Reviving Light and Truth at Yale

Dear Presidential Search Committee and Trustees of the Yale Corporation,

The search for a new president is the most important undertaking of any governing board. The decision represents an opportunity to put Yale on the right track after years of falling short on free inquiry, administration, alumni engagement, and governance. Together, these deficiencies, and whether they are rectified by the next president, will determine whether Yale remains a great university. We want Yale to be a university that lives up to its motto of Light and Truth and celebrates free inquiry and excellence.  

A Culture of Free Inquiry in Danger

For many years now, hostility to free speech has been too closely associated with the Yale name. An institution once idealized as a source of new ideas and free thinking has become synonymous with conformity and intolerance. 

Despite Yale’s admirable and nearly fifty-year-old free speech policy, known as the Woodward Report, the university’s recent record living up to its own free speech principles is abysmal. The dam broke with the 2015 Halloween costume incident, when the Yale administration failed to adequately support the free speech of Erika and Nicholas Christakis. More recently, a law student was threatened by administrators to apologize for a party invite. The disruption of a March 2022 panel on free speech received national attention, prompting 14 federal judges to announce a ban on clerks from the Yale Law School. No university administration is perfect, but Yale’s administration has never publicly admitted any wrongdoing in any of these incidents. 

The campus challenges to free speech aren’t anecdotal either. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) has listed Yale among the poorest performers for free speech in its annual survey, recently ranking Yale number 234 out of 248 schools for free speech. In 2022, Yale received FIRE’s Lifetime Censorship Award, an embarrassment for the entire Yale community.  

Yale’s student population feels this atmosphere of censorship most acutely. According to FIRE’s study, only 32% of Yale students feel very or somewhat comfortable publicly disagreeing with a professor about a controversial political topic. Only 9% are very comfortable sharing their perspectives on controversial political topics during in-class discussions to begin with.

Where does the Yale administration fit in all of this? Only 20% of Yalies believe that if a campus free speech controversy did arise, it is either extremely or very likely that Yale would come down on the side of free speech. 

The next leader of Yale should demonstrate that free speech is back at Yale; that light and truth, convenient or not, are paramount.

“Onerous” Administrative Bloat 

Administrative bloat has been making it difficult for Yale to fully succeed in its educational mission. In 2021, Yale received national criticism for surpassing a 1-to-1 ratio of undergraduate students to administrators. According to a 2018 report from the Chronicle of Higher Education, Yale had the highest manager-to-student ratio in the Ivy league and the fifth-highest among four-year private nonprofit institutions. Between 1995 and 2022, though the number of undergraduates increased by around 26% (from 5,236 to 6,590) the number of administrators grew by 111% (2,589 to 5,460), more than 4 times the rate of the students they were hired to oversee. 

As the Yale Daily News reported, “[a]ccording to eight members of the Yale faculty, this administration size imposes unnecessary costs, interferes with students’ lives and faculty’s teaching, spreads the burden of leadership and adds excessive regulation.” One faculty member commented that the expanded bureaucracy reflected “a reluctance on the part of its leadership to lead.” 

The growth in the Yale bureaucracy has made the day-to-day work of teaching – a core university function – difficult for faculty. A 2022 draft report by the Faculty of Arts and Science Senate (FAS) found that FAS chairs are dealing with “an ‘onerous bureaucracy’ that slows down efficient decision making such as in the appointment process.” “Administrative oversight,” some faculty related, “seems inconsistent or irrational, and winds up wasting a lot of faculty time.” Some of those interviewed for the report argued that the growth in “upper and mid-level administrative personnel” has “had detrimental effects on Yale’s educational and research mission.”

The Yale bureaucracy is growing not only in terms of size but cost as well. Between 2015 and 2019, top administrator salaries have increased by 33%. 

As the size of Yale’s managerial and professional staff has increased, so has pessimism about Yale’s academic achievements. According to a Yale Daily News review of the 2018-2019 FAS Senate Research and Scholarly Excellence Report, “longtime faculty members feel that the ‘quality’ of their departments has declined” while “69 percent of tenured faculty members said they do not believe that their respective department ranks within the top five in their respective fields.” 

The increase in bureaucracy isn’t inspiring confidence among the faculty either. According to the Yale Daily News, “57 percent of tenured faculty disagreed with the statement that they are ‘energized by the administration’s vision for my department.’”

On at least two occasions, the Yale administration has sought to suppress unflattering reports by the FAS Senate. This is the mark of weak leadership. As the FAS Senate Report on Size and Growth of Administration and Bureaucracy at Yale noted, “It is the moral, if not legal, obligation of the administration, in collaboration with the faculty, to produce transparent, truthful, and meaningful information about the allocation of Yale’s considerable resources.” 

