Get AlterNet's Headlines Newsletter:
Email: 
no thanks
News & Politics

The Bulldog Bites Back

Panicked by a local pastor's bid for a seat on its corporate board, Yale bares its fangs. It's a fight about an Ivy League institution and its partnership, or lack of, with New Haven.
    Rule #1:

    Planning to run an underhanded hardball political campaign? Start by accusing your opponent of running an underhanded hardball political campaign, something you're above doing.

    -- The Insider's Guide to Cut-Throat Campaigning, as interpreted by Yale University.


Alumni of Yale University have received some alarming mail lately. One letter came from the chair of the Association of Yale Alumni, or AYA. It warned fellow Elis about a scary man who has inserted himself into an election that begins next week for a seat on the Yale Corporation, its governing body.

Every year, alumni elect a representative to the board. It's usually a sleepy, genteel affair. The AYA picks a few unthreatening alums to choose from. But this year, the letter warned, a New Haven pastor named W. David Lee has bucked the rules.

"Contrary to tradition," the letter said, "Rev. Lee has undertaken a very active campaign for the position ... We therefore wanted to alert you that you may be contacted" by Lee's supporters. Lee petitioned his way onto the ballot.

The letter mentioned that the AYA had nominated someone to run against Lee: "Maya Lin, a nationally renowned artist and architect who has designed the Vietnam Memorial, the Civil Rights Memorial and the Women's Table at Yale."

The AYA followed a few weeks later with a flier called "Seven things you should know" about the upcoming election. It included a reminder that "Rev. Lee has chosen to mount an aggressive campaign soliciting political endorsements and using mass mailings [and] e-mail." His opponent, the flier misleadingly claimed, "has followed the customary practice of not conducting a campaign."

Attached to this flier was a reproduction of the AYA's supposedly neutral election Web site. It showed photos of Lin and Lee. It included flattering quotes from Lin. It included out-of-context quoted snippets from Lee that made him look like a hypocritical, dangerous enemy of all things Old Blue.

Worst of all, according to this scare mail, Lee has received $30,000 for his campaign -- from Yale's unions.

Now, now. Has the Yale bulldog turned just a bit catty?

Or, more likely, senselessly desperate?

The letters, like the rest of a well-orchestrated campaign by Yale, were transparent and downright dishonest. Yale is campaigning just as aggressively on behalf of Lin as Lee's backers are. It's spending more money, sending more mail and e-mail. And Yale, not Lee, is breaking tradition: Others have petitioned their way onto the alumni ballot (including the first Jew to win a seat on the Corporation, William Horowitz in 1965). But never before has Yale nominated just one candidate on its own, so that its hand-picked celebrity could have a clear shot at stopping someone with whom it feels uncomfortable.

Yale's fliers, part of a slick, $145,000-plus campaign, used the oldest trick in the campaign handbook, a variation on "the best defense is a good offense": Hide your own distasteful tactics (aggressive campaigning, character assassination) by blaming your opponent for using these tactics, all the while denying you're doing the same thing.

Two separate groups have bombarded alumni with anti-Lee, pro-Lin messages, including full-page attack ads in the Yale Alumni Magazine.

One group, of old-school Old Blues, calls itself Yale Graduates for Responsible Trusteeship.

"The issue is this," says the group's founder, former Yale Secretary Henry Chauncey. "If an individual candidate accepts funds from any group (labor, or football or music) he or she is inevitably obligated to that group."

"To the best of my knowledge, Ms. Lin has accepted no funds of any kind," says Chauncey -- whose group has raised and spent $80,000 in soft money for attack ads on her behalf.

Chauncey says he fears a trend of "special interests," from museums to different eras of alumni, demanding their own trustee seats, leading to a corporation full of members looking out for narrow interests rather than Yale's broader good. (Lee denies he'll be beholden to unions. He has publicly advocated their organizing drives and serves on the board of a union-funded think tank critical of Yale's administration.)

The second anti-Lee group, working alongside Chauncey's outfit, includes the AYA and Yale administrators themselves, salaried officials who are simultaneously overseeing the election and fighting to stop Lee as part of their jobs. The AYA and Yale officials are working in tandem to bash Lee's campaign. According to AYA Executive Director Jeffrey Brenzel, the alumni association spent $65,000 on its own two mailings to alumni -- which trashed Lee's campaign.

