President’s house renovations spark controversy

The President’s House is undergoing a $17 million renovation — the house’s first major construction project since 1937.
The President’s House is undergoing a $17 million renovation — the house’s first major construction project since 1937. Photo by Elena Malloy .

When walking past the President’s House at 43 Hillhouse Ave. with their colleagues, faculty members almost always bring up the house’s ongoing $17 million renovation.

Many faculty said they feel the cost of the renovations could be put to better use elsewhere — an additional $17 million in research funding or financial aid, or even the installation of five new professorships.

With the University facing a $39 million budget deficit, instituting budget cuts and carrying out layoffs, the renovation of the house has drawn criticism from faculty and staff alike. The renovation project, the first major alteration to the house since 1937, intends to bring the 19th-century Victorian mansion up to code with handicapped access, new wiring and a modern security system, among other improvements.

While University President Peter Salovey will live in a top-floor apartment of the house starting in the fall, the primary use of the space is for official University functions. According to administrators, the bulk of the project’s costs will be in renovating those formal spaces.

“I think that spending over $15 million on a house renovation sends the wrong signals to our community when we are trying to deal with some difficult budget issues,” said professor Jim Levinsohn, who has served as the co-chair of the University Budget Committee. “I think that’s true independent of just where the funds came from and independent of whether the funds are or are not fungible.”

When the University began the renovation last year, University Vice President for Development Joan O’Neill said the cost of the project was fully covered by an anonymous donor. Multiple faculty members who asked to remain unnamed, however, cited knowledge that the funds for the project were donated by Edward Bass, the former senior fellow of the Yale Corporation.

Last fall, O’Neill said the Development Office works to ensure that restricted donations from major donors fund projects that fit within the University’s mission.

“What we try to do is match up donors’ interests with the highest priorities that the University has,” O’Neill said.

O’Neill did not respond to request for comment about how the Development Office handles donations from members of the Corporation.

Regardless of how the funds came into University coffers, multiple faculty members said the symbolism of the renovation is problematic. Economics professor Judith Chevalier, who served with Levinsohn as co-chair of the University Budget Committee, said in an email that the way in which the University spends money betrays its values. That idea, she said, also applies to donated money.

English professor Leslie Brisman described the project as “beyond [his] comprehension.”

Several students also questioned the project’s spending. Jonathan Esty ’17 said he found the project hard to justify compared to other priorities such as expanding financial aid.

Despite their concerns regarding the project, faculty members interviewed did not direct criticism at Salovey himself. Salovey was not involved in the decision-making process around the renovation because of the inherent conflict of interest, administrators said in the fall. Instead, the Yale Corporation authorized the project.

“It’s not [Salovey’s] goal to have a fancy house,” said a faculty member who asked to remain anonymous.

Staff members interviewed also said they found the expenditure on the project inappropriate in the current budget climate. Don Frigo, a printing assistant in the Yale Printing and Publishing Service, said he feels the renovation could be put off until after the budget is straightened out.

“It would be nice if they were that generous with their resources that affect me, my co-workers and my neighbors,” said Jess Corbett, a clinical technologist in dermatology at the School of Medicine.

University Provost Benjamin Polak said he understands the frustration surrounding the project.

The University’s original approximation of the project was $22 million. Yale Facilities went through the scope of the project line-by-line to try to bring costs down, he said.

“One needs to think always about the other things you could do with $17 million,” Polak said. “You could add five and a bit new professorships. You could fund a lot of financial aid. We should always worry about that kind of expenditure.”

Thomas Jayne, the architect hired by the University for the project, did not respond to requests for comment.

Polak also said there is a misconception within the University of the building’s purpose. While the top floor is a private residence, the rest of the house is a space in which Yale hosts some 150 events a year and sometimes invites visiting dignitaries — such as former President George W. Bush ’68 — to stay. The house also holds a substantial collection of artwork from the Yale University Art Gallery.

The President’s House was donated to Yale by Henry Farnam over a century ago. The last president to live it was A. Bartlett Giamatti.

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