In a panel discussion at this year’s YAA Assembly and Yale Alumni Fund Convocation, three members of the Yale Board of Trustees took to the stage to discuss their paths to the board and its many responsibilities. The panel, which included Joshua L. Steiner ’87, Marta L. Tellado ’02 PhD, and Joshua Bekenstein ’80, was moderated by Weili Cheng ’77, Executive Director of the YAA.
Addressing an audience of alumni volunteers at the start of the panel, Joshua L. Steiner, ’87 first paused to thank the alumni community. “I hope that it's clear from the Corporation and board how important the work that you do is,” he said.
“Fundamentally, the alumni community at its core keeps the university honest. It's the traditions that you further and the change that you push for that enable this university to stay as terrific and as effective as it has been,” said Steiner.
Formally known as the Yale Corporation, the board is tasked with ensuring that Yale's academic and administrative leadership are guided by sound policies and practices, and equipped with adequate resources, to further Yale’s mission.
Below is a look at some of the highlights from the wide-ranging, Q&A-style conversation, edited and condensed for style and length:
On how their Yale experience shapes them as trustees:
Steiner: I think my Yale experience, probably like many other people here, operates at two different levels. One of them is very intimate and personal. It's the experience I think many of us have in a dorm room, in a very quiet seminar, in a heated discussion. Those are not only informative, they are the basis of friendships that many of us form throughout our lives. And then they operate to the second one, which is an educational level of engagement in the world. In my case, the place where I thought about how I wanted my career to evolve, where I could be effective engaging in the world. I think the Corporation is quite similar. There are issues we need to discuss which are important to Yale as an institution and there are issues we have to discuss which relate to Yale's role in the world.
Tellado: I am first-gen and Yale has provided a remarkable opportunity and enormous bridge in my life that has exposed me to so many opportunities. I was hungry about the world of ideas that brought my parents to this country. The idea of democracy, the idea of an open dialogue and agency in one's life — and that never wore off. The opportunity for me to sit here before you and to have you embrace my role on this board, I feel a sense of tremendous gratitude. As a trustee, it is a real highlight to be able to give back to an organization and an institution that gave me so much.
Bekenstein: I always marveled at what Yale had to offer. When I was a student, I said, "If I ever got on the Corporation, I'm going to make sure I stay in touch with students." So, that is something that I've done, and today the Corporation is more in touch with students than ever before. Being a trustee is an amazing honor and responsibility. The trustees work incredibly hard in many different ways trying to help the administration and guide the university through the really complicated times that we live in. We try to do the best we can to make sure that we're supportive of Yale so that it can continue to be the great place that it is.
On how the trustees work together with the administration:
Steiner: I think one of the things that characterizes really strong institutions is transparency. The Corporation really is making a very clear effort to be more transparent about how do we do our work, what our priorities are, and how we communicate with each other. The Corporation is very deliberate in thinking about what the issues are that a Corporation should be considering and what of those are the issues that we can work on together with the administration. Empowering and entrusting us to make those decisions and to be open with each other ensures that the Corporation isn't deciding the things that the administration should be deciding, and the administration isn't taking on responsibilities which really are quite integral to the Corporation.
On recently joining the board:
Tellado: As an alum, you have a tremendous foundation to build on. But you come to realize the incredible complexity of an organization of this scale and this stature of being a major resource and research institution on a global scale. What I have welcomed about the onboarding process is the incredible commitment and time that is being taken with new board members to really give us a full orientation. So you have to enter into this responsibility with this willingness to learn, and to learn deeply at that. This is an immense responsibility that we have.
On being a senior trustee:
Bekenstein: The role of a senior trustee is to coordinate agendas between an incredibly talented group of trustees and President Salovey and the rest of the senior management team. The senior trustee really has to say, ”how can everyone to work together so that we're using our time efficiently?” We spend a great deal of time here, but if we're not talking about the issues that everyone thinks is most important, then we're not using our time well.
On engaging with students and alumni:
Steiner: I am grateful for people who are willing to say what they're really thinking about. So, when I went back for my 35th reunion, the class was kind enough to suggest that I do a Q&A with my classmates. While there were many thoughtful questions, some of them had opinions to share and wanted to make sure that I heard and talked openly about issues with alumni why we were prioritizing one thing or another. I learned an enormous amount from hearing from them directly. The fact that they were willing to speak openly and trust the institution, our relationships, and our classmates enough to be honest, is the sign of fundamentally healthy and strong relationships.
Tellado: I think it's so important for us to have that foundation of trust and transparency, because you can't have accountability without it. As stewards, we have to be held accountable, we have to be able to feel that we can surface the opinions and the thoughts that we have so we can facilitate a robust discussion. We need a presence with alumni, students, faculty, and administration to create and make sure that those opportunities for candor and discussion are current. It is both the formal and the informal, and I think that kind of philosophy is what really fuels trust and transparency.
Bekenstein: First, let me clarify that we have 16 trustees who equally represent the university and are interested in everything that goes on. Some alumni may not be aware that if they want to communicate to the trustees, they do not have to do so solely through an alumni trustee. All of us are trying to do the same thing — it is not as if the alumni interest is only being represented by the six alumni trustees. When it comes to students I always try and see if I can't talk to those young adults in some way, shape or form. I go to a lot of lacrosse games at Yale and I talk to the student athletes. You get really interesting perspectives.
On how the board leads:
Bekenstein: We want to consider all different points of view and to be aware of all the great thoughts that come from students, faculty, staff, and alumni. Openness and being aware of what people think is one of the things that we've really focused on over the last eight and a half years I've been involved and want to continue to do.
For more information on the Yale Board of Trustees, its members, mission, and more, visit the Yale Board of Trustees page. And for more on the alumni fellow selection and election process, please see the Yale Corporation Alumni Fellow Election page and the FAQs that live on the YAA website.