Disagreeing with someone who has given you a lot makes for some tough love.
In recent pieces in the Yale Daily News, I read, not for the first time, that “we ought to be thankful for the privilege of attending Yale” and that the exponential increase in our endowment under University President Richard Levin is “something that we ought to be grateful for, not resent.” The implication is that, since Yale has done a lot for us and a lot for the world, Yale deserves to make whatever financial decisions it deems necessary.
Those particular words were in response to a protest organized by the Undergraduate Organizing Committee which criticized the University’s decision to give President Levin a $350,000 raise in 2008, in the context of its more recent decision to raise the student “self-help” contribution to tuition—the amount that all students receiving financial aid have to pay out of pocket—by $400 per year. The UOC sought to reignite public attention and mobilize action around this change in financial aid policy made without formal announcement or student input.
There are two types of arguments that I’ve heard in response to the UOC's action. The first is that President Levin deserves to be compensated for the wealth that he has brought to the University’s coffers over the course of his tenure. The second is that students have no right to complain about a comparatively minimal spike in student costs.
The first argument, within a meritocratic framework, is entirely justified. President Levin deserves significant credit not only for the financial growth of the University, but also for Yale’s world-class financial aid system and for a relaxing of historical tensions between Yale and City Hall. The second argument is sort of justified, too. Many students, myself included, would not be at Yale if it weren’t for Yale’s 2008 decision to eliminate most tuition fees for students whose combined parental income is below $60,000 and to reduce tuition for families earning up to $200,000.
These arguments appear compelling, and yet, if we were speaking about national political economy, and not about our university, my guess is that more students might raise questions about Yale’s spending decisions.
Many students, like a majority of Americans, are outraged that executives of large financial institutions receiving government relief have given themselves massive multi-million dollar bonuses. And many progressives believe that we should raise taxes on the wealthiest segments of the population while investing in jobs and healthcare for working families.
Of course, Yale didn’t receive a bailout, and Yale’s investment policies didn’t single-handedly bring down the economy. But debate about bonuses, endowments, and financial aid is not one of numbers and budgets—but of values. Our view of a just society, in which money and resources should be used to generate security and opportunity for the non-upper classes and purchasing power for consumers, does not, in the minds of many, apply to Yale.
On a political level, I think that this mindset is wrong. Within the private sector, we need to rely on Yale to continue to set the tone as a leader in financial aid and equal educational opportunity. In order to be competitive, other corporations and educational institutions will be forced to follow Yale’s lead.
From the perspective of a student, this argument becomes more personal. Though its $16 billion endowment is greater than the GDP of a number of small countries, Yale is fundamentally an educator, not a money-maker. If Yale wants to be sincere about the positive change that its wealth and innovation have produced, then it had better make a sincere commitment to engage in open dialogue with its constituents. Calls by the UOC for more transparency in the creation of financial aid policy and some student involvement in the process have repeatedly been ignored by the President’s office. Announcements that the University needs to “trim the fat” and “make tough choices” have not been paired with a meaningful commitment to conversation with those directly affected by cuts to our budget. As students and families are already working hard to finance their education, this lack of two-way communication is a tough bargain.
The real privilege of being at Yale is the imperative to reflect rigorously on our relationship as students at a rich university to the city and the world around us. The real privilege is to be at the gates of power with the opportunity to let others inside. Some may resist our efforts to do so—because, they say, Yale has already done enough in these supposedly tough times—but I hope we’re not afraid to stand up for our ideals.