Letters: Equality is not fair

We Elis share a certain collective memory (or nightmare) of the first family dinner gathering we were allowed to sit at the adults’ table. We didn’t say anything all evening, which was uncharacteristic, until the well-respected matriarch misused a word in her toast and we, unthinking, corrected her in front of three horrified generations. It is the night we were marked as “the smart one,” and the beginning of a nagging role that we have reluctantly but dutifully carried to the present.

After reading yesterday’s News, I find myself at the adults’ table once more, with the same embarrassed yet irrepressible desire to interrupt. There have been many solid objections raised against the proposed $1,000 prize cap in the three days since its announcement, and almost as many reasonable rebuttals. We are lucky to attend a school where such prizes are available in the first place, as well as one at which a need-blind admissions policy is a sustainable reality. Although this prize money can certainly be useful for supplementing the unpaid summer work of a humanities student, I will not toe that line, either. We are not above mowing lawns to support writing careers (it’s probably good practice, actually). I agree that these prizes are designed to honor excellence, not pay for it.

Instead, my objection is one of definition, and amounts to more than typical English-major nitpicking. According to the News, “[Provost Peter] Salovey said the cap was designed to distribute Yale’s generosity more fairly.” There is a difference between equality and fairness. It is subtle, to be sure, but very important, so if you read any portion of this letter, let it be the following: “Equality” means that individuals receive the same as others; “fairness” means that individuals receive what they earn and deserve. This is not always, if ever, the same as others.

Provost Salovey is further accredited with this direct statement: “If you have $10,000, wouldn’t you rather give 10 students $1,000 than one student $10,000?” The answer in the interest of equality is “yes.” The answer in that of fairness, and mine, is a resounding “no.” The spirit of prizewinning is not equality, but appreciation of individual accomplishment. If one student produces work so exemplary that it is unparalleled by his peers, then he or she alone deserves that $10,000 (or a higher increment in the case of multiple awards). They’ve earned it. Furthermore, if the prizewinner is not on financial aid, they’ve still earned it — all of it. Reducing the sum according to need is not fair, as Provost Salovey suggests, but quite the opposite.

Some have called for pay cuts in administrators’ salaries to supplant the prize cap. I disagree, for this too violates this University’s commitment to fairness; like academic prizes awarded to exemplary students, salaries are paid not according to need but according to the quality of the work performed by the recipient. Although the fundamentals of prizes and salaries differ, it would be no more just to cap salaries and redistribute the excess to lower-earning colleagues.

Equal opportunity in education is an essential element of a successful and fair University. Equal outcome, however, is not — particularly when manufactured. To champion the latter in the name of “fairness” is a perversion and an insult to those who work harder to achieve more. The capping and redistribution of prize funds is antithetical to the kind of school that Yale strives to be, one that encourages and promotes excellence. Do it if you must, but don’t call it fair.

Riley Scripps Ford

March 29

The writer is a junior in Saybrook College


  • Egalitarian

    It is not unfair to reward quality.
    It is not unfair to reward equality.
    Do both.


  • Rob69

    Mr. Ford gets it, “egalitarian” clearly does not.
    What is the point of excelling if the slacker is rewarded equally?
    And what becomes of a society in which there is no reward for excellence?
    I’ll answer that last one: there will be no excellence.

  • Branford ’10

    I’m so tired of how melodramatic Yalies are about everything. And what’s with the constant, obsessive compulsion to always figure out who is the very best.

    Salovey probably just meant that there are usually multiple students who are all very deserving of certain prizes, so it would be better to give them all a share rather than arbitrarily picking one student to get everything. He wasn’t saying that any undeserving slacker who applies should get it.

  • yalemom

    Well said!

  • Egalitarian

    To #1: PK, I know that you have a tendancy to change the name under which you post on a regular basis, but you might want to consider not using someone else’s name, since it can create confusion.

    I definitely agree with the principle that working hard to do a good job should be worth something. At the same time, Yale’s admissions process is, for those not lucky enough to be private school students, legacies, and/or affirmative action beneficiaries, as much a game of random chance as of merit. That said, why should a Yale student get a five-figure prize while a student who did just as good work but was at a second-tier school through no fault of their own gets nothing?

  • Egalitarian

    No, I’m Spartacus!

    Seriously, though, you didn’t trademark it.

  • GS

    as a grad student, it’s remarkable to see the energy put into this righteous indignation about prize money. please get over yourselves.

  • @#7

    I’d think that to get in here you’d need close reading skills. This letter is not about making sure we continue to rake in ludicrous amounts of prize money, it’s about the principle on which they’re being capped. Please learn to read. I’m sorry for anyone unfortunate enough to get you as a TA.

    Great letter.

  • ’10

    Rob69 asks “What is the point of excelling if the slacker is rewarded equally?”

    I know that there are a few kids who shut their brains off once they get in, but the fact of the matter is that most kids at Yale, even the ones who we perceive to be slackers, bust their asses day in and day out.

    The student body here is one of the most qualified in the country. For you to run around calling a significant portion of us slackers is absurd. Don’t you have a Conservative Party event to get back to?

    By the way, if I won a prize, I’d turn around and donate the money to financial aid. I don’t need it, but there are plenty of kids here who could sure as hell use it.

  • @#9

    That’s all very noble of you, pal, but it would be YOUR choice. Not the administration’s. See the difference?

  • Recent Alum

    #9: The point is that even if everyone is relatively smart and relatively hard working, many at Yale do work that is of such high quality as to be in its own league. A reward of $5,000 for truly outstanding work should not be controversial, especially given that this is still a drop in the bucket by comparison to the financial aid awards that can often exceed $80,000 or even $100,000 over the course of four years. Just because the current White House would not approve doesn’t mean that Yale should follow.

  • yale parent

    to #5m, who writes that “Yale’s admissions process is, for those not lucky enough to be private school students, legacies, and/or affirmative action beneficiaries, as much a game of random chance as of merit. That said, why should a Yale student get a five-figure prize while a student who did just as good work but was at a second-tier school through no fault of their own gets nothing?”

    There are students — my child is one of them — who went to second-tier schools, are not legacies or affirmative action beneficiaries, who are freakishly talented, and chose Yale over other options, in part because Yale offers the chance to compete, with real rewards, in fields such as Classics and English that many people and teachers in second-tier schools regard as a pure waste of time. It appears to me that Yale Admin is saying that they don’t believe those fields are very important, either. I really doubt that any grant/prize funds used to support aspiring scientists will be as susceptible to raiding as those that are squarely in the Humanities.

  • Egalitarian

    To #12: Actually, many of us in the sciences are having difficulty getting into graduate schools because the schools are cutting funding.

  • One thought

    If prizes really were scaled to achievement, this article might be relevant.