Combined, Lin's backers have outspent Lee's supposedly "aggressive" campaign by more than 2-1. Backing Lee are Yale's unions, some undergraduates and socially conscious alums, all volunteers. Lee says the unions and alumni have so far raised $60,000 for his campaign, which have paid for mailings, a Web site and phone banking.

Just the mention of Lee's campaign makes Yale officials froth about "special interest" meddling.

"Why is labor different from Enron?" demands Yale spokeswoman Helaine Klasky. "If this were Enron" giving Lee's campaign money, she insists, the Advocate would splash an exposé across its pages.

Klasky has a point. That's because Enron is a multibillion-dollar criminal enterprise that bribed the federal government and destroyed thousands of workers' livelihoods and pensions. The media doesn't see Yale's unions, or their influence, the same way.

The fact that Yale can see its unions that way helps to explain why more is clearly at stake here than the bid by a pro-labor minister from New Haven's oldest black church to sit in the board meetings of a $10.7 billion university. In fact, one trustee out of 17 clubby members probably won't change the outcomes of any votes.

But Yale's overreaction has endangered two of university President Rick Levin's major initiatives: promoting "partnerships" with New Haven and with Yale's unions. Levin convinced unions to enter a comprehensive form of marriage counseling as part of the latest wave of contract negotiations, to examine the roots of their contentious relationship. And under Levin Yale has helped workers buy homes in New Haven, rebuilt the Broadway shopping district, and spawned local biotechnology companies to help create jobs, part of a bigger campaign that has convinced many townies Yale can help tackle urban problems rather than make them worse.

But faced with the possibility of allowing a labor- or New Haven-backed alum to enter the sanctum of monthly corporation meetings (a "partnership" tool in some American corporate boardrooms), Yale revealed the limits of its definition of "partner."

So, as 115,000 alumni fill out the ballots they received last week, they'll be technically voting between Maya Lin and W. David Lee. But they'll really be voting on Yale's relationship with New Haven and with its workers, on the wisdom of opening up corporate boards to labor-sympathetic trustees, on Yale's conduct in this campaign.

No one knows that better, or mentions it more often, than the 37-year-old Dixwell Avenue minister, Yale Divinity School class of 1993, son of Ansonia's Olsen Drive projects, who had the temerity to knock on the door of Connecticut's most exclusive corporate club.



    Rule #2:

    Wherever you are, God means for you to be there.

    -- The Red Sea Rules, adapted by Pastor W. David Lee, from a book by Robert J. Morgan.


This is not about Pastor Lee versus Maya Lin. It's really between Yale University and the city of New Haven ... It is not about the power of the individual. It's about the power of the idea: Partnership."

David Lee, robed, stands by the lectern facing the Sunday morning crowd at Varick Memorial AME Zion church, New Haven's oldest black church, a one-time stop on the Underground Railroad, a rallying point for civil rights and social justice campaigns up to modern times (including a community campaign on behalf of unionizing Yale-New Haven Hospital workers).

But Lee's not preaching. He saves that for later. His voice is hoarse, but it's always hoarse, whether he's shouting praises to the Lord or calmly delineating a philosophical argument, which he's doing now.

This is a new feature in the 11 a.m. Sunday service at Varick, when Lee updates his congregation of schoolteachers, doctors, welfare recipients, lawyers, nurses, Yale and Yale-New Haven Hospital blue-collar workers about this curious adventure in which their pastor has landed.

As he speaks, Lee's not sure the crowd's following him. No one's shouting "Hallelujah!" -- or even murmuring "uh huh."

He reminds them that Yale President Levin has repeatedly promised a new partnership with the city and the unions. He says he applauds Yale's progress under Levin.

"We're just saying we want to bring the partnership to a new level. If it's a true partnership, you are part of the decision-making process. Is that right?"

A few "uh huhs" emerge from the pews.

"I have a 'relationship' with my children. I have a partnership with my wife."

For emphasis, he reads from a column by E.R. Shipp in that morning's New York Daily News, the latest out-of-town paper to write about this campaign: "The ferocity of this battle confirms how resistant institutions are to that which is unorthodox ... The issues being fought out -- the struggle of marginalized people to be heard, the conflict between a powerful institution and the community around it -- are repeated throughout the nation."

