The Tragedy of the Yale CommonsRoundup
tags: Yale, education, academia
Jim Sleeper is a lecturer in political science at Yale and a writer on American civic culture and higher education.
When 18-year-old Stephen A. Schwarzman, the son of a Philadelphia dry-goods store owner, entered Yale in 1965, he took his meals, like all freshmen, in the Commons, a vast, baronial dining hall in a cluster of beaux-arts colossi that the university had constructed for its bicentennial in 1901. The Commons seemed to him like “a train station full of hundreds of people eating,” he recalls in his recently published business memoir, What It Takes. “The loneliness was crushing. Everything and everyone intimidated me.”
Now Schwarzman, the multibillionaire CEO of the Blackstone private equity group and Donald Trump confidant whose personal net worth is approximately $19 billion, is turning the tables on the Commons. In 2015, he donated $150 million to his alma mater to repurpose and rename that part of its semi-sacred civic center for himself. Since then, he’s engaged directly in the renovation of the Commons into the Stephen A. Schwarzman Center, another of the lavish bells-and-whistles amenities—a hive of junior-business start-up platforms, performance spaces, and more—that upscale American universities and private schools are scrambling to erect to lure student customers. (In 2009, the Yale Daily News uncovered Yale administration memos calling students “customers,” inspired perhaps by vice presidents of the university who’d come over from PepsiCo and General Mills.) The center is due to open next fall, and growing discontent with Schwarzman’s “philanthropy” may presage a broader reckoning with how finance capital is deranging American higher education and civil society.
Universities increasingly do understand themselves as corporations in an education industry that incentivizes students to envision themselves not as citizens of a republic but as self-marketing, indebted buyers and sellers. That sea change, symbolized by this transformation of the Commons, submerges a lot of instructive history. When Yale celebrated its bicentennial in 1901 with “a great torchlight parade of five thousand graduates and students in costumes illustrating [its] history” and opened the new cluster of buildings that includes the Commons, the school presented an honorary doctorate of laws to Theodore Roosevelt—a graduate of Harvard and champion of its football rivalry with Yale—soon after he succeeded the assassinated President William McKinley. “I have never yet worked at a task worth doing that I did not find myself working shoulder to shoulder with some son of Yale,” he told his New Haven audience. “I have never yet been in any struggle for righteousness or decency, that there were not men of Yale to aid me and give me strength and courage.”
Roosevelt’s “sons of Yale” included John Campbell Greenway, one of his fellow Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War, and would soon include Roosevelt’s friend Gifford Pinchot, a pioneer in wilderness conservation whom he named as the first chief of the United States Forest Service in 1905. Another of Roosevelt’s Yale sons was William Howard Taft, his secretary of war and successor in the White House (who would later go on to serve as the chief justice of the Supreme Court). That day in New Haven, Roosevelt and the 200-year-old college were riding a high tide of American nationalism, congratulating one another for conquering the western frontier in 1890 and the Spanish empire in 1898. Yale graduates had founded and led scores of American colleges in that century. Muscular Christian Yale football heroes, real and fictional (Dink Stover and Frank Merriwell among the latter), were winning young Americans’ hearts. Other undergraduates were powering a national crusade for “the evangelization of the world in this generation” (a slogan of the American Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions, whose archives rest, fittingly, at the Yale Divinity School). The movement’s missionaries in China also raised future sons of Yale such as Henry R. Luce, co-founder of Time magazine and herald of the “American Century,” and the writer John Hersey.*
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