices, you’re discouraging them from participating even when they’re able to later on.”
“Not surprisingly, therefore, there is a widely held view among the University’s own alumni that Yale may be run by a very exclusive club.”
—The Dwyer Report
Nods to a lack of representation are included within the Dwyer Report, which says that the historical — in 1970 — homogeneity of Corporation members was a major barrier to alumni interest in the governing body.
“A board of trustees which has never in its two hundred and sixty-nine year history included a Catholic, a female or a sub-thirty year old, cannot inspire much confidence among [our] alumni that they are full and equal members of the Yale community,” the report says. “Not surprisingly, therefore, there is a widely held view among the University’s own alumni that Yale may be run by a very exclusive club.”
But the commission could find little justification for continuing the homogeneity of the Corporation into the future, the report states. Since then, the Corporation has diversified, with women and people of color accounting for a significant portion of its membership.
Still, Bhatia noted that the rule barring younger alumni from voting seems “indefensible.”
“If you say to me, hey, minorities have gotten there by being nominated by other board members, that’s great. That’s great, and God bless them,” Bhatia said. “But we haven’t addressed the systematic issues that prevent other minorities with specific takes from being in that room.”
Still, Chauncey and Vice President for Communications Nate Nickerson said there are legal hurdles of changing the five-year rule. Since the Yale Charter is embedded in the state constitution, it requires an act by the State of Connecticut Legislature to open the charter and make any changes.
The five-year rule has been on record since 1871. But when asked about the rationale behind the five-year rule, Schall wrote that she was not aware “of any historical documents that record the reason for the legislature’s decision.”
WHO VOTES, WHO DOESN’T AND WHY
According to Thomas, a number of factors feed into low turnout. Most alumni that her team speaks to, Thomas said, have no idea that a petition process is ongoing. Often those same alumni are not familiar with the Corporation as a whole. As Thomas and her team phone bank to raise their number of signatures, conversations often end up being more about educating alumni about Corporation elections — a sign that the University hasn’t done its job, Thomas told the News.
Both Thomas and her campaign manager Scott Gigante GRD ’23 emphasized a lack of awareness about the Corporation elections among alumni.
“A lot of alumni don’t know about the election in general, and many who do, don’t seem to consider the election to be important,” Gigante told the News. “I think the barriers to entry in terms of getting a diverse range of viewpoints onto that election and discussing what is at stake is feeding into why alumni either don’t know or don’t care that there is an election.”
According to University President Peter Salovey, it’s hard to speculate why most alumni do not vote.
“We live in a world where people are bombarded with information coming by email or more traditional mail, and I think it’s hard to break through all of that and get people’s sustained attention,” Salovey told the News in an interview. “I would say people vary in how involved they want to be with the University in their thinking after graduation. But I want to do everything we can to encourage people to keep the University in their hearts and minds and participate in its future by involving themselves in the choosing of trustees.”
Executive Director of the YAA Weili Cheng ’77 told the News that she and her office would “love to see” more participation in the alumni fellow process. She listed several ways that Yale has attempted to communicate better with alumni: stories, FAQs, social media and emails.
Cheng added that since alumni fellow candidates are both suggested by and selected by alumni, nominated candidates do indeed represent the wishes of alumni.
“To that end, the elected alumni fellow reflects the alumni population and the alumni voice — and we want every alum to feel like they’ve played a role in that election,” Cheng wrote in an email to the News.
As for why some alumni choose not to vote, Cheng wrote that she is unsure. Still, she said, her office “truly want[s]” to engage all alumni in the process, and she wrote that Yale has made “a concerted effort” to make voting easier and more accessible in recent years, a process that is ongoing. She also noted the 7 percent increase that Schall did, saying that she hopes for a similar or larger jump in 2021.
