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Updated: May 12, 5:34 p.m.
With a $150 million donation from Blackstone founder Stephen Schwarzman ’69, Yale has committed to a comprehensive renovation of Commons that will transform it into a hub for student life.
In a Monday afternoon email to the Yale community, University President Peter Salovey announced the gift, which he said will turn the historic buildings into “a world-class campus center” that will be renamed the Schwarzman Center. The announcement comes on the heels of a fall 2014 report jointly authored by the Yale College Council, Graduate Student Assembly and Graduate and Professional School Senate, which recognized “the absence of any central place” for Yale undergraduates, graduates and professional school students to gather. The report recommended the creation of a center for student life on campus.
“Yale University has always placed its students at the center of its enterprise — and the educational, social and cultural programs made possible by this gift, the second largest single gift in Yale’s history, will reinforce this core value,” Salovey wrote. “The Schwarzman Center will be transformational for Yale in providing, for the first time, a center dedicated to cultural programming and student life at the center of the university.”
Salovey told the News that while the University is currently very successful in providing educational, social and cultural activities for students in small, intimate settings, this renovated space will allow students to interact across the usual boundaries of the college, graduate schools and professional schools.
He added that this space has a special appeal because of its location at the center of campus in a historic building.
“In a time when there are so many centrifugal forces pushing people out away from the village, this provides a centripetal force bringing students and others in the community, whatever they’re studying at Yale, and at whatever level they’re studying, together,” Salovey said.
The vision of the new center was very much a joint effort between Schwarzman and the University, Salovey said, which began when Schwarzman voiced that Commons was his favorite space at Yale.
Schwarzman told the News that when he first entered Yale in 1965, he knew no one on campus and initially felt isolated entering Commons and often eating alone. Fifty years later, however, he said the building carries a personal significance as it marks a turning point in his journey as Yale helped him develop a sense of independence.
He added that he was not interested in simply renovating the space, but rather supporting a “high impact” project that would hopefully set Yale on new course and better prepare the institution for the future.
“This will be quite a unique facility for any university, let alone the change for Yale,” Schwarzman said. “So hopefully this will provide a different way of Yale students being able to interrelate, meet people, learn things and get connected by technology all over the world — with things that either emanate from here or can be brought in from other places.”
The Schwarzman Center is slated to open in mid-2020, when the Yale College student body will have expanded by 15 percent with the addition of two new residential colleges. Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway noted that its opening will help shift the center of campus north, thus better incorporating the new colleges, which will be on Prospect Street, into the campus geography.
Salovey added that the planning process for the center will begin almost immediately, with the creation of a Schwarzman Center Advisory Committee, which will feature student input, and the selection of an architect. The time frame will likely consist of a couple years of planning and architectural work, followed by a couple years of construction, Salovey said.
Schwarzman said that when he was first discussing the gift with Salovey, he was struck by how much space in Commons was currently being underutilized. He shared a variety of potential new uses of these facilities, such as transforming the Commons basement to a large pub-like space and converting the room under the Woolsey rotunda to host chamber music performances.
He added that if the University wanted to host a large dance in Commons, for example, it would be able to accommodate close to 5,000 people through the integration of upstairs and downstairs spaces that would be made more accessible.
“I like the idea of the mix of activities and some place where something is always going on that is interesting or a place where people can go and just enjoy themselves and meet other people,” Schwarzman said. “[This project] obviously caught my imagination, and I think it is important for other generations — Yale students and faculty.”
The University has also retained Michael Kaiser, former president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C., to aid in developing the center’s programming. Kaiser said he imagines the newly expanded and open spaces will facilitate large-scale festivals, particularly cultural festivals to showcase performance arts and cuisine from different countries.
He added that he is particularly excited to incorporate technology into the space, envisioning a room lined by digital screens that would enable interactions with alumni and other college students around the world.
“The concept is that there will be state of the art technology that will allow easy connections remotely to anyone around the world that people would like to engage with,” University Spokesman Tom Conroy said.
Kaiser said he will likely oversee programming for only the first year or so before passing the reins to a full-time director, whom the University is looking to hire within the next two years.
