Yale’s Latin motto is “Lux et Veritas”: “Light and Truth.” Yet the Yale Board of Trustees has acted in a way contradicting these two important values. The board’s May 24 decision to eliminate trustee nominations by alumni petition outside the board’s own processes is contrary to good corporate-governance principles, which aim to give all stakeholders a voice. And the process by which the trustees reversed the practice of allowing alumni petitions, which dates back to 1929—without notice, abruptly, without any input from alumni—is indefensible.
Catharine Bond Hill,
a 1985 Yale graduate and former president of Vassar College, made matters worse when she announced the decision. She stated that the alumni petition process created divisive “issue-based candidates” and “cause-based elections.” But she presented no facts to support that conclusion.
Making matters worse, the letter was borderline insulting. It offered no justification for the secretive, abrupt process of announcing a reversal of a policy that had stood for nearly 100 years. Why? Shouldn’t the trustees have explained the reasons why this decision had to be made hastily, without open debate, immediately ahead of the next annual round of trustee nominations?
The irony is that the announcement of this secret vote was made after a candidate selected by the board’s nominating process won the 2021 election, defeating candidates nominated by alumni. The winner was the president of Morehouse College in Atlanta,
In the late 1960s, I advised the Yale Commission on Alumni Affairs appointed by President
Kingman Brewster Jr.
That commission, which led to the establishment of the Association of Yale Alumni, issued a report promising alumni that the Board of Trustees would be open to their involvement and opinion and be as transparent as possible. Clearly this board violated these core values of that historic report. At the very least, the trustees and President
should step up and acknowledge they could have handled the process better.
I would suggest that Mr. Salovey take the lead in announcing a re-evaluation of this decision by appointing a blue-ribbon committee, composed of Yale students, alumni and faculty, including experts on corporate governance and transparency. Their mandate would be to investigate whether there has ever been a special interest “cause-based” nomination by alumni and, if so, to address the question: What harm did it do? There should be outreach to alumni through Zoom and local or regional meetings to discuss the issue. If the facts are lacking, then the petition system should be restored, perhaps with some safeguards addressing the trustees’ concerns.
Now is a bad time for Yale to join those who prefer fact-free decision-making in the dark of night. It’s not too late for a midcourse correction.
Mr. Davis, a Washington-based lawyer and media adviser, was chairman of the Yale Daily News, 1966-67. He graduated from Yale College in 1967 and Yale Law School in 1970.
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Appeared in the June 4, 2021, print edition.