That's it. The program returns to worship. As Varick explodes once more with clapping and amens, with searing solos from the two youth choirs, with teenage liturgical dancers racing up and down the aisles in a gospel hip-hop number, Michelle King, vice president of human resources at a North Haven company, sits in a back pew feeding a bottle to the 15-month-old godson on her lap. She says she heard Lee's message. Lee mentioned how Yale, which already spends princely sums on PR touting its generosity to New Haven, has recently been placing New Haven-friendly ads on black radio stations.

She's heard the ads. She, like Lee, believes Yale should contribute more to New Haven. Like Lee, she believes the alumni campaign has put the university on the defensive. She's proud of his candidacy, she says. And she's proud of the new members (he says about 400 to 500) and new energy Lee has brought to the 1,800-member congregation since the bishop installed him here three and a half years ago. The institution she loves, she says, was ready for modest change, and Lee brought it.

Meanwhile, the wattage inside the vast hall builds even higher as Lee launches into his real sermon. Not the one about Yale. One about the Israelites finding themselves stuck at the Red Sea. Pharaoh has changed his mind. He has sent his army after the fleeing slaves. The Israelites are trapped.

Lee puts himself in the mind of the Israelites: "It sounds like a set-up, y'all!" Uh-huh. He puts himself in the minds of the congregation -- of people who inevitably find themselves trapped at some point in their lives.

"When you're doing right," he thunders, "trouble will seek you out! When you're in so much pain, you ask, 'Lord, how did I get here, and why?'"

Lee bounces across the stage. He thrusts his hands out, grabs a white towel to wipe his forehead, claps his hands above his head. The crowd's following him. He has them laughing, clapping back, shouting their assent.

He's been devoting a series of these Sunday sermons to 10 "rules" of "the Red Sea," based on a Christian book published last year about how to face a challenge. Lee found himself reading the book during what he considers his current "moment in history."

If powerful forces descend on you, Lee tells his congregation, "Don't sit there and have a pity party. No pain, no gain. Don't you understand that God gets joy when he delivers his children?"

By now a pulsating beat shoots from the organ, and Lee is marching, hollering. "Sometimes God puts us through something to get his enemies' attention!" Varick is on its feet, cheering.

Watching Lee, you wonder: Is this what scares Yale? Does it see a bomb-thrower, fueled by enemy unions, readying to storm the campus and trample the ivy?

Having done its opposition research, that's the caricature Yale is presenting to more than 100,000 alumni in its stop-David Lee campaign. Lee, with a proclivity for over-the-top rhetorical outbursts, has helped their cause.


    #3: Rules for Attacking Your Opponent


  • If possible, have stand-ins do it.
  • If he's black, find black fronts to do it.
  • If he's black and liberal, put up another liberal minority against him.
  • Comb through his public statements, remove snippets, then broadcast them out of context to make him look like a raving, dangerous nut.


In its non-"campaign" against Lee's campaign, Yale's alumni association has created a Web site.

Lee has one, too. It lists his endorsements. It links to articles about the campaign. It describes his reasons for running.

The alumni association's Web site links to articles, too. Even pro-Lee articles. It pretends to present straightforward information about the campaigns. It shows a picture of Maya Lin. It includes uplifting, high-minded quotes she made in statements about her campaign to the Yale Daily News and in an open letter to alumni (even though she's supposedly not campaigning).

"I would consider it an honor and privilege to serve the University as a member of the Yale Corporation. It would be thrilling to come home to Yale and help with the unfolding design of our alma mater," Lin says.

"In the past, Yale alumni have always relied on the record of the proven accomplishments and prior service of candidates in determining who would be the best stewards for the entire University," she says. "I hope my record is the best indication of the kind of trustee I would be for Yale."

Translation: I'm world-famous. (The site links to a detailed description of her awards and feats.) The other guy's not.

Fair enough. That's campaigning. Pick your strength and make your case.

Next to her statement, the Web site features Lee's picture and three quotes. The first quote is innocuous, like hers: "If the alumni elect me as their trustee, I will act solely to serve the long-term best interests of Yale University."

Then, from the student paper: "There is a blind spot at Yale -- no one is responsible for the community interests ... [President] Levin is probably laughing now but he won't laugh after we get there."

Sounds like he's looking to storm Woodbridge Hall and behead the monarch. The next quote continues the theme: "Yale has met its Waterloo in the Federation of Hospital and University Employees" -- the group trying to unionize Yale hospital workers, some of whom have found they're paid so little they default on their medical bills, only to see the hospital go after their homes ("The Predator on the Hill," The New Haven Advocate, May 31, 2001). "It is indeed our time!"

