Cersonsky: On privilege at Yale

Disagreeing with someone who has given you a lot makes for some tough love.

Many students at Yale would consider themselves politically active, or at least politically engaged. And yet, when confronted with choices about policies and practices at Yale and in New Haven, our values sometimes express themselves in peculiar forms. In recent pieces in the News, I read, not for the first time, that “we ought to be thankful for the privilege of attending Yale” (“A pointless protest,” Oct. 11), and that the exponential increase in our endowment under University President Richard Levin is “something that we ought to be grateful for, not resent” (“Let’s be fair about Levin’s bonus,” Oct. 12). The implication is that, since Yale has done a lot for us and a lot for the world, Yale deserves to make whatever financial decisions it deems necessary.

Those particular words were responding to a protest organized by the Undergraduate Organizing Committee whose purpose was to juxtapose the University’s decision to give President Levin a $350,000 raise in 2008 with its more recent decision to raise the student self-help contribution to tuition by $400. The UOC sought to reignite public attention and mobilize action around this financial aid policy that the University made without formal announcement or student input.

There are two types of arguments that I’ve heard in response to our action. The first is that President Levin deserves to be compensated for the wealth that he has brought to the University’s coffers over the course of his tenure. The second is that students have no right to complain about a comparatively minimal spike in student costs.

The first argument, within a particular meritocratic frame, is entirely justified. President Levin deserves significant credit not only for the financial growth of the University, but also for Yale’s world-class financial aid system and for a relaxing of historical tensions between Yale and City Hall. The second argument is sort of justified, too. Many students, myself included, would not be at Yale if it weren’t for Yale’s 2008 decision to eliminate most tuition fees for students whose combined parental income is below $60,000 and to reduce tuition for families earning up to $200,000.

These arguments appear compelling, and yet, if we were speaking about national political economy, and not about our University, my guess is that more students might raise questions about Yale’s spending decisions. Many students, like a majority of Americans, are outraged that executives of large financial institutions receiving government relief have given themselves massive multi-million dollar bonuses. And many progressives believe that we should raise taxes on the wealthiest segments of the population while investing in jobs and healthcare for working families.

Of course, Yale didn’t receive a bailout, and Yale’s investment policies didn’t single-handedly bring down the economy. But our view of a just society, in which money and resources should be used to generate security and opportunity for the non-upper classes and purchasing power for consumers, does not, in the minds of many, apply to Yale.

On a political level, I think that this mindset is wrong. Within the private sector, we need to rely on Yale to continue to set the tone as both a hirer and a leader in financial aid and equal educational opportunity. In order to be competitive, other corporations and educational institutions will be forced to follow Yale’s lead.

From the perspective of a student, this argument becomes more personal. Yale is fundamentally an educator, not a money-maker. If Yale wants to be sincere about the positive change that its wealth and innovation have produced, then it had better make a sincere commitment to engage in open dialogue with its constituents. Calls by the UOC for more transparency in the creation of financial aid policy and some student voice in the process have repeatedly been ignored by the President’s office. Distant announcements that the University needs to “trim the fat” and “make tough choices” have not been paired with a meaningful commitment to conversation with those directly affected by cuts to our budget. As students and families are already working hard to finance their education, this lack of two-way communication is a tough bargain.

The real privilege of being at Yale is the imperative to reflect rigorously on our relationship as students at a rich university to the city and the world around us. The real privilege is to be at the gates of power with the opportunity to let others inside. Some may resist our efforts to do so — because, they say, Yale has already done enough in these supposedly tough times — but I hope we’re not afraid to stand up for our ideals.

James Cersonsky is a senior in Timothy Dwight College and a member of the Undergraduate Organizing Committee.

Comments

  • Sillitar13

    While I definitely agree with your argument, the UOC’s actions and membership tend to undermine its own goals more often than not. Many of the UOC’s members I know appear to act more out of a liberal superiority complex than a genuine stake in that which they argue for, whether they themselves realize it or not (my guess is that they don’t) – it’s because of this, I imagine, that more Yalies don’t get behind the initiatives the UOC calls for even when they agree with them, because it almost seems to be an ironic joke that such privileged kids (and I mean privileged beyond Yale standards) would take it upon themselves to butt in with self-undermining spectacle and waste than allow those who the student contribution actually taxes most to speak for themselves. Advocacy is meaningless if the intentions behind it are fueled by a (possibly inadvertent) feeling of superiority, guilt, and political ambition than a genuine commitment to service for the sake of service. Just my 2 cents.

  • FailBoat

    The author writes like a child of privilege who has little idea as to how the world works.

    The claim “Yale is fundamentally an educator, not a money-maker” stinks of false dichotomy. Yale is both, just as Microsoft is both a software developer and a money-maker, while the author himself is both a student and an activist and a YDN columnist.

    > These arguments appear compelling, and yet, if we were speaking about national political economy, and not about our University, my guess is that more students might raise questions about Yale’s spending decisions.

    But we *are* talking about our University, and the author has already conceded that both arguments have merit.

    > Calls by the UOC for more transparency in the creation of financial aid policy and some student voice in the process have repeatedly been ignored by the President’s office

    That’s because the UOC is a tiny, insignificant, self-indulgent, self-deluding minority that is more interested in making a scene than affecting any real change.

  • pablum

    >The claim “Yale is fundamentally an educator, not a money-maker” stinks of false dichotomy. Yale is both, just as Microsoft is both a software developer and a money-maker, while the author himself is both a student and an activist and a YDN columnist.

    This argument stinks of sophistry. Yale and Microsoft might both “make money,” but they make it differently and for different ends. The most obvious distinction is that Yale is a tax-exempt non-profit organization, while Microsoft most certainly is not. Another is that Yale is a University, and thus has a different mission; while Microsoft has a responsibility to financially enrich its shareholders, Yale has a responsibility to intellectually enrich the world.

    If you think that a University should be run like a business, you should have applied to the University of Phoenix or ITT Tech.

  • FailBoat

    > If you think that a University should be run like a business, you should have applied to the University of Phoenix or ITT Tech.

    I got rejected from both those schools, as well as Cornell (ever heard of it?)

    > Yale has a responsibility to intellectually enrich the world.

    Yale is not an entity with moral obligations. It is an institution that currently does two things – educates and makes money hand-over-fist. One may be right (or wrong) in arguing that it should not be pursuing “making money” as a goal, but it unquestionably is doing so. It is thus both an educator and a money-maker. It has done both these things well, in my opinion, and can easily continue to do both these things despite the petty objections of the UOC and its ilk.