‘The Alumni Are Ready for War’

Yale's governing board scrapped the petition process for open board seats after several candidates campaigned on single issues and received outside funding and support. Some alumni are worried about becoming disenfranchised and want the original process reinstated.

June 23, 2021
 
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The Yale Board of Trustees is composed entirely of alumni.

A group of Yale University students and alumni is calling on the Yale Corporation, the university's governing board, to reinstate a petition process through which aspiring trustees could become candidates for open board seats.

The board announced in late May that it had done away with the long-standing petition process after determining it “no longer serves the best interests of the university,” according to a written explanation of the decision from senior trustee Catharine Bond Hill.

She said petition candidates have frequently been campaigning on single policy issues in recent years and receiving financial and other support from outside groups.

“We were really worried that other alumni candidates -- who might make really fantastic board members -- wouldn’t want to have to do that as a way of getting on the ballot and being elected to be a board member,” Bond Hill said.

Some students and alumni have pushed back against the decision to end the petition process. They are worried about becoming disenfranchised and ceding influence over the Ivy League university’s decision-making body. Change.org hosts two petitions calling for the board to reinstate the process. As of Tuesday afternoon, 654 people have signed one of the petitions, and more than 1,345 have signed the other.

“The Yale that I attended believed in free speech, transparency, and democracy,” Yale alum Frank Paprota wrote alongside his signature on Change.org. “Abolition of the petition process goes against all of those ideals.”

Gail Lavielle, a 1981 graduate of Yale, had planned to petition to become a candidate for the board in next year’s election. She said hundreds of alumni reached out to her after the board announced it had scrapped the process.

“They want to do something about this,” Lavielle said. “The alumni are ready for war.”

An Alumni-Driven Process

The Yale Board of Trustees includes the university president and 16 trustees, all of whom are Yale graduates. Ten of the trustees are appointed by the existing board. The appointed trustees can serve up to two six-year terms and are called "successor trustees." The remaining six trustees are elected by alumni and are called "alumni fellows." They each serve one six-year term.

Candidates for alumni fellow seats are typically tapped by the Alumni Fellow Nominating Committee, which is made up of Yale Alumni Association board members, a current member of the Yale Board of Trustees, several university officials and other alumni volunteers. Yale alumni can submit names for consideration to the nominating committee, and the committee puts forward two or three candidates for the open alumni fellow seat. All Yale alumni who have held their degrees for at least five years, alumni of Yale graduate and professional schools, and people with honorary Yale degrees can vote in the alumni fellow elections.

Up until the board’s decision to end the process in May, alumni could also vie for a spot on the alumni fellow election ballot by petitioning. Any candidate who gathered at least 4,500 signatures between May and October of a given year would earn a spot on the ticket in the following election, which is typically held in May.

Rachel Pontious, a Yale sophomore and environmental engineering major, said the petition process was arduous. Pontious is active in Yale Forward, an organization that advocates for inclusive and transparent governance at Yale. The group rallied around alumna Maggie Thomas during the last alumni fellow election.

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"Qualifying through the petition process was already an enormous hurdle: we had to collect over 4,000 alumni signatures in just a few months," Pontious said in an email. "This was even harder because through an inane rule, alumni who graduated less than 5 years ago weren’t allowed to sign. So the process was undemocratic to begin with, and this recent move makes it completely opaque."

Only one trustee has won a board seat after using the petition process -- in 1965, former Yale trustee William Horowitz was elected to the board after petitioning. Although few petitioners have ever gathered enough signatures to appear on the ballot, the option has grown more popular in recent years. Students and alumni see the process as an avenue to push for their interests and gain representation on the board.

During this last election in May, two petitioning candidates gathered enough signatures to make it onto the ballot, Lavielle said. One of those candidates dropped out due to a job change, and the Alumni Fellow Nominating Committee put forward one candidate for consideration. As a result, alumni could choose between two candidates for the open alumni fellow board seat -- petition candidate Victor Ashe, a former ambassador to Poland and mayor of Knoxville, Tenn., and David Thomas, president of Morehouse College in Atlanta.

Lavielle said that she and other alumni were concerned that the nominating committee put forward only one candidate.

“Usually they put up a couple of candidates. There’s no rule, but usually it’s more than one,” Lavielle said. “It was the first time in a long time that [trustees have] been confronted by a petitioning candidate who might actually win, and perhaps this was not attractive to them.”

Bond Hill said nominating committee members didn’t want to split the vote among several qualified candidates.

“If you put three candidates up, you tend to split the vote,” she said. “If you have two, you’re presenting the alums with a clear choice between those two candidates.”

David Thomas won the election, and the board announced it had gotten rid of the petition process shortly after. Lavielle, who had been planning to collect signatures for the next election, could no longer run for an open board seat.

Bond Hill said the board had deliberated scrapping the petition process for several years.

“Over time, it looked like petition candidates were doing some things that we thought were undermining the alumni ballot process,” she said. “They were campaigning for long periods of time; they were running on particular issues, as opposed to their experience and expertise. And they were supported by outside groups -- in some cases, with staff and with money.”

Trustees considered trying to amend the process to remedy these concerns but didn’t see an effective way to do so.

Rick Legon, former president of the Association of Governing Boards, said the board’s decision to do away with the petition process will help ensure that trustees are good fiduciaries.

“I think that what Yale chose to do here was smart,” Legon said. “Diverse views are welcomed, but at the end of the day, there should be this sense that trustees are here for the betterment of all aspects, all issues, all concerns. And once the decision is made by the board -- whether you were in favor of the point of view that prevailed or not -- you are expected as a fiduciary to support that point of view.”

Losing the petition option wouldn’t be as devastating if the trustees better represented alumni views, said Jordi Bertrán Ramírez, a Yale sophomore who is also involved with Yale Forward.

"This severely undemocratic process can be remedied slightly if, theoretically, the Alumni Trustees represent the passions, concerns, and diversity of Yale Alumni," he wrote in an email. "But with the removal of the petition process, there is no avenue for grassroots organizing or community building around the pressing issues that the Yale community is facing."

Board members can ensure that alumni, students, employees and other institutional stakeholders feel represented by listening to their concerns and taking them into consideration, said David Maxwell, president emeritus of Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, and senior fellow at AGB.

“They should be listening to the voices of the community in ways that are consequential, in ways that people know that their voices have been heard, and that what they are saying has been taken seriously and that the board has deliberated them seriously,” he said. “I know that’s not a good answer for somebody who wants to make sure that a board does X, Y or Z. But it is the responsibility of a good board.”

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