Yale's campaigners have pressed this theme in media interviews and published letters and op-eds: Lee claims to be a responsible Yale man, but is really just a reckless shill for the unions. These quotes prove it.

I ask Lee about the quotes as we sit in his office, below a Yale wall hanging and his Divinity School diploma. Yale's leaving out a crucial part of that Levin quote, Lee claims. He said it in response to a call from a Yale Daily News reporter the night his campaign succeeded in getting a spot on the ballot by collecting 4,000 alumni signatures. The reporter said she'd just asked Levin about it and Levin laughed, according to Lee. (Levin, through his secretary, says he has "nothing to say" about Lee or the campaign. In other papers, he has joined in the criticism of Lee for "campaigning.")

"It hurt," a somber Lee recalls of hearing of Levin's laughter. "My gut reaction was, 'Wow. That stings. Fine. He won't laugh when I come in the room.' It was like calling me a joke. I had to deal with that all my life, growing up in the projects, not having money, people laughing at you.

"I went to Syracuse on a football scholarship. I went to Yale Divinity School. To still be laughed at by the president of the institution I love -- it was disheartening."

So was the role of Kurt Schmoke. Lee says he called Schmoke when he decided to run. Schmoke is black. As a Yale undergraduate in the Black Panther days, Schmoke protested on behalf of pro-union Yale workers. He pressed Yale to do more for New Haven. He eventually became mayor of Baltimore, a national figure. Yale asked him to join the Yale Corporation. But he told Lee he couldn't help with the campaign, Lee says. (Schmoke failed to return more than a half-dozen Advocate calls for comment.)

Fine. But Lee didn't expect what followed -- a barrage of pro-Lin campaigning by Schmoke in the local and national media. In fact, Schmoke was leading the charge by attacking Lee personally, a black man standing in front of the white Yale old guard to more credibly cut down another black man.

And he used transparent arguments. Schmoke attacked Lee in interviews with the Yale Daily and The New York Times for representing special interests -- which is how Schmoke now characterizes the unions and the city on whose behalf he once protested. He didn't mention that some of his fellow Corporation trustees lead development and investment and corporate consulting firms. One chairs the board of Procter and Gamble. Another is married to one of Yale's top administrators, University Secretary Linda Lorimer. Those, apparently, don't count as special interests, or bring a bias to the table.

Schmoke complained Lee carries too much bias because Lee supports efforts by graduate-student teachers to organize. Yet Schmoke freely told the Yale Daily that he opposes that effort -- as though that opinion was somehow less biased.

Yale's Corporation, like any corporate board, seeks out people with impressive resumes and, in cases like these, politically liberal reputations. That makes them all the more useful once they join the club and acquiesce in the corporate decision-making. They offer progressive cred.

Deborah Rhode found herself in a similar position in the early '80s. The Stanford law prof served on the Corporation at a time when Yale battled pink-collar office workers seeking to unionize. Rhode is a leading scholar and proponent of pay equity -- the feminist issue at the heart of that union campaign. Union activists picketed her class at Harvard, where she was a visiting professor. They called on her to publicly denounce Yale's heavy-handed tactics or else resign from the corporation. She declined.

Rhode says in an interview that she and a fellow prominent civil rights advocate on the board, Eleanor Holmes Norton, concluded they "could do more by pressing our views from within ... [M]aking a public statement would have compromised those efforts."

Were they right? Rhode says yes. Her scholarly reputation "made the people take the [gender] issues more seriously," she argues. "It affected their perception of whether this was just special pleading."

Yale still fought the union, before and after it won an election. The union still had to brave a strike and humiliate Yale in the national media before obtaining a first contract.

In this campaign, Lin has released a public [campaigning] letter in which she trumpeted her credentials and denounced the notion of campaigning. She failed, and continues to fail, to distance herself from the more expensive and nastier campaigning being done on her behalf.

By agreeing to be used by Yale to stop Lee's campaign, Lin has already proved her major qualification for the seat -- reliability. She won't press Yale to take more than baby steps to help rebuild New Haven or to abide by labor law in confronting union drives. (She declined to answer the Advocate's telephone and e-mail inquiries. Yale spokeswoman Klasky calls it a "jump" to suggest that Lin tacitly approves the massive campaigning on her behalf by not openly disavowing it.)

