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Yale 62

Grand Strategy and Yale: Self-Inflicted Wound?

By Lee Bolman

The timing was inauspicious. On the eve of Yale’s October 2 launch of a new “bold, university-wide campaign” where alums could “learn what Yale is for” (O’Neill, 2021), the New York Times published a front-page article suggesting that what Yale is for is money rather than academic integrity. The headline read, “Leader of Prestigious Yale Program Resigns, Citing Donor Pressure” (Schuessler, 2021). Since the university had already annoyed alums earlier in the year in a seemingly anti-democratic move that eliminated petition candidates for alumni trustee, it’s easy to wonder if Yale is perfecting the art of kicking the ball into its own net.

The prestigious program in question is the Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy, founded two decades ago by two eminent Yale professors, which “allows a select group of about two dozen students to immerse themselves in classic texts of history and statecraft, while also rubbing shoulders with guest instructors drawn from the worlds of government, politics, military affairs and the media” (Schuessler, 2021).

Beverly Gage

Beverly Gage

The resignation came from Beverly Gage, a widely-respected 20th-century historian, who had led the program since 2017. Gage’s tenure as director of Grand Strategy had been largely happy until shortly after the 2020 presidential election, when one of her colleagues, political science professor Bryan Garsten, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times under the title, “How to Protect America from the Next Donald Trump.”

Garsten’s piece did not sit well with the two donors who had endowed the program with $17.5 million in 2006: Nicholas F. Brady ’52, a former United States treasury secretary under Presidents Reagan and Bush I, and billionaire Charles B. Johnson ’54, whose $250 million donation to help fund the new colleges was the largest in Yale’s history. The day after Garsten’s op-ed appeared, Gage learned that Brady was not happy and suddenly wanted to know more about the program’s syllabus and practitioners. A week later, Brady emailed Gage an excerpt from the 2006 donor agreement, which mentioned an outside advisory group to advise on appointing practitioners. The group had never been created and Gage had never heard of it, but Yale’s administration concluded it was required under the agreement. Gage acceded to creating the board on the conditions that it be diverse and the donors could not appoint its members.

Nicholas Brady

Nicholas Brady

There followed several months of back-and-forth with Vice Provost Pericles Lewis serving as the man-in the-middle between Gage and the donors. In March, Lewis told Gage that Brady believed he had the right to choose the board, and he had three Republicans in mind, including Henry Kissinger. Gage said the board needed more diversity and objected to Kissinger on the ground that he “represents the opposite of the generational shift I have been trying to make” (Schuessler, 2021). A week later, Gage learned that President Peter Salovey was going ahead with a board that included Brady’s three Republicans, but no one with social movement expertise because the donors said no. When Gage talked to Salovey, he asked her to see it from the university’s perspective. She said that unless Yale came out more strongly in defense of the program and academic freedom, she would resign. Several days later, she did.

Brady and Johnson have declined to comment on the situation. They might be content with Gage’s resignation, but it’s unlikely they’re delighted with the publicity that they and the program are getting. Reaction on campus was predictable. Professors Gaddis and Kennedy, the program’s founders, defended Beverly Gage. The faculty senate promised a full investigation. Faculty members across the university criticized Yale on social media for caving to donor pressure. Salovey was apologetic, telling the Yale Daily News, “I should have tried harder to improve the situation… I am genuinely sorry that [Gage] did experience more unsolicited input from donors than faculty members should reasonably be expected to accept” (Mousavizadeh and Yu, 2021).

No successor for Professor Gage has been appointed. There’s been no announcement about the Grand Strategy advisory board’s status and membership. But the issue of donor influence over university programs is perennial. Twenty-five years ago, when Lee Bass demanded a say in faculty hiring for the Western civilization program he was endowing, Yale under Benno Schmidt gave his $20 million back.
Before he became president, Peter Salovey was named as the first occupant of the Chris Argyris chair at Yale. Chris was my doctoral advisor in graduate school, and both a colleague and friend until he died eight years ago. Chris was a tireless proponent of authenticity and living your values. Right now, some are seeing President Salovey seen as an exemplar of timidity and administrative pablum. I’m hoping he’ll give me reason to praise his courage and integrity.

Mousavizadeh, P. and Yu, I. 2021. “After donor pressure, Beverly Gage resigns as Grand Strategy director.Yale Daily News, Sept. 30.
O’Neill, J. 2021. “It’s not too late! Register now for a unique Yale experience on October 2.” Email message to Yale alumni, Oct. 1.
Schuessler, J. 2021. Leader of Prestigious Yale Program Resigns, Citing Donor Pressure. New York Times, Oct. 1, p. A1.

Please comment below. Thanks.

9 comments to Grand Strategy and Yale: Self-Inflicted Wound?

  • George Grumbach

    A study I once read found that even the richest people, when asked how much money would make them happy, responded that it would take about twice as much as they now had. It is very hard to displease a $250 million donor, even if that sum is in the bank, because there is a good prospect of getting more. So, I understand the pressure that President Salovey felt not to displease Charles Johnson or even his friend Nicholas Brady. But what appears to be kowtowing to major donors comes with particularly ill grace from Yale, given its huge endowment. Would Salovey be happy if it were twice the size? And if it were, would he or his successor also want to double it?