(Yale Daily News)
Professor of English Mark Oppenheimer ’96 GRD ’03 added that he sees three reasons why alumni don’t vote. First, he wrote to the News, people graduate and drift away from the Yale sphere of influence. Second, he noted that because the Corporation and Association of Yale Alumni “handpick” candidates, there is “nothing to pay attention to.” He then compared Corporation elections to proceedings in communist countries, where some elections have “fore-ordained conclusions.”
“Third, in my case, there is the disgust I feel for the cynical way that the Corporation maneuvers to ensure that no critics of the University ever get onto the Corporation,” Oppenheimer wrote.
In response, Nickerson wrote to the News in an email that the selection of alumni fellows is led by alumni throughout the process, “from nominations to the selection of candidates to the election itself.”
He noted the contentious election of 2002, where the petition candidate the Rev. W. David Lee DIV ’93 lost to Maya Lin ’81 ARCH ’86, well-known architect and designer of the Women’s Table on Cross Campus who was recruited by Yale “at the last minute” to run, according to Oppenheimer. According to a News article from the time, that election served as the most controversial Corporation election in Yale’s history — and it brought 44 percent of eligible Yale alumni voters to the ballot box. The final tally: about 83 percent of the vote to Lin, while Lee lost with about 17 percent.
Oppenheimer told the News that this election marked the “University at its absolute worst,” and said that Lin was recruited only to make sure that Lee — a Black local New Haven politician with liberal and pro-union views — did not win a seat on the Corporation. News of Lee’s candidacy bounced from New Haven to beyond, with the New York Times noting the heightened stakes of that particular election. Writing in an April 11, 2002 article, the Times said that while Corporation elections are “normally sleepy affair[s] with just a few candidates and none of the messy machinations of a political campaign,” Lee as a union-backed candidate had upset the typically low-radar process.
In an interview with the News, Chauncey disagreed with Oppenheimer’s take on the 2002 election. In his opinion, Chauncey said, since Lee had no management experience and would likely have acted solely as an agent of his union backers, he was distinctly unqualified to serve as a trustee. Still, Chauncey said, Yale would be wrong to propose their own agents in the election simply to defeat qualified candidates — and both Thomas and Ashe, he added, are in his view qualified for the role.
RULES ON NO CAMPAIGNING
According to a Sept. 3 email from Schall, it has been a longstanding practice — although not an official rule — that nominated candidates typically do not campaign.
From a practical standpoint, she wrote, most candidates selected do not have the time or resources to mount a major campaign. From a governance standpoint, she added, all trustees must contribute to the Corporation without conflicts of interest or other obligations that could slant their focus away from Yale.
“In their roles, trustees are asked to deliberate and make complex, strategic decisions to ensure the welfare of the University not just now, but years into the future,” Schall wrote. “As fiduciaries, they must ensure that Yale provides the same level of, if not greater, support to current community members and future generations.”
Still, the no-campaign understanding was put into writing on the Alumni Fellow Election website in 2018 in an effort to “avoid confusion,” University Secretary Kimberly Goff-Crews ’83 LAW ’86 told the News at the time. Previously, no mention of the policy could be found in the Yale Charter, the Corporation bylaws or the miscellaneous regulations that govern some Corporation activities.
Alumni in general have mixed views about how Corporation elections ought to be run and why their fellow graduates may not vote. Sarah Katherman ’82 told the News that while she was surprised at the low level of voter turnout, she would not change anything about Corporation elections if given the opportunity. The important thing for the Corporation, she said, is that the body is formed out of a diverse cast of members, the potential for which can be easily seen in the nominated candidates.
Katherman added that she would oppose campaigning by nominated candidates, because she believes that campaigning could derail a candidate’s focus from governing the University.
“The last thing I would want is for it to end up being like a personality contest or something where people are campaigning and trying to get your vote,” Katherman said. “I just think that’s sort of … that creates a different kind of homogeneity because it [means] the only people that would be on the Corporation are the people that would be not only willing but interested in going through that kind of a process, and personally I think that process is pretty gross.”
Campaigning, she added, would likely discourage dedicated applicants to the Corporation who are not attracted to the campaign aspect.