Losing Alumni Support 

Taken together, the poor free speech environment and the growth in administration has weakened alumni support. 

Indeed, the numbers should raise alarms for anyone who cares about Yale and its future. Over the past two decades, alumni giving has dropped by over 20 points. In 1996-1997, the alumni giving rate was 47%. According to figures available from the U.S. News and World Report in 2021, the giving rate has since plummeted to 25.7% in recent years. Alumni are clearly signaling their disappointment. Yale used to include alumni giving figures in its annual fact sheet, but curiously stopped the practice following the 2015-2016 academic year, the year in which the Halloween incident occurred. 

Many alumni have explained that the poor free speech environment in particular has turned them off to supporting their alma mater. “I’m saddened that in the 20 years since I graduated, Yale’s commitment to free speech, fairness, Veritas, and a liberal education have apparently evaporated,” one alumnus explained. “Yale, like so many other universities,” another commented, “lacks intellectual diversity and freedom of speech.”

Opaque Governance

In 2017, Yale’s highest governing body, the Yale Corporation, launched a new “transparency” initiative. Unfortunately, what followed was the exact opposite of transparency. 

That same year, the Yale administration forbade its hand-picked trustee candidates from participating in interviews with the Yale Daily News or otherwise sharing any information about their views on issues facing Yale. A top administrator dismissed alumni desires to know more about the candidates as a threat to “intergenerational equity.” Thousands of alumni disagreed and bolstered two petition candidates from different sides of the political spectrum onto the Alumni Fellow ballot as petition candidates in 2020. 

Instead of taking alumni concerns seriously, the Yale Corporation canceled the petition process for the Alumni Fellow Election in 2021, eliminating free and fair trustee elections at Yale. More secrecy followed: for the past two years, Yale has withheld the vote totals and overall participation in the Alumni Fellow Election. 

Yale’s continued 50-year embargo on the release of the Corporation’s meeting minutes has furthered the notion that transparency is the last thing on its mind. 

There can no doubt be good faith disagreements about best practices for governance and more broadly, the nature of and solutions to the challenges Yale has faced in recent decades. But the Yale administration’s repeated and continued gaslighting of its critics is unproductive and unnecessary.     

The Path Forward 

The upcoming presidential search is a chance for Yale to turn things around – with free speech, with its bureaucracy, and with its alumni. 

In light of the opportunity for much needed change, we call on the presidential search committee and the Yale Corporation to make the following commitments regarding the search process and the candidate they ultimately select as the university’s next president. 

Candidates should commit to: 

  • Recognize the Woodward Report as the official free speech policies of Yale University, and commit to enforcing them as such
  • Review and reform policies that violate the Woodward Report
  • Revise or eliminate Yale policies that inhibit free speech or expression in order to earn a green light rating from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) 
  • Collect serious data on the free speech climate, including an annual and transparent survey of students and faculty that Yale leadership can use to make informed decisions to improve the state of free speech on campus
  • Institute regular programs educating students about their speech rights during orientation or other first-year experience programs and distribute a printed copy of the Woodward Report, Yale’s free speech policies, to every student before they arrive on campus
  • Prioritize true intellectual diversity on campus, including among the faculty where political bias deviates dramatically from the general public, and develop a plan within their first year in office to do so
  • Inculcate a culture within Yale’s bureaucracy of supporting free speech and protecting free expression

The search committee and the Yale Corporation should: 

  • Vet all candidates to ensure they have not endorsed the deplatforming, censorship, or cancellation of perspectives with which they disagree, whether through administrative action, legal avenues, or private company action, in public or in private
  • Demonstrate that intellectual diversity is a priority for Yale by adding moderates and conservatives to the search committee to balance out a membership that is entirely progressive, as evidenced by past work experience and political giving
  • Publicly release a job description for the position to foster trust with stakeholders, clarify the priorities for the search, and increase the pool of candidates

A candidate willing to commit to these recommendations will set the course for a marked improvement in the free speech culture and overall reputation of Yale as an institution. By following the recommendations above and holding the potential candidates to them, the search committee can help make that happen. Alumni, and their support, will follow free speech back to Yale’s campus.

We look forward to working with you to ensure that Yale’s next president sets our university on the path to Lux et Veritas. We would welcome the chance to further discuss not only our concerns but also the opportunities for a brighter future at Yale. 

Sincerely,

Concerned alumni, students, and faculty

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