At Yale, Democracy Stops at Phelps Gate

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Old Campus at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., in 2012. (Michelle McLoughlin/Reuters)

The trustees should hold genuinely free and fair elections, instead of offering alumni a choice between Handpicked Candidate A and Handpicked Candidate B.

The trustees of Yale University have made it clear that they love democracy — as long as they don’t have to abide by it themselves. Democracy for thee; unaccountable governance for me. In the last couple weeks, the Yale Corporation has purged even the slightest hints of accountability from their “election system.”

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One of us, Garry, is a lifelong dissident from the USSR and Russia. The other, Uriel, is a proud alumnus of Yale University — admittedly less proud today than he was a month ago. Uriel attended Yale, loved Yale, and even founded an organization there — the Peace and Dialogue Leadership Initiative — to help contribute to campus life and learning. But we all have an obligation to speak out against anti-democratic actions, especially when they happen at home. Now as the chairman and the executive director, respectively, of the Renew Democracy Initiative, we must respond to threats to democratic norms regardless of where they originate.

Elections to the Yale Corporation are a byzantine, opaque process. Most candidates apply through the Alumni Fellow Nominating Committee. These applicants are not allowed to campaign, reveal their policy positions, or even talk about what they would do if elected. The committee then reveals its endorsed candidates just 24 to 48 hours before voting begins — an election in name only.

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However, in order to lay claim to some element of democracy, Yale allowed outside candidates to run by petition if they received at least 4,500 alumni signatures (3 percent of all living alumni). This past year, two petition candidates managed to clear that hurdle: Maggie Thomas, a progressive Democrat, and Victor Ashe, a conservative Republican. Both ran on increasing accountability for the Yale Corporation. Thomas, a climate-policy expert, campaigned to divest from fossil fuels. Meanwhile, Ashe questioned the Yale Corporation’s current policy of sealing all minutes for at least 50 years and called for a repeal to Yale’s “gag rule.” Thomas later dropped out and Ashe lost.

But it seems that, despite his electoral loss, Ashe’s calls for a minimal amount of transparency spooked the trustees of Yale. So, on May 24, 2021, they announced that new rules would prohibit any candidates in future elections from running on petitions not approved by the university. The three petition campaigns already announced for next year are now a moot point. Sorry, kids, no glasnost or perestroika for you!

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In a statement explaining their decision, the trustees attacked the very concept of democracy. In particular, they criticized “issues-based candidacies,” an interesting argument for a group purporting to support the democratic process. If we don’t vote on “issues,” what criteria should we use — best hairdo? The letter described, in horror, “a new normal in which every election saw vying groups with organized support competing to focus Yale on their chosen goals.” Please insert your own gasps. This sentence would not feel out of place if it had been uttered by Viktor Orban or Andrzej Duda.

The Yale Corporation’s hypocrisy in this statement is particularly galling. The Ivy League scions who make up this committee regularly lecture the rest of America about the importance of democracy from the comfort of their C-suite offices.

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Yet for all their ostensible outrage, when thousands of alumni exercised the democratic rights enshrined in Yale’s regulations, the trustees were so worried about the outcome that they decided to quietly kill the democratic process itself. Either Yale’s trustees stand for democracy or they don’t. If they do, then they should hold genuinely free and fair elections, instead of offering a choice between Handpicked Candidate A and Handpicked Candidate B. They should repeal the “gag rule” and publish their minutes in a timely fashion, instead of 50 years later, once everyone at that meeting is dead and safely buried. And they need to prioritize democratic processes rather than a specific preferred outcome.

Democracy is a muscle. Without exercise, it will atrophy and die. Yale trustee elections might seem irrelevant to most Americans (and most Yale alumni), but we all know the importance of defending democracy. We cannot criticize authoritarian leaders abroad while forgoing democratic processes at home, and we cannot expect our national leaders to prioritize democracy if the educational institutions where they studied don’t offer them a chance to practice what they preach.

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Garry Kasparov is a former chess world champion, best-selling author, and the chairman of the Renew Democracy Initiative. Uriel Epshtein is a Yale alumnus, business strategist, and the executive director of the Renew Democracy Initiative.

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