    I join in Lee Bolman’s hope that Salovey’s legacy will not be as an exemplar of timidity and administrative pablum, although this is not the first occasion which makes me fearful that it may be.

  • Roman Weil

    So tempting must it be for a hungry development officer to accept a $17.5mm gift without attaching strings. Yale’s development officers [I think they’re called “advancement officers” these days] had opportunity to learn from the Bass episode 25 years ago the wisdom of clarity in specifying what the donor can and cannot say about the use of his gift, about the nature of the ppl appointed to hold the positions enabled by the gift. Yale has only itself to blame for the current mess. I have no advice as to what the President should do; give the funds back would be the courageous thing, but costly. I can’t judge the trade-offs, but I suspect the short-run costs of giving up the funds will be less than the long-run costs of pursuing the fight to keep them and deal with the bad PR.

    For pete’s sake, someone buy a plaque to hang in the Development/Advancement Office to alert the future bosses to make clear that donors don’t get say-so in making appointments to positions they endow or otherwise fund. Other great universities have successfully stated such policies, which I’ll guess Yale can copy.

    There are universities with such slim endowments that a wink-wink from the President to a donor about the donor’s wish to put X into the newly proposed position will be honored, but Yale needn’t play that game. The Board of Trustees [the Corporation] is supposed to protect the President from making bad decisions in this realm. Given the 50-year secrecy policy with respect to Corporation minutes, we who are alive today can’t know who was asleep at the switch when the Brady/Johnson gift was approved without scrutiny of the donor’s role in appointments here.

    Yale’s corporate disclosure policy stinks. Yale’s oversight in accepting this gift stinks. I’m concerned about Yale’s procedures in accepting gifts in the future, but little to contribute to help with the current mess.

  • Neal Freeman

    Thanks for raising this issue, Lee, and especially for doing so in such a clear, crisp rendition. I suspect that we can all agree that Yale’s public relations department is grossly overpaid. And, further, that Beverly Gage, unlike some of her colleagues, has done the honorable thing.

    Before we move on down the road, though, let me say a word about Nicholas Brady and Charles Johnson. (I have met Mr. Brady once or twice and admired him from a distance. He is, or was, one of the world’s most chauvinistic Yalies. I have never met Mr. Johnson, but anyone who owns the San Francisco Giants can’t in my view be all bad.) They are businessmen and they should not be expected to observe, or enforce, the arcane rules of the academic world. If they were given the right to select or approve the people who would administer their grants, we all should understand why they were aggrieved when Yale took a different position after their checks had cleared. But that Yale should take part in, or even tolerate, the PR spin that Messrs. Brady and Johnson are dark forces attempting to subvert Yale’s pristine standards of academic freedom is far beyond the pale. For them, I strongly suspect, a deal was a deal.

    Yale’s attitude toward her most generous alumni seems to have shifted from indifference to contempt. Along with you, Roman, and George, I nurse hopes for a late vocation from Peter Salovey.

  • John W. Wickenden

    No more bull shit! President Salovey must get Brady and Johnson to yield their conditions or return their money. Absent that, he must be fired.

  • Philip Stewart

    Either way, I am afraid Salovey has to go. He had to know such a breach of principle would be known and severely compromise the university’s reputation.

  • Allow me to enter a dissent. Beverly Gage is not a good candidate for sainthood. She was the head of a program which received special funding, but one of the conditions of the funding was the right of the donors to appoint an advisory board. She had “never heard of it.” That is not a good defense. As the head of the program, she should have known of it.

    An advisory board is not a Board of Overseers, but not infrequently, such advisory boards have watchdog responsibilities. Ms. Gage is demanding the right to appoint the members of the watchdog group for her program. That is an unreasonable demand.

    I find the attempted veto of Henry Kissinger to be particularly odd. In his long service, Mr. Kissinger has had his unfortunate moments and has made a notable collection of detractors. (Most of whom he has outlived.) But one would think that long service would provide unique insights in matters of Grand Strategy. To refuse those insights seems foolish.

    This matter seems different from l’affaire Bass. In that case, Bass gave the money and then tried to influence appointments, course matter, etc. In this case, the influence was upfront and accepted by Yale. And yes, Neal, a deal is a deal. And simply returning the money would not excuse Yale from obligations that they voluntarily accepted. It still would be a renege on their part.

  • Burgert Roberts

    Very good point, Roman! Absolutely.

    For Lux et Veritas, there cannot ever be an intellectually compromising curtsy to mere money – or politics

  • Steve Howard

    Great article, Lee!!!

  • Based on Lee’s article I don’t understand the fuss.
    It says that donors are allowed to appoint an advisory board not “select or approve” those administering their grants, and Salovey, rather than show contempt for the point, acquiesced to their choices.
    Gage resigned because she didn’t like the appointments, but there’s no indication that they had even met, let alone exerted any undue power over the program.