We Elis share a certain collective memory (or nightmare) of the first family dinner gathering we were allowed to sit at the adults’ table. We didn’t say anything all evening, which was uncharacteristic, until the well-respected matriarch misused a word in her toast and we, unthinking, corrected her in front of three horrified generations. It is the night we were marked as “the smart one,” and the beginning of a nagging role that we have reluctantly but dutifully carried to the present.
After reading yesterday’s News, I find myself at the adults’ table once more, with the same embarrassed yet irrepressible desire to interrupt. There have been many solid objections raised against the proposed $1,000 prize cap in the three days since its announcement, and almost as many reasonable rebuttals. We are lucky to attend a school where such prizes are available in the first place, as well as one at which a need-blind admissions policy is a sustainable reality. Although this prize money can certainly be useful for supplementing the unpaid summer work of a humanities student, I will not toe that line, either. We are not above mowing lawns to support writing careers (it’s probably good practice, actually). I agree that these prizes are designed to honor excellence, not pay for it.
Instead, my objection is one of definition, and amounts to more than typical English-major nitpicking. According to the News, “[Provost Peter] Salovey said the cap was designed to distribute Yale’s generosity more fairly.” There is a difference between equality and fairness. It is subtle, to be sure, but very important, so if you read any portion of this letter, let it be the following: “Equality” means that individuals receive the same as others; “fairness” means that individuals receive what they earn and deserve. This is not always, if ever, the same as others.
Provost Salovey is further accredited with this direct statement: “If you have $10,000, wouldn’t you rather give 10 students $1,000 than one student $10,000?” The answer in the interest of equality is “yes.” The answer in that of fairness, and mine, is a resounding “no.” The spirit of prizewinning is not equality, but appreciation of individual accomplishment. If one student produces work so exemplary that it is unparalleled by his peers, then he or she alone deserves that $10,000 (or a higher increment in the case of multiple awards). They’ve earned it. Furthermore, if the prizewinner is not on financial aid, they’ve still earned it — all of it. Reducing the sum according to need is not fair, as Provost Salovey suggests, but quite the opposite.
Some have called for pay cuts in administrators’ salaries to supplant the prize cap. I disagree, for this too violates this University’s commitment to fairness; like academic prizes awarded to exemplary students, salaries are paid not according to need but according to the quality of the work performed by the recipient. Although the fundamentals of prizes and salaries differ, it would be no more just to cap salaries and redistribute the excess to lower-earning colleagues.
Equal opportunity in education is an essential element of a successful and fair University. Equal outcome, however, is not — particularly when manufactured. To champion the latter in the name of “fairness” is a perversion and an insult to those who work harder to achieve more. The capping and redistribution of prize funds is antithetical to the kind of school that Yale strives to be, one that encourages and promotes excellence. Do it if you must, but don’t call it fair.
Riley Scripps Ford
The writer is a junior in Saybrook College