$250 million gift propels growth of new colleges

Though construction of the new residential colleges along Prospect Street has long been stalled, the project received a boost yesterday with the announcement of the largest gift in Yale's history
Though construction of the new residential colleges along Prospect Street has long been stalled, the project received a boost yesterday with the announcement of the largest gift in Yale's history Photo by Henry Ehrenberg.

On Monday morning, Yale moved $250 million closer to breaking ground on two new residential colleges with the announcement of the largest gift in the University’s history.

The gift comes from Charles Johnson ’54, a longtime donor to the University and former co-chair of the mutual fund Franklin Resources, commonly referred to as Franklin Templeton. Added to previous donations in the last several years, the new gift — which President Peter Salovey announced in an email to the University — sets the construction project only $80 million short of the $500 million threshold required to begin construction. Though the new colleges were originally announced in 2008, the project was put on hold after the onset of the financial downturn until sufficient funds could be raised through donations.

Recent growth in the endowment, though — which reported a 12.5 percent return last week for the fiscal year that ended June 30 — has allowed Yale to restart some capital project plans. Coupled with the University’s renewed financial stability, Johnson’s gift brings plans for the new colleges significantly closer to fruition.

“Mr. Johnson is somebody who loves Yale and, as with so many alumni of Yale College, felt the experience changed his life, and knows that we’re now at the point where 30,000 applicants are hoping to have a chance for that kind of an experience, too,” Salovey told the News. “A gift like this puts that goal of offering a Yale College education to a few more students every year within reach.”

When the new colleges are finally completed in their location behind Grove Street Cemetery, Yale’s enrollment will increase by approximately 15 percent, or 800 students. Applications to Yale have quadrupled over the past 50 years while enrollment has remained constant, a fact that played a major role in the Yale Corporation’s initial consideration of the new colleges. Once completed, the colleges will significantly expand Yale’s physical footprint, placing far more undergraduates in housing close to Science Hill.

Even with the new gift, the timeline and total cost for building the colleges remain in flux. According to Salovey, the last total estimate of the cost — which includes site preparation, infrastructure and actual construction — still holds steady at approximately $500 million.

Yale School of Architecture Dean Robert A.M. Stern ARC ’65, whose firm designed the colleges, said construction does not appear to be in the immediate future. In April 2012, Levin told the News that the construction of the colleges would likely take 30 months from start to finish.

“Construction work might not start for a year or two,” Stern said. “According to the announcement, they’ll be looking again at the program, seeing how things might evolve, seeing if we have the right mix.”

Johnson’s gift leaves $80 million in uncovered costs for the project, which thus far has been entirely funded through donor support. Salovey said that although there is still a significant sum to raise, Johnson’s gift is likely to incite a rush of further donations.

“One of the really important parts of this gift is its potential to inspire other giving, by other generous alumni,” he said. “In fact, within an hour or two of the announcement, a very generous alumnus called me and pledged a $5 million dollar gift toward that $80 million gap.”

Monday’s $250 million gift is the largest Yale has ever received from a single donor. The last donation of comparable size — $100 million — was given to the School of Music in 2005 by Stephen Adams ’59 and his wife Denise.

Johnson, whose fortune is estimated by Forbes at around $5.6 billion, inherited Franklin Templeton from his father and led the firm through much of the latter part of the 20th century. He has previously donated to Yale several times, with gifts benefiting projects such as the Johnson Center for the Study of American Diplomacy, the Papers of Benjamin Franklin, the Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy, the renovation of the Yale Bowl in the mid-2000s and the creation of Yale’s first all-season outdoor athletics fields.

“Yale is unsurpassed in the quality of its undergraduate education, and I strongly support Rick Levin’s and Peter Salovey’s shared goal to make that extraordinary experience available to more students than ever before,” Johnson said in a Monday statement. “I hope my commitment will inspire other alumni, parents and friends to complete the funding for the construction of these colleges.”

According to Salovey, Johnson’s donation began as a conversation with former President Richard Levin, months before Salovey officially took office this summer.

Provost Benjamin Polak and Yale College Dean Mary Miller will co-chair a new committee to review the planning for the new colleges.

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