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Yale’s Most Secret Society

“A fifty-year embargo is indefensible,” Victor Ashe ’67 proclaimed to me over the phone. You would think he was rehashing a debate over some obscure piece of legislation enacted during his tenure as U.S. Ambassador to Poland. But the septuagenarian was actually referring to rule 4.II.A of the Yale Corporation’s regulations: “Minutes of the Yale Corporation and its committees are closed for fifty  years.” 

Over the course of their five annual meetings, the Corporation’s members—a potpourri of sixteen corporate execs, venture capitalists, public officials, nonprofit directors, and academics—discuss and vote on high-level decisions regarding Yale’s budget, faculty leadership appointments,  and large capital projects. Ashe is currently vying for a spot on the Corporation and running on a platform that emphasizes transparency. “I’m hoping to convince my colleagues, if I’m elected, that they need to let the sun shine in,” he told me, his thick Southern accent serving as a reminder of his past; he was the longest-serving mayor of Knoxville and a Tennessee state representative. 

To emphasize his point, Ashe offered up a joke: “What’s more secret than a senior society at Yale?” he asked me, followed by an excruciatingly awkward pause. “The answer is the Yale Corporation.” Ashe’s campaign website outlines his stance more eloquently: “a more transparent and democratic Yale Corporation would strengthen the University’s decision-making ability, alumni/ae engagement, and connection with all of its stakeholders, including students and faculty.” In both casual humor over the phone and prepared prose on his website, Ashe’s belief is clear: the Corporation’s fifty-year sealing of meeting minutes is excessive and a hindrance to progress. 

Ashe’s ambitions for openness will not be easily realized. To change Corporation bylaws, he will need to convince a supermajority of two-thirds of his colleagues to vote in favor of amending or overturning 4.II.A. His hurdle lies not only in the sheer number of trustees he’ll need to convince, but in the fact that the proposed changes buck the trend of a notoriously closed-off board composed of members who cherish this secrecy.

Catharine “Cappy” Bond Hill Ph.D ‘57, an economist, director of an education non-profit, and a senior trustee on the Corporation, thinks the fifty -year policy is vital. Sealing rules, she said, are “a way of helping people who are on any board speak honestly and forthrightly and not worry about it entering the public domain at some point and coming back and haunting them.” All of Hill’s institutional affiliations—as a current Yale-NUS board member, and previously as the president at Vassar College and provost of Williams College—had some version of long-term minute sealing, between thirty  and fifty years; this is a common practice at private universities. 

Before even beginning to reach out to Corporation members—a time-consuming, secretary-ridden process, given that Yale doesn’t list any emails or phone numbers for any of the trustees—I anticipated Hill’s answer to my question of why Yale’s  minutes are sealed for half a century. After a 2017 push from students to make the Corporation’s discussions more open, Peter Salovey offered a facsimile of her statement, explaining in a Yale Daily News interview that “a certain level of confidentiality and protection from short-term considerations is necessary to allow [trustees] to do their work.” Ostensibly to placate student complaints at this time, specifically with regard to discussions around building renaming, the board unveiled a few transparency measures, such as listing meeting times online and encouraging meetings with student groups. But many felt these changes were worthless and “largely cosmetic,” according to the News

To emphasize the openness-effectiveness tradeoff, Hill suggested I look into how public boards function. “Often what happens there is essentially nothing,” she told me with a chuckle. She added that these boards gather an array of talented and committed people, and when there is pressure from the public record to censor oneself, “decisions and conversations get pushed someplace else, which I think is really unfortunate.” The debate about whose voices should play a larger role in a board’s decision making process—those of a small, chosen group of individuals, or those of the students, faculty and greater university community—is at the heart of the disagreement between Ashe and Hill.

However, the origins of Yale’s decision to seal meeting minutes comes from a much less rational place. Ex-university secretary Sam Chauncey ’57 told me that the rule’s hasty adoption, which came sometime between 1979 and 1982, according to the university archivist, was based largely on administrators’ personal fears rather than sound reasoning. Chauncey explained that when he became university secretary in 1971 under president Kingman Brewster, Yale Corporation records were publicly accessible after a shorter time of fifteen years post-meeting. But after A. Bartlett Giamatti became president in 1978, the heavy wooden doors of Woodbridge Hall slammed shut.

“Bart had been a beloved faculty member,” Chauncey said, admired by students and professors alike. But when he became president, financial troubles necessitated Giamatti cut the university’s budget. “Many of his faculty friends turned on him and he became excessively sensitive… he had very thin skin.” 

Giamatti’s assistant, Henry Broude, had intense paranoia of his own. According to Chauncey, whose sister was Broude’s secretary, Broude would burn messages left on his desk at the end of the day and never let his own handwriting be seen. Chauncey surmised that Broude’s behavior augmented Giamatti’s worries, eventually pushing the president to such an intense state of paranoia that he requested to be driven around campus accompanied by armed guards. The biggest outcome of this anxiety, though, was Giamatti’s decision to extend the fifteen-year-rule to fifty years, according to Chauncey. We’ll have to take his word for it—he wrote me in an email, “I am afraid anyone I can think of who could comment on Bart’s paranoia is dead.”

“Paranoia is not a rational reason to adopt any policy,” Ashe said, reacting to the story about Giamatti, which Chauncey had recounted to him on a previous occasion. “What happened is all the more reason to change it.” Hill, on the other hand, doesn’t think that the motivations behind the creation of the fifty-year seal impact the rule’s efficacy. 

