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Yale 62

A Letter from Neal Freeman

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Neal Freeman ’62 has been active in Yale affairs for many years — interviewing applicants, raising funds as chairman of agents for the Alumni Fund, speaking on campus, and serving as a founding director of the Buckley at Yale Program. He and Al Chambers have met and exchanged phone calls and e-mails for decades, quite often disagreeing but always respecting the other’s viewpoint and experience and valuing a friendship that spans nearly 60 years.

Last week, the main subject, as it had been a few times the past year, was Yale’s Alumni Election process and the abrupt elimination of the challenging petition process for Alumni to qualify as Independent candidates for Yale’s Board. Another subject was the marketing of Neal’s new short book (See This Just In).

On his own volition, Neal shared the following report and observations and said it could be posted on our class website, if it was appropriate. It most certainly was.)

June 6, 2021

Dear Al:

I took a day off from everything else to conference like mad – with students, alums, donors, faculty, and various (mostly agitated) others. Responses to Yale’s “election process” are all over the map, of course, and my scientific method is utterly indefensible, but a few generalizations can be adduced. As Yogi Berra surely must have said, sometimes you can hear a lot just by listening.

Many of the students, as you would expect, see the situation with moral clarity: the election was rigged and the process corrupted. Serious reforms should be implemented. Their question, asked early and often, is: where are the alumni? Why aren’t they stepping up? It is both interesting and depressing that the students, accosted by moral offense, turn neither to the administration nor the faculty, nor even to their fellow students.

Neal FreemanGranted, the students I spoke with tend, many of them, to align with the Buckley Program, but that’s not the fringe group it might sound like. With 400 undergraduate members, the Program has become one of the largest and most vibrant student groups. Many members are Buckley-type conservatives, to be sure, but a large minority are old-style liberals, who regard the competition of ideas as a good thing, not a white supremacist thing.

For their part, the alums are arrayed along a spectrum from sullen to mutinous. Some of them, grinding a regional and/or ideological axe, grumble that the people who rig Yale elections are the same people who condemn Georgia for asking voters to show ID. Other alums went along when Yale became the gay Ivy but got off the train when Yale became the woke Ivy. Some alums still hope to get a kid or grandkid admitted to Yale and are minding their manners. Many don’t have the bandwidth for another pro bono cause. And some Old-Old-Blues just feel spent. “Outraged out,” as one put it.  (One alum favored me with this classic line from Dodger legend Vin Scully: “If it weren’t for the doctor appointments, I’d have no social life at all.”) Overall, it’s difficult to tell how many are disappointed and how many are disaffected. I found nobody willing to defend Yale’s “best practice” of eliminating the petition option.

I should add that a surprisingly vocal contingent is ticked off by the damage done to brand equity and, more generally, by the depreciating value of the Yale credential. More than a few alums noted that, while at the turn of the century “Harvard and Yale” were universally regarded as the premier American universities, it’s now “Harvard, Stanford, and MIT.” And a few were as stunned as I was by that poll showing 69% of Yale faculty do not believe their respective departments rank in the top-five nationally. (I was stunned, I should explain, because in my own experience with them Yale faculty members do not, as a general condition, suffer from low self-esteem.)

The donors, as you would also expect, can add and subtract. They see the election as further evidence that Yale, unlike most private universities, is not dependent on alumni financial support. In my last conversation with the late, great David Swensen, he acknowledged that one of the side effects of his out-of-this-world investment performance was the concomitant diminution of alumni influence. (The change extends to alumni participation, as well. The Yale Alumni Fund currently ranks next-to-last among Ivies in participation ratio. It wasn’t so long ago, before the Swensen Effect took hold, that Yale ran neck-and-neck with Dartmouth for the top spot, which datum was trumpeted, of course, as evidence of alumni devotion.)

You will have noticed that the faculty senate issued a statement condemning Yale’s “election reforms.” That was a rare departure from recent practice and will likely be seen in hindsight as aberrational. An illuminating (at least for me) anecdote . . . When we were setting up the Buckley Program, Yale officialdom chose to enforce a rule that, to be affiliated with the university, a new student group must enlist a tenured-faculty sponsor. (The faculty sponsor need not approve of the student group, that is, but merely of the group’s right to exist. As you scroll through the list of student organizations, the thought will cross your mind that one has been created to serve every human velleity – enough, indeed, for every undergraduate to be President of something.) We approached the 20-some professors who had congratulated us (privately) when our initiative was first announced. All 20-some demurred. We were able to launch the Program only after the ex-wife of a personal friend – a professor of Portuguese, as it happened – signed on as our sponsor. The takeaway for me was, and is, that the culture of fear has gripped Yale faculty members, more than a few of whom are legitimately world-class, by the throat.

What’s next for those of us who would like to see free and fair elections at our Sweet Mother? There are some options, all of them uphill hikes, but some of them at least preliminarily feasible. For now, I should probably keep my own counsel. Over the course of my phone-a-thon, several Yalies tossed back at me a line I had used in a speech last year. I had predicted, more than half in jest, that “if Victor (Ashe) makes a strong showing, Peter (Salovey) will change the rules.” Well, Victor did and Peter did.

Yours faithfully,


We welcome your comments below.

2 comments to A Letter from Neal Freeman

  • Jan Paul Greer


    I often have trouble with words that either have a disparate collection of meanings, are technical and beyond my grasp, or are simply abstruse (the latter of course being a contradiction in terms). Words such as trope, meme, metadata, and metaphysics for example all elude me a bit until someone offers me a crystal clear example. So it was with the currently much used term, “gaslighting.” I just couldn’t quite grasp its essence until Senior Trustee Catherine Bond Hill ’85 Ph.D. provided on 24th May an example so remarkably vivid that even for me the penney dropped.

    All the best,


  • Neal Freeman

    Speaking of classic lines . . . Thanks, Jan.3