As a Russian studies major at Yale in the 1970s, I observed Soviet “elections” that were conducted more fairly than the 2002 Yale Corporation’s board of trustees election. Why is the Yale Corporation so threatened by the candidacy of a prominent New Haven pastor who cares about Yale and its workers?

The last time a prospective trustee was nominated by petition was almost forty years ago, when William Horowitz became Yale’s first elected Jewish trustee. Back then 250 signatures were required for ballot qualification; that has since been raised to 3 percent of eligible alumni–some 3,200 signatures today. The Rev. Dr. W. David Lee, an African-American pastor of one of New Haven’s largest churches and a graduate of the Yale Divinity School, gathered 4,870 signatures. If elected, he would be the only New Haven resident other than Yale’s president to sit on the corporation’s board.

But he is also supported by Yale’s employee unions, and the university–one of America’s great institutions of higher learning–does not like that. Normally, the Standing Committee for the Nomination of Alumni Fellows of the Association of Yale Alumni nominates two or three alumni to stand for election. This year, apparently threatened by Lee’s grassroots efforts, the committee nominated only one, Maya Lin, creator of the Vietnam War memorial, around whom the Yale Corporation and its allies could rally.

As an alumnus, I received no fewer than six mailings–from the alumni organization, from wealthy Yale alumni, from former corporation board members–all criticizing Lee for failing to identify who paid for his mailing, for his “aggressive campaign” and for his “ties to special interests, labor unions.”

In a campaign flier (containing no disclosure of who paid for it), the Association of Yale Alumni quoted comments from Lee critical of the university. It is not surprising that a minister of a large church at which many Yale employees worship might at times express substantial differences with a university that pays many of those workers less than a living wage.

As if the Yale Corporation had not already made its interests known, even the ballot package–paid for by the university and sent to all voters–was slanted in favor of the corporation’s candidate. The official publication intimates support for its favored candidate from “over 700 alumni,” including the Association of Yale Alumni, the officers of Yale college classes and Yale clubs and other alumni associations. The other candidate, the Yale Corporation stated in the ballot package, was “nominated by petition”–(as though Lee’s 4,870 signatures did not indicate the support of those alumni).

Reminiscent of elections conducted in one-party states, the corporation refused to allow an observer to be present when the ballots are counted. It is not in the Yale bylaws, he was told.

It is unfortunate that Yale, which has produced so many national leaders, has earned a widespread reputation for its antiunion activities [see Kim Phillips-Fein, “Yale Bites Unions,” July 2, 2001]. To all but declare war on Yale’s workers and its union, and on an outstanding young New Haven leader, can only exacerbate city-university tensions and roil Yale’s already troubled labor-management waters.

How could one pro-worker candidate who aspires to a lone seat on a board of nineteen of America’s most influential people unleash the fury of an entire university hierarchy? Why do powerful people–the kind who sit on Yale’s board–feel so threatened by a local minister? Why can’t one of the world’s most prestigious universities–with a multibillion-dollar endowment–pay its workers a living wage?

For God. For Country. For Yale.