I went into the inauguration expecting to hate it. But the actual celebration proved me wrong.
The inaugural weekend privileged students and staff with champagne and steak dinners, a tented inaugural ball, and even a block party on Hillhouse. A parade of Yale dogs too. The weekend highlighted the unique nature of a Yale education; that along with access to labs, archives and top academic scholars, Yale provides access to the high culture of an Ivy-League education.
Last week, my suite discussed the upcoming inauguration. To be honest, I like a good party and was excited for the upcoming festivities. I would never shun free food or free alcohol. But the opulence troubled my suitemates and me. We debated the merits of the inaugural ceremonies. Was the opulence too much of a distraction from the liberal arts mission? But since Yale is an academic institution, not the War on Poverty, why should the University care about extravagance — perceived or in fact?
I distinguish between perception and fact because the money the University spent on the inauguration is inconsequential in comparison to the billion-dollar problems that plague the nation and the world. The money spent on the inauguration is a drop in the bucket, but the perception — and the priority that the perception represents — is also important. While the inauguration was gift-funded, money spent on an inauguration remains money not donated to financial aid or New Haven schools. I thought the inaugural festivities would contradict the liberal arts mission of creating an informed and active citizen. After all, an engaged citizen must be sensitive to the precarious economic situation of many living near Yale.
But while reflecting on the last two decades during Salovey’s inauguration, I realized that the more important changes lie not in how Yale inaugurates its presidents but in how it operates every day. The former is largely symbolic; the latter is real. Cuts to the inaugural celebration would only accomplish gilded reforms. The food that Yale purchases for the inaugural dinner does not matter as much as how it works with New Haven. Canceling an opulent dinner or dance would make Yale look better, but it would not have any long-lasting impact.
Instead of debating the exorbitance of the inauguration, Yale should continue to improve partnerships with New Haven that created programs like New Haven Promise. This program is a good start but fails to address economic inequality, because it only helps top-performing students. Low-achieving students are ignored by the scholarship. Annelise Orleck’s book, “Storming Caesar’s Palace,” reveals how collaborating with women who lived with and fought poverty produced the most successful program of the War on Poverty. Following that philosophy, we must expand programs that view New Haven as a valued partner.
These programs should not only be limited to our neighbors. Indeed, President Peter Salovey mentioned in his inaugural address that Yale should “identify new partnerships” in Africa to create a better opportunity for teaching and learning. We have much to give, and to get, from this partnership. In Africa, Yale can bring its educational mission to the world stage. Salovey’s commitment to “partnership” should be dedicated to learning from Africans about their own home, as well as offering access to Yale’s resources.
Yale’s response to privilege should attempt to balance between self-absorbed affluence and the arrogance of thinking the University knows how to fix the world. Blue Grass bands are fine, so long as the University commits itself to meaningful service. The answer to community involvement is neither to give up nor to assume expertise. Instead, the University should expand upon the principles that guided its decision this weekend to open its doors to New Haven and the world.
Will Kronick is a senior in Silliman College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.