As our University administrators and faculty never tire of telling us, Yale University is about more than what happens in the classroom. Besides being a premier educator, our university has an enormous economic and cultural impact at the local, national, and global level. Yale operates a $1.5 billion health care system through the Yale-New Haven Health Network. We do about $380 million of research a year, mostly in medicine and technology. We employ 11,000 people in the region, and own the most property.
In the last few years, Yale President Richard Levin has publicly committed to using the resources of the University to enrich and improve a struggling New Haven. In January President Levin argued that “by adopting active strategies for civic improvement, by becoming engaged institutional citizens, we can make a major difference in the quality of urban life.” He went on to say, and I couldn’t agree more, that “such engagement is consistent with the goals of institutions that have for centuries educated students for public service.”
These are admirable ideals, and I feel heartened each time I hear them expressed. But also, each time, I have to ask: Does it look like they’re working? In a speech at Case Western University, Levin claimed that “over the past decade this partnership has contributed substantially to the renaissance of a city that was suffering from the absence of industrial investment and job creation.”
I have news — though it isn’t really news — for Levin. With the exception of a phenomenal upsurge in labor and community organizing, New Haven is not in a renaissance. Despite the presence of the MexiCali Grill and J.Crew, New Haven is currently 12 percent poorer than it was during the recession of the early 1990s (when Levin took office). Homeownership is down. Unemployment is up. Real wages are down, and what’s worse, they’re decreasing in the very industries that support our local and state economy: service, education, and health care.
So if Yale wants to become an “engaged institutional citizen,” that means more than cosmetic change on Broadway. It also means more than attracting lucrative federal grants, since they tend not to translate into economic opportunity for local citizens. The New Haven Board of Alderman will soon be discussing a resolution that would allow Yale to cover the $12 million per year cost of its nonprofit tax exemption by a yearly contribution to city services. That would mean about three days worth of interest on the $11 billion Yale endowment. Even better, we could show Harvard (who recently adopted a similar policy) that we’re just as good at responsible citizenship and that our local citizens certainly need the partnership more than the comparatively wealthy Cambridge.
But sooner than that, Yale could begin the process of institutional engagement by settling good contracts with its employees. In the same speech, Levin said, “We must help our cities become what we aspire to be on our campuses — a place where human potential can be fully realized.” I have trouble reconciling that with Yale Vice President Robert Culver’s statement that training Yale workers is “money down the drain.”
Also, in a Master’s Tea last week, Levin said that he was categorically denying retroactive pay to Yale workers because he felt that would be “rewarding bad behavior.” Questionable paternalism aside, fighting for good pensions and job security is a crucial part of ensuring community stability. That’s what we’re supposed to be interested in.
So, on the occasion of President Levin’s 10th anniversary here, I believe it’s in our best interest, and the best interest of our university, to re-evaluate our concept of “partnership.” We’ve got the ideals right, and I’m very glad that Yale is able to commit to them. But if we truly want to serve as national and global leaders in the field of higher education, we need more than rhetoric. We must lead by example.
Alek Felstiner is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College.