In freshman address, Salovey revisits the ‘American dream’

University President Peter Salovey tackled the issue of wealth inequality in his freshman address on Saturday.
University President Peter Salovey tackled the issue of wealth inequality in his freshman address on Saturday. Photo by Maria Zepeda.

It was the morning of Peter Salovey’s first address to students as University president. It was not a good time for him to get laryngitis.

But the freshman president overcame his raspiness, taking to the podium in Woolsey Hall on Saturday morning to speak at last after months of listening during his “tour” as president-elect. The topic he chose was weighty enough for the occasion, and for him, deeply personal: Salovey told the story of how his family’s achievement of the “American dream” got him to that stage.

Now, he added, barriers for students from low-income backgrounds threaten that trajectory.

“This morning I worry about whether the American dream is still possible and whether education is still the best ‘ticket’ to socioeconomic mobility,” Salovey said.

Though he assured the class of 2017 and their families the American dream is still “very much alive” at Yale, Salovey said the ability to succeed despite one’s background is threatened because many high-achieving students from poor families do not even apply to top universities and those who do attend college have low completion rates.

Even for the students on Yale’s campus, discussing socioeconomic status remains one of the “last taboos,” Salovey said.

With his hands clasped around a teacup of hot water before he delivered the speech a second time to a second batch of freshmen, Salovey told the News he does not know how best to counter the challenges associated with socioeconomic status and college admissions, but that he hoped his speech would push students to talk about issues that make them anxious.

Pausing his conversation with the News, Salovey stepped aside to speak with Martha Highsmith, a senior adviser, and Joy McGrath, his chief of staff, about the faculty’s procession back into Woolsey Hall. Around them, deans, residential college masters and other University administrators chatted around the table in Woodbridge Hall while fastening their black ceremonial robes.

Salovey had been preparing for that Saturday for weeks. One of his first decisions after he became president on July 1 was to carve out a few days to write a draft for the freshman address.

After completing the first draft, Salovey said he tinkered with it on his Woodbridge Hall computer, turning out seven more iterations in between the meetings with deans and Yale Corporation members that took up much of his first few weeks after assuming the presidency.

Salovey was not quite done with the 2,772 words he presented in Woolsey until, he said, “basically the last minute.”

But he had known since last spring that he wanted to use the opportunity to publicly address America’s wealth disparity, he added.

Once he finished the first draft of his speech, he said, the prospect of facing the 1,360 new freshmen did not daunt him — though he did worry about forgetting his notes.

In a style that mirrored his psychology lectures, Salovey peppered his speech with jokes, bouncing forward on the balls of his feet and gesturing widely for emphasis.

“As the saying goes, behind every new Yalie is a stunned parent,” Salovey told the freshman class, garnering laughs from the upper levels of seating occupied by their families.

Students and parents spoke with Salovey about his address while he stood in a receiving line in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscripts Library later that day. As hundreds of freshmen and their families filed by Salovey, his wife, Marta Moret SPH ’84, and other administrators in the dim lighting of the marble building, one mother told the president, “I am that stunned parent.”

Countless others approached Salovey in the line and mentioned that they, like the new president’s own father and grandparents, had roots in the Bronx.

Salovey will deliver his next major speech, his inaugural address, on Oct. 13.

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