Salovey told the News that Schwarzman helped open the University’s eyes to how technology could be incorporated into the center’s various spaces, allowing students to both “bring in the outside world and beam out to the outside world.”
The University will play an integral role in the development of the programming budget, Salovey added in his email. Starting in 2019, Yale will also contribute an additional $2 million a year for 10 years, the Times reported.
Student input will factor into planning for the center as well. Salovey told the News that he met briefly with the presidents of the YCC, GSA and GPSS this morning to inform them of the coming renovations and thank them for the report they wrote in the fall, which called for the creation of a student center.
“It was kind of amazing that all three student government organizations were thinking about this idea right when Mr. Schwarzman was thinking about it,” Salovey said.
The Schwarzman Center Advisory Committee, co-chaired by Holloway and Graduate School Dean Lynn Cooley, will also be convened, comprising deans, faculty and students. Four students will be selected from Yale College, along with four from the Graduate School and four from the professional schools, Yale College Council president Michael Herbert ’16 said.
“While the center won’t be able to meet every single student desire, we know enough to be certain that it would fail if students believe their options were never sought or considered,” Holloway told the News.
Salovey’s email included a link for community members to submit their feedback and suggestions for the center, as well as a link for students to view preliminary artistic renderings of the transformed space. The images include a “promenade” and a great hall to host performances and symposiums.
The announcement came as a surprise to many on campus, even those who were involved in lobbying for a student center. Herbert said that while he has spoken with administrators over the past year about the feasibility of a student center, he always felt the conversations were “mostly theoretical.”
“There was kind of an assumption, even on my end, that it was going to be extremely logistically difficult and a long-term project,” he said. “We all agreed it was a great idea, but because of how difficult we thought logistics would be, we never really delved into it with a lot of specifics in the way that it is now all coming together.”
Still, Holloway said, the need for such a center has made itself apparent over the years, even as the residential college system has remained the center of student life. While still an integral part of the Yale experience, the colleges have struggled to meet increasing demands for space, he said.
Additionally, the residential colleges have not always felt inviting to graduate and professional students, GPSS advocacy chair Lauren Tilton GRD ’16 said.
“I’m just so grateful for both Mr. Schwarzman’s incredible generosity and loyalty to Yale, as well as his creative ability to envision something that currently doesn’t exist, but if it did, could transform the student experience on campus,” Salovey said.
This historic gift is not the first time Schwarzman has offered a major donation to renovate Commons. In the late 1990s, Yale offered to name the dining hall in Schwarzman’s honor in return for a $17 million donation. But the gift fell through when the University discovered that the contribution would be from one of Blackstone’s investment partnerships, and questions emerged about how much the investment would actually be worth after being liquidated, according to a 2008 New Yorker article.
Then-University President Richard Levin told the magazine that Schwarzman remains a committed philanthropist and strong supporter of Yale, serving as a member of the executive committee for a fundraising campaign and a co-chair of the New York region during the previous campaign.
Salovey also described Schwarzman as a “loyal alum,” and said he believed Schwarzman’s passion was rekindled by a re-envisioning of what Commons could be — that it could be far more than renovating the space, but transformative to the campus as a whole. It has been an ongoing conversation, Salovey said.
“In the 1990s, I didn’t have enough money to proceed with this type of project there,” Schwarzman said. “And now that the situation changed and the scope of what we are doing is radically, radically, radically different and infinitely better — that was a pretty modest project by comparison.”
Outside of Yale, Schwarzman has given a variety of high profile philanthropic gifts. In 2008, Schwarzmann gave $100 million to the New York Public Library, which renamed its flagship building on Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street in his honor. Most recently in 2013, he also established the “Schwarzman Scholars” — an elite international scholarship program at Tsinghua University in Beijing — with a lead gift of $100 million and is helping raise an additional $200 million for the program.
In reflecting on his record of charitable giving, Schwarzman said those who are fortunate enough to give should not let that opportunity to help others go to waste.
“I am a great believer that education is the passport to the future for most people in a globalized world,” Schwarzman said. “I am very focused and anxious to make sure those types of opportunities in the most general sense are available to the largest amount of people and society.”