Yale’s financial role in city must be voluntary

The question of whether Yale should pay more to New Haven’s city government is one that has colored town-gown relations for the past century, and it is not hard to see why. Yale’s sheer size and New Haven’s state-mandated reliance on property taxes make the University’s impact on city finances a topic worth discussing — and all the more so now, as the city begins to grapple with a $9-million deficit.

This fall, we have seen two very different approaches to forging a new financial relationship between Yale and the city. One came from the New Haven Student Fair Share Coalition, an umbrella group of several student organizations on campus. The coalition “demanded” a very specific commitment from the University, calling for Yale to cover any difference between what it would pay if it were not tax-exempt and what the city receives from the state as a reimbursement for those lost revenues — a gap that is close to $10 million this year. With an $12 billion endowment, the group argues, the University has an obligation to pay more to the city as it expands.

We agree that Yale should seek to improve the community it is a part of, and we believe it is in the University’s interest to do so. But we take issue with both the substance and the language of the Fair Share Coalition’s demands. The city’s deficits are a problem that affects Yale, like any member of the New Haven community, but it is not Yale’s responsibility to make them disappear. And suggesting that Yale has an obligation to make up for the failures of Connecticut’s tax system ignores both the considerable resources the University devotes to the city — in volunteer work, donations and sheer economic impact — and the trade-offs new payments would require.

We see more promise in the discussions earlier this fall between Yale and the city over additional voluntary contributions. In a marked contrast from past confrontations between New Haven and Yale on this topic, City Hall has not attempted to browbeat the University into giving money. Instead, both sides have expressed an interest in finding a solution that alleviates some of the city’s shortfall without creating the expectation that Yale is responsible for bailing the city out.

That collaborative approach points in the right direction, so long as it tries to balance two competing goals for the University. Yale will be a better place if it maintains a positive relationship with its host city — and that may mean contributing money as well as volunteers and expertise to the areas in which New Haven needs it. At the same time, it is important to recognize that every dollar the University contributes to the city is a dollar that cannot be spent on increasing financial aid, raising worker salaries or keeping tuition down.

Payments to the city may still be worthwhile, but they must be made with the understanding that there is a cost involved. And they must be truly voluntary — made not because Yale “owes” the city, but because it decides it has a stake in making a greater contribution to the city’s government.

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