In a 2006 report on openness in public university administration published in The Journal of Higher Education, the authors reiterate Hill’s claims, writing that transparency mandates, often referred to as sunshine laws, can cause board members to become “reluctant to discuss controversial issues” in the setting of a full and open board, with individual conversations happening instead. However, they conclude that, “though sometimes these laws are perceived as time-consuming and a hindrance to quick action, we detected substantial consensus in the belief that, on average, the benefits of mandated openness,” namely as increased democracy of a board and accountability of its members “outweigh the costs.” A 2017 brief from the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges echoes this, conceding that open boards may be inefficient but “voice is to be valued in all democratic settings, and one could argue that it is especially needed in the current landscape of higher education.”

Maggie Thomas YSE’15, who is on the May 2021 ballot alongside Ashe for a Corporation seat, also embraces the value of voice, and has championed transparency as an important step towards the university’s fight against climate change. Thomas, who served as Elizabeth Warren’s climate policy advisor during the 2020 democratic primary, is running via the Yale Forward campaign, a joint effort with the Cambridge-based group Harvard Forward to elect climate advocates to the Ivy League juggernauts’ respective governing bodies.

An email from Thomas’s campaign expressed distaste for the Corporation’s secrecy, writing that “the Yale Corporation’s fifty-year embargo on its meeting minutes is nothing short of shameful, and Yale alumni deserve better.” She specifically cites the Corporation’s 2014 decision to remain invested in fossil fuels. When a vote was held on this issue at the time, two Corporation members, one of whom oxymoronically sat on the Committee for Investor Relations, held high-profile positions in the fossil fuel industry, including board seats at Anadarko Petroleum and Exelon, two multibillion-dollar energy companies. “It will not be until 2064 that we will learn whether Yale’s own trustees chose to put a finger on the scale when the outcome could have directly affected their personal or professional financial interests,” wrote Thomas. The half-century delay is particularly frightening when considering the immediate and near-future effects of climate change from fossil fuels—  environmental experts predict twenty inches of sea level rise in coastal Connecticut by 2050.

A large part of Thomas’s campaign is predicated on accessibility within the Corporation, beyond simply opening minutes—she dedicates an entire section of her website to “Inclusive Governance,” providing a scrupulous thirteen-page document which explains the benefits of open governance and the steps needed to achieve it. In addition to making meeting minutes more readily available to the public, she believes the Corporation needs to eliminate barriers to entry for young alumni by reducing petition requirements to appear on the ballot and providing ample opportunities for students, faculty, and staff to share their perspectives with Corporation members. Many of these additional objectives are also reflected in Ashe’s platform.

But with respect to the planet, Thomas breaks from Ashe, who never mentioned fossil fuel divestment or climate change issues in our original phone interview or on his campaign website. Though focused mainly on environmental change, Thomas more broadly endorses “socially responsible investment guidelines” and “endowment justice” in her platform—a theme Ashe is hesitant to give a stark “yes” or “no” to, citing lack of enough information to make an informed call. He did tell me, though, that “investments should be along lines that promote a good return” because of the financial importance of the endowment to the university’s operations, and these investments should be “consistent with efforts to promote a clean environment and climate for the world.”

In explaining why he doesn’t prioritize divestment as Thomas does, Ashe enumerated his belief that one can only affect so much change at a time, and the issue of transparency is paramount for him. He differentiated himself from Thomas, saying “she takes positions on ten or fifteen different issues… I don’t think any of the others can occur until we have transparency and a new system of electing alumni fellows.” Politically, the two alumni are split as well: Ashe is a Republican, while Thomas’s work for Senator Warren places her solidly on the left.

But however each decides to push their policy goal(s), the two certainly share a strong belief in public accessibility and accountability—and they think the current rules are frankly ridiculous. Thomas wrote to me, “There is nothing in the scope of the Yale Corporation’s meetings that requires, or deserves, such secrecy. Even secret meetings of the United States House and Senate pertaining to sensitive topics such as national security are typically released to the public within thirty years.” Ashe summed things up more pithily, drawing a similar contrast to federal agencies: “It defies any logic. It makes no sense… This is not the CIA or the FBI.”

My conversation with the two Corporation hopefuls fired me up to scream “open up the minutes!”, but Hill’s rationale also rang true. I’m torn. First, Ashe lamented to me that the board’s secrecy discourages “robust discussion,” but Hill then suggested that the only way to have productive and honest conversation is behind closed doors.

After the conclusion of my second conversation with Ashe, though, where I recounted to him some of Hill’s points, I began to be more and more convinced that the secrecy is truly over-the-top. “I’ve served on many public boards,” Ashe said, “I don’t recall a time when the immediate release [of minutes]or being  televised has inhibited discussion.” He called Hill’s point that openness results in self-censorship “a very weak excuse.” And furthermore, he pointed out to me that at the present moment, the Corporation does not even release meeting agendas or the resolutions passed. What do either of these have to do with protecting the careers or personal lives of the group’s members?

Even if the fifty-year rule were repealed or substantially reduced, Corporation meetings still would not be fully public. The boardroom within Woodbridge Hall, likely replete with glamorously upholstered chairs, a long wooden table, and those Yale-branded single-use water bottles, will remain a figment of students’ imaginations. Releasing meeting minutes is a relatively small change in the larger context of wholly open meetings. Yes, the belief of Corporation members that the sanctity of Woodbridge Hall allows for ideological freedom is accurate and perhaps holds some water. But the way Ashe and Thomas discuss the policies of secrecy—as outrageously excessive—feels salient. Because if the minutes are opened by the time I have grandkids, what does it matter what the Yale Corporation talked about this year? At that point, you might as well seal them forever.

As morbid as it is, many of today’s Corporation members will be dead, or nearing it, in fifty years. Perhaps decisions as grave as backing fossil fuels ought to come back to haunt those who made these calls, exactly as Hill worries they could. Because public pressure originates for a reason, and in the context of cataclysmic issues like greenhouse gas emissions, a very good one: our future.

—Kapp Singer is a junior in Grace Hopper College.

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