Last week, I wrote about the historian Beverly Gage’s resignation from the directorship of Yale’s prestigious Grand Strategy program in response to what she felt was interference from conservative donors over the direction of the program. Since then, Yale’s president, Peter Salovey, has issued an apologetic letter to the faculty with the subject line “Yale’s unwavering commitment to academic freedom.”

The tone is contrite. “I am genuinely sorry,” Salovey writes, that Gage experienced “more unsolicited input from donors than faculty members should reasonably be expected to accept. ... For everyone’s benefit, I should have tried harder to improve the situation.”

Salovey goes on to address the substantive issue announced in the subject line: the protection of academic freedom from donor interference. After invoking his own “unequivocal” support for academic freedom, he announces vague but perhaps promising plans to give “new and careful consideration to how we can reinforce our fundamental commitment to academic freedom in our engagement with donors.” Faculty members should hold him to that, and pay close attention to the details.

But the letter is more notable for what it doesn’t say than what it does. Recall that Gage’s principal objection, as reported by Jennifer Schuessler in The New York Times, was to the composition of Grand Strategy’s Board of Visitors — an advisory group with guaranteed input into, but no decision-making power over, the program’s visiting “practitioners,” distinguished guest instructors who teach alongside core faculty members. As Schuessler reports, Gage insisted that the board, if created, “would need diversity across generational, ideological, methodological, racial, and gender lines. And the donors could not be allowed to appoint its members.”

At least one of the donors, Charles B. Johnson, felt strongly that he could appoint the members of the Board. In particular, Schuessler wrote, Johnson “wanted to name Stephen J. Hadley, former national security adviser to George W. Bush; Thomas H. Kean, the former Republican governor of New Jersey” and Henry Kissinger. According to Gage, Schuessler reported, Salovey agreed to appoint Hadley, Kean, and Kissinger.

Here’s where Salovey’s letter to the faculty begins to look not like a heartfelt mea culpa but an exercise in evasion. It is in fact the case that the donors had no contractual power to pick the members of the board. That decision lay solely with Salovey. But the donors evidently had some other kind of power, because Salovey ignored the pointed objections of Beverly Gage. Instead, he did Johnson’s bidding.

Why? Well, Charles B. Johnson is 88 years old. Nicholas F. Brady is 91. Between them, they’ve given over $250 million to Yale. Presumably there’s more where that came from. It’s reasonable to suppose Yale is busy talking “estate planning” with two such loyal, well-heeled, and geriatric alumni.

I’d certainly have liked to ask Salovey himself about his decisions regarding the Board of Visitors, but several attempts to reach him through Yale’s office of media relations failed.

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Write to me at len.gutkin@chronicle.com.

Yours,
Len Gutkin