A meet-and-greet, not a negotiation.
That was the intent of a dialogue on Monday evening between Yale President Peter Salovey and the Board of Alders, the legislative arm of New Haven government. On the heels of major transitions in University and city leadership — Salovey’s rise to the presidency last summer and the election of Mayor Toni Harp last fall — town and gown came together to underscore their mutual interests and shared commitments.
First, though, Salovey challenged the very idea of there being a discrete town and gown.
“This is my home. I think of myself as of New Haven as much as a I think of myself as of Yale,” Salovey told roughly 20 members of the Board gathered in a second-floor City Hall meeting room. “I’m very much not one of these people who thinks in terms of town and gown. It’s all the same to me. This is where I’ve lived my whole adult life. This is my hometown.”
Salovey, who first came to Yale as a graduate student when he was 23, dwelled extensively on his own personal investment in New Haven. He said he decided to remain within city limits out of an appreciation for urban life — but also as a “political” choice to ensure his property taxes were going to New Haven. But cultivating University-city relations depends on institutional arrangements as well as individual values, Salovey said.
He detailed the ways in which the University contributes to the city: via voluntary financial payments as well as through initiatives such as New Haven Promise, a local scholarship program, and the New Haven Homebuyer Program, which helps support Yale employees who choose to reside in the city. The University also contributes to the city’s cultural and intellectual life, opening its art galleries and museums to city residents free of charge, Salovey said. Finally, he noted, Yale imbues its students with a sense of obligation to the city.
“This relationship has been institutionalized over the years so it no longer depends on particular personalities,” University Vice President for New Haven and State Affairs Bruce Alexander ’65 said in introductory remarks, reflecting on the changes in University and city leadership. “There’s so much power when we work together … I can’t imagine anyone wanting to go back to the old days.”
Salovey said his commitment to the collaborative projects that have brought the University and the city together over the past two decades is unwavering. In addition to those efforts, he said the University will look for new ways to encourage Yale students and faculty to grow businesses in New Haven, expanding the city’s tax base and creating new job opportunities for residents.
He pointed to the planned return of Alexion Pharmaceuticals — which fled to Cheshire, Connecticut after first opening in New Haven in 1992 — as one model.
“Students always think they have to go to Palo Alto or Silicon Valley … and that’s where they need to start business,” Salovey said. “This is a great place to do it, between Science Park and downtown.”
Chairigami, a store on Chapel Street boasting elaborate cardboard furniture, was founded by a Yale student, Salovey said. Salovey said one aim of his ongoing fundraising efforts is securing means to incubate new companies and help offset the cost of space and other materials in the city.
During a question-and-answer session following Salovey’s remarks, Ward 6 Alder Dolores Colon ’91 questioned the capacity of those projects to benefit city residents lacking high-level job training.
“I’m the cynic of the group; you can build 100 Alexions and if our people don’t have the skill set to do the jobs in those labs, they’re going to be sweeping the floors,” Colon said. She said the company will simply lure employees from Cheshire. Salovey acknowledged the importance of job training, while Alexander said the University sponsors a program that helps draw New Haven students to science.
Salovey acknowledged that both the University and the city are in tough financial times, circumstances that tend to cause resentment. Ward 29 Alder Brian Wingate said the University falls short of meeting its obligation to the city when it lets blue-and-pink collar jobs dry up.
In response to Salovey’s invocation of the American dream in describing the virtues of a Yale education, he said the University should continue to make that kind of dream possible for its employees.
“I’m one of the Yale American dreamers,” Wingate said.
Alexander said budget shortfalls have prevented additional hiring, though he is “happy to have a Local 34, Local 35 person” in any open job, he said.
Wingate, among a handful of alders who work for Yale’s unions, joked that he was not trying to turn the discussion into a negotiation.
“We want to be an enlightened employer, and yet we also have to be responsible and balance our budget, a budget that isn’t balanced at the moment,” Salovey said.
Alders also asked the University officials how the building of two new residential colleges will affect the city — namely in the form of payments for building permits. Alexander said those permits will not be pulled until this coming fall, which means the money should not be factored into the city’s coming fiscal year budget.
Salovey estimated that construction would begin in January 2015, providing opportunities for New Haven-based contractors and a multitude of construction jobs.
After the meeting, Salovey and Alexander told Ward 9 Alder Jessica Holmes they would look into the idea of expanding the route of the Yale Shuttle. As it stands, Holmes said, the route demarcates the areas of the city Yale considers safe.
Board President Jorge Perez said after the meeting he is pleased with initial overtures from the University’s new leader. He called Salovey a “good continuation of Rick.”
Salovey and Harp’s predecessors — Richard Levin and Mayor John DeStefano Jr. — led Yale and New Haven side-by-side since 1993.