School of Architecture Critic Surry Schlabs ’99 ARCH ’03 agreed with Katherman, saying that he would not want a “full-blown” political campaign for Corporation candidates. Still, he added, a platform where interested voters could interact with the candidates and ask questions could help clear some of the fog.
“It’s not a political campaign, it has nothing to do with conservative or liberal ideas. It has to do with how the University best addresses its charter or its order of business, which is to educate young leaders that are going to grow up and become productive citizens of our society.”
—Richard Swett ’79, former U.S. ambassador to Denmark
Unlike Katherman and Schlabs, former U.S. Ambassador to Denmark Richard Swett ’79 — who is supporting Ashe’s candidacy — said he supports the campaigning of Corporation candidates.
“It’s not a political campaign, it has nothing to do with conservative or liberal ideas,” Swett told the News. “It has to do with how the University best addresses its charter or its order of business, which is to educate young leaders that are going to grow up and become productive citizens of our society.”
Swett said that after he finished his ambassadorship, he began working with some communities in Africa to build opportunities for jobs and housing. In the past 10 years, he said, he has worked with some corrupt governments that have very limited access to and communication with their constituencies. This experience, he said, proved that only through strong democracies can citizens have enough information to choose the best leader.
In the past week, both Ashe and Thomas’ campaigns have reached the signature threshold — Ashe on Sept. 1 and Thomas on Sept. 8. A third-party election services corporation is examining their petitions for double votes or invalid signatures, but Ashe and Thomas are confident that they will secure spots on May’s ballot.
“If elected, I will be the best trustee I can be, thinking of Yale’s needs for both today and tomorrow,” Ashe wrote in an email to his supporters. “I promise to do my best to understand the views of alumni/ae … Thank you for your support. I look forward to keeping you updated on our progress. I love Yale and I know that together we can achieve change for a better Yale.”
Levitt, Ashe’s campaign manager, told the News that Ashe’s campaign seems to have “reawakened” alumni who otherwise had no interest in the election process. Echoing Levitt, Gigante told the News that despite typically low voter turnout in the elections, Thomas’ campaign and its goals have lit a fire in alumni who would not otherwise vote.
“In phone banking and calling alumni,” Gigante said. “I’ve spoken to plenty of people who say, ‘I don’t typically get involved in these elections. I’m not normally interested in participating in Yale’s governance, but this cause is exciting and I’m happy to participate and excited to participate.”
As Thomas and Ashe both clamor for alumni to vote, some Yale administrators in addition to Schall and Cheng told the News that the University welcomes more active participation.
Salovey told the News that “the greater the participation, the better,” and that high turnout is better than low turnout because it indicates that Yale’s alumni are investing in their alma mater. He also noted the YAA’s efforts to encourage interest in elections.
In an email to the News, Senior Trustee Catharine Bond Hill GRD ’85 wrote that she and her fellow Trustees want to see as many alumni as possible casting “informed and considered votes.”
“Over the course of their tenures, trustees will grapple with a wide range of complicated, nuanced, and frequently ambiguous problems and opportunities they could not have predicted, and whose resolution will often have profound consequences,” Hill wrote. “Yale has been very wise over its 319 years to select trustees whose experience and disposition lend rigor, creativity, and wisdom to the decisions that shape our future.”
Though more than eight months away, the 2021 election stands to make history in a myriad of ways. Ashe and Thomas are the first candidates to gather enough signatures in 18 years, and Thomas will be the second female petition candidate, after Heidi Hartmann GRD ’74 reached the signature goal in 1985 but faced five nominated candidates and lost to former U.S. Sen. Paul Tsongas LAW ’67.
“Participating in elections is one of the most powerful ways any individual can influence the world they live in,” Thomas said. “Today, people are taking notice of the institutions that govern their lives and are working to hold them accountable. We face so many crises as a nation, and voters — whether in federal, state, local or private elections — realize they can help shape what we do to confront and overcome them.”
(Yale Daily News)