Democratizing the Corporation: Governing Yale for Today and Tomorrow

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Statement from the Yale Herald Editorial Board

In light of Cambridge University’s divestment from the fossil fuel industry and Yale Forward’s successful bid to get onto the Yale Corporation ballot, Maggie Thomas, YSE ’15, outlines the need for transformation in Yale’s governance and her vision for the Corporation.


Despite our university’s reputation as a trailblazer in countless disciplines, Yale to date has done little to confront the existential threat of our time: climate change. Although the university has committed to carbon neutrality by 2050, its own scientists, including my former professors at the Yale School of the Environment, agree that it’s not nearly enough. And Yale has still not divested from fossil fuels, despite a 
decade-long student-run campaign led by the Endowment Justice Coalition. This lack of action has left many in the Yale community wondering: What will finally move Yale to take decisive action on climate? 

Yale’s chief governing body is not accountable to the Yale community—and I’ve got a plan to change it.

I, for one, am not waiting. When I graduated from the Yale School of the Environment in 2015, I was full of hope for our planet and gratitude for my time at Yale. I went on to work as a climate policy advisor to Governor Jay Inslee and Senator Elizabeth Warren during their 2020 presidential campaigns. Now I’m ready to take climate leadership to the highest level of Yale’s administration—and that’s why I’m running for the Yale Corporation on a platform of climate action, endowment justice, and inclusive governance. I am proud to announce that as of September 8th, my petition has passed the requisite 4,394 signatures from Yale alumni, making me the second woman in Yale’s more than 300-year history, and the first woman in my lifetime, to petition her way onto the ballot for the Alumni Fellow Election.

If I am elected to the Yale Corporation, I will demand the immediate disclosure and swift divestment of all university assets from the fossil fuel industry. I will push the University to rethink its endowment management strategy and focus on sustainable investments that make money and do good in the world. I will fight for Yale’s campus to go carbon-neutral by 2030, including prioritizing carbon offsets in the transitory period that benefit the local New Haven community. And I will advocate for Yale to give climate-focused research, education, and campus initiatives the institutional support they deserve.  

It’s not difficult to see how Yale’s stagnation on urgent climate issues fits into a broader pattern of inaction. Prominent student groups have waged sustained campaigns on social justice issues for years and have seen, at most, limited success. Beyond their contributions to the almost decade-long fossil fuel divestment campaign, Students Unite Now has advocated ending the student income contribution for nine years, achieving only minor reductions. This unresponsiveness on the part of the Yale administration is nothing new. The student-led campaign for South African apartheid divestment at Yale lasted from 1985 to the early 1990s, culminating in students occupying a shantytown on Beinecke Plaza for an entire year. This sustained student movement initially resulted in a partial divestment; Yale eventually dumped the remainder of its investments, but only after national sanctions were imposed on South Africa. So why does it take so many protests, referenda, and years of student organizing for Yale to do the right thing?

The answer lies with the Yale Corporation, also known as the Board of Trustees. The Corporation is Yale’s chief governing body, with the power to direct Yale’s educational and institutional policies, invest and spend Yale’s endowment, and appoint the President of the university. Yet despite the enormous power the Corporation holds, most members of the Yale community know very little about it. This is not by accident. 

The Yale Corporation is intentionally inaccessible to the Yale community. Ten out of the seventeen members of the Corporation are appointed by their predecessors, not elected, a lineage that dates all the way back to 1701. Of the six Corporation members that are elected by Yale alumni, most are nominated to the ballot via the Yale Alumni Association. Candidates like me who choose not to go through the nominating process must collect signatures from 3% of eligible alumni over four and a half months. Gaining that many supporters demanded significant financial resources. This year, the number of signatures required was 4,394. By comparison, a candidate for Connecticut’s 3rd congressional district, which includes Yale’s campus, needs only 3,183 signatures to qualify for the election. 

On top of the herculean efforts required to get your name on the ballot, Yale also bars many of its most progressive and diverse alumni from voting. The policy my campaign has dubbed the “five-year disenfranchisement rule” prevents Yale College alumni from voting until five years after they graduate. Since Yale’s student body has become much more diverse in recent years, this policy disproportionately disenfranchises alumni of color. 21% of all Yale alumni of color graduated in the last 5 years as opposed to 12% of white alumni. After five years of forced disengagement, it is no surprise that turnout rates in Corporation elections are so low. Last year, less than 13% of eligible alumni voted.

It’s also not surprising, then, that the Yale Corporation isn’t representative of the Yale community. Men outnumber women on the board two to one. The average Corporation member is 58  years old and graduated 33 years ago. Almost half of the Corporation works in financial services, and two Corporation members work for fossil fuel companies.

Furthermore, Yale College students have almost no interaction with the Corporation, outside of the single hour-long meeting the Corporation holds with the Yale College Council president once a year. And to top it off, the Corporation’s minutes remain classified for fifty years.

Is this really the best way for Yale to govern? A majority of the Yale community members we talked to this summer don’t think so.

My platform outlines much-needed reforms to Yale’s governance to create a more inclusive, transparent, and representative Corporation. Yale must reduce the barriers for Corporation candidates, starting with lowering the signature threshold for petition candidates like myself. Yale must eliminate the five-year disenfranchisement rule so that all alumni have a voice in the Alumni Fellow election. Like Princeton and Brown, Yale should establish Young Alumni Trustee positions to better represent the needs of current students and young alumni. Members of the Corporation should disclose any conflict of interest—financial or otherwise—that could compromise their governance. Minutes from Corporation meetings should be made public immediately. Furthermore, the Corporation should make itself more accessible by holding semi-annual town halls and regular office hours. If elected, I will model inclusive governance for current and future board members in my own engagement with the Yale community.

Since the start of my campaign, I have seen my message resonate with Yale community members. Our signatories come from forty-four states and thirty-one countries. They represent all Yale schools and include faculty, staff, and honorary degree holders. Our campaign staff and volunteers succeeded in a vast outreach effort, reaching tens of thousands of alumni. This grassroots campaign stands in direct contrast with the opaque, top-down method by which candidates are usually nominated and elected to the board.

Yale’s mission statement reads, “Yale is committed to improving the world today and for future generations.” But when students raise justified concerns about exploitative investments and unethical practices, Yale’s disinclination to act is palpable. A Corporation that does not bat an eye when Yale continues to invest its endowment in companies that fuel the climate crisis is not fulfilling its responsibility to foster a better world for future generations. And a Corporation that all too often ignores the concerns of students and greater New Haven community members does not promote Yale’s strength or longevity.

It shouldn’t take decade-long campaigns for Yale to do the right thing. I believe Yale’s chief governing body can steward the University today and tomorrow. That must start with decisive action in our fight against climate change, embracing communication with its student body, and daring to practice inclusive governance. I hope you’ll join me in moving Yale forward.

Maggie Thomas, YSE ’15

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