Yale historian quits diplomacy post over donor influence

Beverley Gage leaves Brady-Johnson programme after president insists $250 million funder can pick its advisory board members

October 1, 2021
Yale University poster

The leader of a prominent Yale University programme in global politics and diplomacy has resigned after the Ivy League institution insisted on the right of its financial funders to guide its curriculum.

Beverly Gage, a professor of history and American studies at Yale, said she would leave her position as director of Yale’s Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy rather than accept an advisory board of donor-backed conservatives that included Henry Kissinger.

Professor Gage announced her decision through a Twitter posting, in which she cited a New York Times interview where she recounted her efforts to preserve the Brady-Johnson programme’s academic independence over Yale’s resistance.

She told the newspaper that Yale’s president, Peter Salovey, had asked her to relent on the matter, while suggesting the potential loss of a $250 million (£190 million) donation if she did not comply with the funders’ requests.

Yale officials issued written responses to questions in which Professor Salovey praised Professor Gage’s academic work, denied any fear of losing donor funding, and emphasised the advisory nature of the planned board.

Asked why Yale, with a $31 billion endowment, would allow donors any role in guiding an academic programme, a university spokeswoman said Professor Salovey “was trying to help find a way to honour the spirit of a gift agreement, forged 15 years ago, whose conditions produced unforeseen consequences many years after their establishment”.

University faculty from within Yale and beyond posted their own reactions to the situation on Twitter, many condemning Yale and congratulating Professor Gage for her stance.

Yale’s position was “hugely disappointing” and Professor Gage was “a hero”, wrote Samuel Moyn, a Yale professor of law and history who said he had taught in the Brady-Johnson programme as a guest instructor.

The development “should concern people of all political views, and remind us that donors are welcome to patronise academic life without dictating content”, Professor Moyn wrote.

The incident stands as the latest in a series of cases in which US universities of varying prestige and financial resources have been granting large-dollar donors privileges in areas that include curricula, faculty recruitment, research agendas and student admissions.

The Brady-Johnson programme, founded in 2000, provides a year-long course in politics and diplomacy to a group of about 20 undergraduate and graduate students. It received a $17 million endowment in 2006 from Yale alumnus Nicholas Brady, a former US Treasury secretary, and Charles Johnson, a billionaire financier and Republican funder.

Mr Johnson in 2013 gave Yale the $250 million gift, its largest ever. Then, according to a chronology set out by Professor Gage, Mr Brady protested about a 2020 newspaper article by an instructor in the programme that criticised then president Donald Trump.

That led to the two donors asking Yale to create a five-member advisory board as required by their 2006 gift, Professor Gage insisting its appointees be diverse, the donors requesting that Dr Kissinger and two other leading Republican figures be placed on the panel, and Professor Salovey siding with them over Professor Gage.

“The president has unqualified respect and admiration for Professor Gage, and wishes things had gone differently,” the Yale spokeswoman said of Professor Salovey. “Above all, he believes strongly that faculty members must be protected from any interference in their teaching and research.”

Professor Gage did not respond to requests for comment. Speaking with the New York Times, she made clear her disdain for Dr Kissinger, the 98-year-old former US secretary of state known for his interventionist foreign policy. But in her statement on Twitter, she avoided any additional criticism of Yale and said she looked forward to resuming her regular teaching role.

“I’ll be finishing out this semester with the terrific cohort of current students” in the Brady-Johnson programme, she said. “After that, Yale students can find me back in the history classroom!”

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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