In Pierson, master’s departure to coincide with tightened budgets

Discretionary funds enabled Pierson Master Harvey Goldblatt to arrange an annual subsidized spring break trip to Italy for some Pierson seniors. Now, such perks may be cut or diminished as the University centralizes and standardizes budgeting among the residential colleges.
Discretionary funds enabled Pierson Master Harvey Goldblatt to arrange an annual subsidized spring break trip to Italy for some Pierson seniors. Now, such perks may be cut or diminished as the University centralizes and standardizes budgeting among the residential colleges. Photo by Nora Caplan-Bricker.

When he walked into the brightly-lit Pierson College dining hall the evening of Sunday, May 9, Pierson Master Harvey Goldblatt got a standing ovation.

Students attending Goldblatt’s surprise “Appreciation Dinner” wore yellow-and-black Pierson gear that bore his nickname, “Master G.” They cheered and laughed as Pierson freshman counselors played a slideshow of Master G moments, including his annual Jell-O wrestling match with students on Pierson Day.

The event was not just designed to honor Goldblatt, students said — it was to reassure him that he was valued after students began to hear that the administration forced him to accept a shorter term as master than he had wanted.

A Slavic languages and literature professor who has served as Pierson master since 1995, Goldblatt was reappointed to a three-year term this past April, University President Richard Levin announced to Pierson students in an e-mail April 19. Goldblatt had previously told Piersonites he was looking forward to another five-year term, the standard length.

Goldblatt declined to comment for this story in May and did not respond to a request for comment Monday, but Pierson students close to him said their master clashed with administrators over the University’s decision to cut Pierson funding, and in the end, the conflict cost him a full reappointment.

On the heels of former Timothy Dwight Master Robert Thompson’s retirement last spring after 32 years, Goldblatt’s upcoming departure, after what will be 18 years in 2013, comes at a time when the role of residential college masters is shifting, with the central administration more closely managing the colleges’ budgets.

“I will categorically state that I wanted to help coordinate Master G’s Appreciation Dinner on Sunday, because I believe the administration has insulted his service to Pierson and Yale by not reappointing him for another full term,” freshman counselor Xuan “Sunny” Nguyen ’10 told fellow Pierson students in an e-mail on May 5. “I hope you will make your voice heard if you feel the same.”Nguyen did not return multiple requests for comment.

Nguyen was not the only one convinced that Goldblatt and administrators were at odds over his reappointment. Other freshman counselors, Pierson master’s aides and students close to Goldblatt said the Pierson master told them administrators forced him to accept a shorter term after he tried to protect Pierson’s budget, which has grown larger than that of other colleges in recent years, and which will now be scaled back as part of a larger administrative plan to even out residential college funding.

Levin said Sunday that Goldblatt had by no means been forced out of his role as master unwillingly.

“We had conversations about the future, and this is what we agreed mutually,” Levin said about the three-year term. “Everyone was satisfied. Everything worked out just fine.”

Justin Berk ’10, who was a freshman counselor in Pierson, said last spring that he had heard that Goldblatt and Yale’s administration locked horns in the past when Goldblatt tried to institute new programs for students in the college. He said Goldblatt loved his job as master and was committed to doing things in his own way.

“He may have refused on principle to change the way he runs things,” Berk said. “[The administration] may have told him not to spend so much, and it may have fallen on deaf ears.”

Berk said Goldblatt told students last year that he expected the University to form a committee to discuss renewing his term, as is common practice for every master appointment. Goldblatt would have been able to appoint several students, and he told several of them in advance that he planned to call on them. Avinash Gandhi ’10, another former Pierson freshman counselor, said he would have been on the committee but it was never formed.

Instead, Goldblatt took a three-year term to uphold his promise to the class of 2013 that he would be master at least through their graduation, students said.

Several master’s aides declined to comment last spring, saying they had been asked not to talk to the press shortly after the News began conducting interviews for this article.

Goldblatt has traditionally used Pierson’s discretionary money to host study breaks with imported gelato, fund student travel and research fellowships, and even subsidize an annual spring break trip to Italy for some Pierson seniors. Now, those perks may be cut or diminished as administrators review gifts to Pierson and siphon money from those donations into financial aid for Pierson students and other general expenses, Pierson College Council President Michael Chao ’11 said in May.

For several years, Pierson has paid for a group of seniors selected by lottery to travel to Italy during spring break. Although the students paid for part of the trip, anybody who asked Goldblatt received a large subsidy, said two Pierson alumni who participated in the trip.

Chao said he first heard about the budget cuts last spring, when he and other PCC members were trying to plan events for the 2010-’11 year. Concerned that not only the Italy trip, but also fellowships and other funds would be eliminated, he e-mailed all Pierson students in May informing them of the changes and asking them to write letters and e-mails to Levin’s office in protest.

“Next year, Pierson will be different,” his e-mail began. “For Piersonites who were hoping to do research next year, participate in a Reach Out trip, keep a publication in existence, or do one of the many great things that we Piersonites do, you will not be able to count on receiving anywhere near the levels of funding you may have received in the past.”

Goldblatt e-mailed all of his students in response to Chao’s e-mail the next day, saying Chao’s e-mail had “unduly raised alarm.”

“Notwithstanding certain changes, and after a great deal of hard work, I am very proud to say that next year, Pierson College will support its members with hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he said.

Former deputy provost Charles Long, who retired in July, said that while Goldblatt was vocal in defending Pierson’s budget, he ultimately agreed to support the University’s overall budget needs.

Alumni of the college interviewed said Goldblatt had helped to grow the college’s endowment by maintaining close relations with alumni, which often led them to donate specifically to Pierson. But Chao, other students and alumni said that, to their knowledge, Goldblatt does not generally solicit donations for Pierson. Rather, he fosters a warm community atmosphere that encourages what Goldblatt calls “giving back” to Yale and Pierson. The Office of Development encourages donors to give to Yale as a whole, not just to a single college, Vice President for Development Inge Reichenbach said.

“But sometimes there are very strong relationships that evolve and develop between alumni and a former residential college master,” Reichenbach added. “If these donors want to give gifts directly to a college, we’re not preventing them from doing that.”

At Pierson’s Commencement ceremony in May, Goldblatt recited a poem he had written for the occasion that included the name of every graduating senior and inside jokes about most of the students.

“My experience at Yale would definitely not have been the same had he not been master,” former freshman counselor Molly Howard ’07 FES ’09 said. “My loyalty is really to Pierson more than to Yale, because it was an incredible sense of community.”

Howard said she would be less likely to donate to Yale and Pierson or visit Pierson if Goldblatt were not master. She said she has donated to both Pierson individually and Yale generally.

Administrators said it is not unusual for masters to receive terms shorter than five years. Jonathan Edwards College Master Penelope Laurans is at the beginning of a four-year term, while recently-retired masters Thompson of Timothy Dwight and Gary Haller of Jonathan Edwards had final terms of two and two and a half years respectively, Council of Masters chair Jonathan Holloway said.

Masters are generally not expected to serve beyond 10 years, with any longer terms being “exceptional,” Long said.

Correction: Sept. 15, 2010

This article should have made clearer that Justin Berk ’10 was praising Pierson Master Harvey Goldblatt’s commitment to students when Berk said that Goldblatt “may have refused on principle to change the way he runs things.”

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