Meet the Man Trying to Shake Up Yale's Secretive Governing Body

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April 12, 2021

For the first time in two decades, a candidate is running for Yale University's influential board of trustees without support from the school itself.

He is the former United States ambassador to Poland and longtime Knoxville, Tennessee, mayor Victor Ashe, and he will face off on Wednesday against Morehouse College president David Thomas.

In a bizarre twist, the university has not yet disclosed Thomas's candidacy, and the school was not planning to make an official announcement about its candidate until Wednesday, according to an email obtained by the Washington Free Beacon -- the day that voting begins. Voting will take place until May 23, during which time, the email indicates, Ashe is "not [to] campaign or otherwise advocate" for his candidacy.

Ashe will face off against Thomas for a seat on the school's governing body, which is charged with hiring the university's president, approving staff tenure and pay, and managing the school's portfolio and budget. The board, known as the Yale Corporation, operates largely in secret, barring its selected candidates from responding to inquiries prior to or during the election. Nor does the school provide information on its selected candidates' positions on issues facing the university prior to the vote.

"It's designed to preserve the status quo and prevent any inquiry into the background," Ashe said. "Totally contrary to the great traditions that Yale has stood for in the past and it's not consistent with free and open discussion and debate on issues."

The insurgent effort to bring transparency to the Ivy League schools come as some of the university's most prominent professors speak out against voting restrictions elsewhere in the country, including the state of Georgia. Business school professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, for example, organized a recent call for business leaders in which he urged them to use their influence to oppose any legislation that restricts voting.

Ashe's candidacy is part of a longstanding trend on Ivy League campuses, which have seen prominent graduates push back against the powers that be at their alma maters. Dartmouth College made national headlines in the 2000s when a handful of insurgent candidates ran successful petition drives -- and won election to the board. Like the Dartmouth board of trustees, the Yale Corporation is responsible for hiring the university's president, approving staff tenure and pay, and managing the school's portfolio and budget.

The goal of insurgent candidates, then and now, has been to add political diversity to institutions that have drifted slowly but inexorably to the left. Like his predecessors, Ashe won a spot on the ballot by collecting signatures from more than 7,000 alumni.

A public servant in both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, Ashe told the Washington Free Beacon that, if elected, he hopes to make the board more transparent.

"What's more secret than a secret society at Yale?" Ashe asked. "The Yale Corporation."

The Yale Corporation consists of the university president and 16 alumni board members, only 6 of whom are elected. The remaining 10 members are so-called "successors," appointed by sitting members prior to their departure. Connecticut governor Ned Lamont and Lieutenant Governor Susan Bysiewicz also serve on the board in an ex officio capacity.

Thomas's nomination followed that pattern, with the university keeping his candidacy under wraps until shortly before voting was to begin. Neither the university nor the Office of Institutional Affairs, which is responsible for conducting the election, responded to a request for comment.

Unlike the Yale-backed picks, independent candidates like Ashe must announce their run in advance and collect more than 4,000 signatures from other alumni to be included on the ballot.

"It's amazing the lengths to which Yale has gone to make barriers against participation," Ashe said. "They'll claim it's to avoid politics. My answer would be, the barriers they've raised are political."

If elected, Ashe would be the first outsider candidate to sit on the board in more than 55 years. William Horowitz, the last successful petition candidate to run for the Yale Corporation, was elected in 1965. The most recent independent candidate, W. David Lee, lost his race in 2002.

The board told Ashe on April 8 that the election was set to begin the week of April 12, but that it had not yet specified a date or time. Ashe will be informed of the corporation's choice for his competitor within 24 hours of the launch, according to that email. The voting window will close at midnight on May 23.

Lauren Noble, a 2011 graduate and founder of Yale’s William F. Buckley, Jr. Program, said she wasn’t surprised by the board’s decision to keep Ashe’s opponent a secret until a day before voting begins. "It’s just the latest reminder that this process is broken. Fortunately, for the first time in years, Yale alumni have a real choice in this election," Noble said.

Commerce Secretary and former Rhode Island governor Gina Raimondo (D.) vacated her position on the Yale Corporation earlier this year after she was tapped to serve in the Biden administration—leaving open a successor seat on the board.