My father always told me that the most important commandment was “Honor thy mother and thy father.” Second was “Thou shalt not bear false witness.”
He was onto something. As a freshman in Students Against Sweatshops, I assumed that public figures — politicians, puppets, presidents, Prince, etc. — did not actually lie; in the pomo laundry cycle, isn’t everything just opinion and interpretation? But that spring I was shocked to hear Yale President Richard Levin making deliberately misleading and often factually incorrect statements to students and periodicals. Not spin; not opinion; but intentional fabrication. I wouldn’t have believed it. Most of you don’t believe it. But some things never seem to change. So I’ve chosen four public statements made by President Levin, and I will show how they are not evidence of a lack of knowledge (which I would be the last to condemn) so much as deliberate misinformation that buttress controversial administrative policies.
At the recent open forum, in response to a question about town-gown affairs, Levin claimed that “Yale contributes to New Haven more than any university to any other city.” In fact Harvard gives more than three times as much money to Cambridge and Boston as Yale gives to New Haven. What Levin meant to say is what he usually says: that New Haven receives more than any other city does for hosting a university. That’s because the state of Connecticut reimburses the city for the value of its nonprofits, including Yale. But the money comes from taxpayers, not the University; this essentially means that Connecticut residents from Greenwich to Bridgeport are paying Yale’s taxes.
With regard to the unionization underway at Yale-New Haven Hospital, and especially in response to the unlawful arrest of pro-union Yale employees who work at the hospital, Levin has stated that the hospital and the University are two separate entities. While this may be technically and perhaps legally true, it ain’t so in practice. The University appoints six members to the hospital’s board of trustees. Levin, University Secretary Linda Lorimer, and School of Medicine Dean David Kessler all serve on the hospital board. In contrast, the hospital does not appoint its people to the Yale Corporation. Financially, the University is the grantee for all federal grant money that ends up at the hospital. These grants account for 10 percent of the hospital’s revenue. The statement that they are two separate institutions is at best Clintonian and misleading. More importantly, Levin and the University have a direct influence on the hospital’s policies. And its union-busting.
Replying to a student’s question about New Haven’s inadequate and underfunded public schools only blocks away from Scrooge McDuck’s swimming pool, Levin (an economist in charge of Yale’s finances) claimed that only 10 percent of the Yale endowment is quasi-endowment, “monies which the Yale Corporation chooses to invest and treat as endowment,” to quote an administration report about the University’s finances. This money is unrestricted and can be used as Yale wishes. The rest, true endowment, “gifts restricted by donors to provide long-term funding for designated purposes”, must go towards the specific programs, scholarships, prizes, etc., intended by the donor. In reality, 21 percent of the endowment, not 10 percent, is quasi-endowment. The result: Yale has twice as much money to spend on socially constructive things like local schools than Levin claimed.
At the open forum, Levin commented on negotiations by claiming, “The unions made a strategic decision. They did not want to close. They’ve basically run away from the bargaining tables since last May — the ball right now is in the unions’ court, not ours.” After intensive bargaining over the summer and an autumn stalemate, the unions reduced their salary proposal by 1 percent per year in early October. Yale’s negotiators called the new proposal “laughable.” The University’s most recent move has been to call for a federal negotiator to oversee the proceedings. The previous consultant, John Stepp, was a veteran facilitator (and a member of the Reagan administration) with an intimate knowledge of the stormy relationship; at Yale’s bidding he wrote a report recommending changes in negotiations. Evidently Yale did not enjoy his report. In a PR move, Yale recently called in a federal negotiator, a babe in the woods who quickly sighed that negotiations would be “fruitless.” So as things stand today, the unions have put an offer on the table and are waiting for Yale to respond. But Levin seems to expect that his silence will force the unions to further lower their proposal, to bargain against themselves. Big picture: the truth here is the exact opposite of the president’s rhetoric.
Maybe you contend that I’m just adding fuel to the fire that burns a straw man in effigy. But these are not isolated examples, though they are more glaring than most presidential dissimulations. One could find dozens of examples, which is especially disturbing when you consider how infrequently Levin publicly weighs in on really controversial issues. How many administrative justifications rest on grains of salt? Come next blue moon, when you hear President Levin wax authoritarian — whether the topic is sweatshop policy, labor negotiations, or his boyhood as a clown in Vienna — think thrice.
Matthew Schneider-Mayerson is a junior in Davenport College. His column will appear regularly on alternate Thursdays.