Yale Bans Outside Candidates From Running for Board in 'Middle Finger' to Alumni

The Yale Corporation will handpick future board members

Yale students on campus / Getty Images
May 25, 2021

Yale University's board of trustees will no longer allow independent candidates to run for the school's governing body, doing away with a key mechanism independent and conservative alumni have used to seek representation.

Senior Trustee Catharine Bond Hill announced Monday that the board, also known as the Yale Corporation, was eliminating the petition process through which candidates not handpicked by the university could seek election. The move comes just months after the first petition candidate in nearly 20 years, Victor Ashe, secured a spot on the ballot.

While Yale says the decision will stop well-funded, "issue-based candidates" from bringing politics to Yale's board room, critics say the move stifles alumni and candidates who have for years tried to peer behind the curtain concealing the Yale Corporation's decisions.

Ashe, a long-serving former mayor of Knoxville, Tenn., and the ambassador to Poland in both the Bush and Obama administrations, lost the election to Morehouse College president Daniel Thomas, whom Yale's Alumni Fellow Nominating Committee hand-selected as its nominee.

Ashe told the Washington Free Beacon that eliminating the petition process was "a move out of Vladimir Putin's playbook" and "stifled" alumni voices. Ashe questioned whether the change will face legal questioning, as the rules that govern the Yale Corporation are woven into the Connecticut state constitution.

James Kirchick, a conservative journalist, attempted to get on the ballot just two years ago. Kirchick called the corporation's move a "middle finger" to graduates.

"Canceling the election and doing it so brazenly looks terrible for the university and shows a real lack of concern or lack of interest in what the alumni have to say about the university," Kirchick told the Free Beacon. "They're giving the middle finger to the alumni."

The organization’s governing body operates "like a provincial Soviet commissar," Kirchick continued. The board doesn't just want to silence conservative voices, he said, but also attempts to "exclude anyone who questions their orthodoxies." The board has also thwarted more left-leaning candidates, including the last successful petition candidate, a local black preacher named David Lee.

Alumni at other Ivy League schools have had better luck breaking into the halls of power behind America's top universities. A handful of insurgent candidates at Dartmouth College ran successful bids for the school's governing board in the mid-2000s and made national headlines for doing so.

The Yale Corporation handed down its decision the same day that three petition candidates launched their campaign for the 2022 board election. The Yale Daily News on Monday reported that candidates Zoraya Hightower, Gail Lavielle, and Andrew Lipka ran on a number of issues but shared one common goal: "reforming the Corporation election process."

The candidates were given the green light to begin their campaigns on May 21, just before the board announced its decision, which effectively cancels their bids.

Adding to the opacity of the election is the meeting during which the Yale Corporation made their decision to ban petition candidates. Connecticut governor Ned Lamont (D.) and Lieutenant Governor Susan Bysiewicz (D.), who by state law are ex officio members of the board, were not informed of the board's May 18 meeting, during which members unanimously voted to ban petition candidates, according to Ashe.

The board then withheld its decision until May 24, the day that the 2021 vote closed and the 2022 petition candidates were set to take their marks for next year's election.

The Yale Corporation operates largely in secret. It bars its selected nominees from answering questions prior to, or during, the month-long board election. The board refuses to provide information on its selected candidates' positions on issues prior to the vote. And meeting minutes for the board are embargoed for 50 years.

When reached for comment, Yale directed the Free Beacon to its statement announcing the rule change.

Six of the 19 Yale Corporation members serve six-year terms, with one board member vacating his or her position each year. Prior to the rule change, independent candidates were forced to begin their campaigns months ahead of the election and spend months gathering signatures from thousands of fellow alumni in order to reach the threshold to be included on the ballot. Now, the only candidates to be included on the ballot are directly selected by the Yale Alumni Fellow Nominating Committee—an in-house group.

In addition to the elected and ex officio members, 10 trustees are "successors," appointed by sitting board members.

Lauren Noble, founder and executive director of Yale's William F. Buckley Journalism Program, called the decision "a patronizing slap in the face" to Yale alumni.

"This move, which is a patronizing slap in the face to all Yale graduates conveniently disguised as a 'best practice,' should disgust those who value good governance and basic fairness," Noble, a 2011 alumna, said in a statement. "The Yale Corporation has not simply rejected these requests, it has doubled down on secrecy and disenfranchised alumni."

"Thousands" of Yale graduates who signed Ashe's candidacy petition, or voted for him, agreed with his "message for openness, transparency, and reform," Noble said.