When Locals 34 and 35 signed new contracts with Yale in the fall, it might have seemed like the major complicating factor in the relationship between Yale and New Haven had been resolved. In recent months, though, discussions about Yale’s Homebuyer Program and tax contribution to New Haven have all revealed that the relationship between city and University is substantially more complicated. But much of the rhetoric criticizing attempts to recast the terms of the relationship between Yale and New Haven reveals that Yale’s attitude towards the city hasn’t really changed.
Let’s get a few things straight about the taxation debate, beyond the numbers that are typically cited to prove Yale’s generosity. First, Yale as a non-profit educational institution is not legally required to pay taxes on property that’s used only for non-profit purposes. The University is also not required to help its employees buy houses, to encourage its students to tutor and to take an interest in the city, or to try to bring businesses to New Haven. It’s great that Yale does many of these things, and they do provide tangible benefits to a city that still suffers from job losses and a struggling educational system.
But the second, and far more important point, is that “voluntary dispensation[s] of goodwill” can often be the opposite of a mutually respectful partnership, especially when, as Aaron Goode does (“Taxes are power struggle between town and gown,” 3/26) Yale is portrayed as the innocent victim of a voracious mob. This kind of rhetoric, and the implication that New Haven residents live in a city so terrible that they ought to be deeply grateful for Yale’s largesse is profoundly disrespectful, and displays a total ignorance about the ways in which the relationship between Yale and New Haven is currently being redefined.
Such a train of logic completely ignores the fact that just as New Haven’s reputation benefits from Yale’s presence here, Yale is lucky to be located in New Haven. This is a city that, because of its accessible size and deep connections to the University, offers unprecedented opportunity for student involvement and leadership in the community and that embraces its students as full citizens when they venture off campus. Because they live in New Haven, students have opportunities for civic engagement in an incredibly diverse city and at a level that simply doesn’t exist at other colleges.
At the same time, writers like Goode seem to forget that there are people in New Haven who are hurt by Yale’s policies. The university’s programs of economic development in the Ninth Square, Chapel Street, the Shaw’s area, and Science Park are intended to create a safe buffer zone around campus, but they also bring in businesses and restaurants that many New Haven residents can’t afford to patronize, and provide jobs that New Haven’s public school system often doesn’t prepare residents to apply for. As Yale reaches further out into New Haven and transforms communities in ways that dramatically change the lives of long-term city residents, that New Haven worries about losing its independence and integrity to Yale developments, that New Haven may become, because of Yale’s economic influence, nothing more than a company town.
That doesn’t mean that New Haven residents are greedy or stupid. Goode’s assertion that “they [meaning Yale’s critics] don’t really seem to appreciate that Yale actually has an educational mission that transcends its corporate identity,” is unfair. To most New Haven residents, Yale’s corporate identity actually is more important than its educational mission; there are many more New Haven residents getting paychecks from Yale than there are New Haven public school graduates getting degrees. The consequences of Yale’s development decisions affect more city residents’ homes and neighborhoods than dorm rooms housing Yale students. Yale’s unionized employees don’t have the same opportunities to take University classes that their Harvard counterparts do. If Yale’s critics don’t appreciate the University’s educational mission, it’s probably because most of them have never been a part of it.
Meanwhile, if Yale wants to negotiate a new relationship with New Haven, the University needs to stop insisting that its contributions come in the form of “voluntary dispensation[s] of goodwill,” and actually establish a contractual relationship with the city. I have no doubt that Yale wants to contribute to the community, but if it doesn’t want to be portrayed as a gilded-age tycoon, its contributions need not to come at the pleasure of the University. It’s time for Yale to stop insisting that New Haven come to it with a hand out, unless it’s to shake hands on an agreement negotiated by two equal partners.
Alyssa Rosenberg is a sophomore in Silliman College. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.