"I don't care where you go -- the church, the corporate world. Some people don't like change," reflects Lee. "But change is good. It's progress." Amid its rhetoric of seeking new partnerships, is Yale ready for that kind of progress?

    A Rhetoric Sampler


Like any high-powered political campaign, the David Lee-Maya Lin contest for a seat on the Yale Corporation has drawn a flurry of political endorsements -- with rhetoric from the sweeping and lofty to the purely posturing.

Take what Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal had to say in his letter endorsing Lee.

"I have come to know and admire your courageous work as a civic, religious and civil rights leader," Blumenthal wrote.

What "courageous" work has Blumenthal actually witnessed by Lee?

"His work in his church, in his congregation, on behalf of education," he said in a conversation last week.

And what work was that?

"He's been supportive of students who have come to him."

No doubt. When did Blumenthal see that?

"I've seen him speak. I'm not sure I can be more specific. I believe he supported the mayor for reconstructing the schools."

Actually, while Lee has endorsed the city school rebuilding program, he recently drew New Haven's mayor's ire by proclaiming before his congregation that in the end, the program may inadvertently serve wealthier white people rather than black families.

"Was that recent?" Blumenthal wanted to know.

Then there's Yale spokeswoman Helaine Klasky's response to Blumenthal's endorsement (and that of U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman).

"This is an election for Yale alumni," she says. "It's not an election for politicians to decide who's on the Yale Corporation."

Actually, Blumenthal went to Yale. He can vote in this election. Same with Lieberman.

"I understand that," Klasky says. "But the main reason they were approached" to offer endorsements was because of their political positions.

What about the prominent alumni endorsing Lin? Klasky denies Lin "approached" them.

Lieberman stuck to what he knows in his endorsement, capturing the big picture. He recalled, in 1964 and 1965, supporting the candidacy of William Horowitz, who won a petition campaign to become the Yale Corporation's first Jewish member.

"Yale and New Haven have been building a strong partnership together for many years, and your willingness to serve as a trustee of Yale University is further evidence that this partnership is strong," Lieberman wrote in his Lee endorsement.

    The Brochure Version vs. the Real Version


Yale's sudden return to a publicized fight with labor and New Haven in the alumni trustee campaign comes at an inopportune moment: Behind the scenes, its relationship with New Haven City Hall has stagnated.

For eight years, Yale President Rick Levin and New Haven Mayor John DeStefano have built a close working relationship after a bumpy beginning. Both administrations have worked together to promote home-ownership by Yale employees, to develop downtown and to build the local biotechnology sector.

Publicly, the relationship remains all roses. Yale continues to buy full-page ads in the New Haven Register and (in the heat of the alumni trustee battle) to send alumni glossy brochures touting its loving partnership with New Haven.

Privately, the two sides have been sniping. No single explanation has emerged. And officials on either side will publicly acknowledge the growing tensions.

According to sources familiar with the behind-the-scenes conversations, the tensions stem from several recent developments:

  • DeStefano unnerved the Yale Corporation when he addressed a recent meeting. He told the trustees he considers their fight against the Rev. David Lee's campaign a mistake. According to the unwritten rules of Yale etiquette, such blunt talk doesn't belong in a boardroom. And city leaders have no business getting involved in how Yale runs itself -- "partnership" or no partnership. (DeStefano stopped visibly backing Lee's campaign after Lee made public remarks that DeStefano understood as shots at City Hall.)
  • Both sides, frustrated with New Haven's continued inability to shake state dollars from Gov. John Rowland's administration, have taken to blaming the other. Is it the fault of Democrat DeStefano's dysfunctional relationship with the Republican guv? Or the fault of globally connected Yale bigshots unwilling to expend capital at the Capitol?
  • A feeling is growing in some corners of City Hall that Yale should and could do more to help build and rebuild housing, to create summer jobs, and to expand its vaunted program helping employees buy city homes.
  • Levin has refused to use his influence with Yale-New Haven Hospital to stop its often illegal tactics aimed at stomping a unionizing drive. City Hall's own relationship with the Yale unions is somewhat frayed these days, but all New Haven Democrats, including DeStefano, have no political choice but to side with them in organizing drives.


Paul Bass is the managing editor of the New Haven Advocate. He can be reached at [email protected].
Sign Up!
Get AlterNet's Daily Newsletter in Your Inbox
+ sign up for additional lists
[x]
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Activism
Drugs
Economy
Education
Election 2018
Environment
Food
Media
World