Last spring, Stephen Schwarzman ’69 gave $150 million to Yale. In return, Yale commemorated him by renovating Commons and Memorial Hall into a “state-of-the-art campus center,” and by naming the complex the “Schwarzman Center.” This strange exchange is emblematic of Yale’s weakness — of which we’re all aware and a shade ashamed — for glitz, prestige and money.
“No thinking person wants to be reduced to a caricature,” Schwarzman said in a 2008 New Yorker profile. But symbolism is unavoidable when your appetite for eponymous buildings is as pronounced as Schwarzman’s. His name is emblazoned on the Abington High School football stadium, the New York Public Library and would have been emblazoned on Commons much earlier if his $17 million bid in the 1990s hadn’t fallen through. After Salovey’s announcement in May, the “Schwarzman Center” rebranding was so swift that Yale reunion staffers had to reprint a small forest’s worth of event pamphlets to reflect the name change. By contrast, Charles Johnson ’54 pledged $250 million to Yale’s new residential colleges in 2013 and since then hasn’t put his name on so much as a buttery.
In this era of namesake controversy, what about Schwarzman —other than his estimated $10 billion fortune — does Yale find appealing? Surely not his belief, as of October 2015, that Donald Trump’s “political incorrectness” makes him “good for democracy.” Surely not his 2011 suggestion to raise taxes on the working poor because “skin in the game” might make them work harder. Surely not the view that a 2010 bipartisan effort to close a private equity tax loophole — from which Schwarzman personally profits — was “like when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.” Surely it is not his prominence at the Koch brothers’ donor summits, where he’s donated undisclosed millions to political organizations that have cannibalized the GOP establishment and paralyzed the Obama administration. As a public figure Schwarzman is at once complicit and complacent in American polarization.
“There was something essentially democratic about ‘Commons’ — a shared space not only between current Yalies but across the generations,” said one Yale College alum who wished to remain anonymous. “The University has allowed Mr. Schwarzman to simply buy the place, putting his name on something that is supposed to belong to all of us.” The subordination of Commons and Memorial Hall under Schwarzman’s name reflects Yale’s too-frequent willingness to forsake common cause and sacrifice for money. Schwarzman’s name evokes the lesser angels of our nature.
Proponents argue that Schwarzman’s center-to-be is necessary for Yale’s future. It is not. “The handling of the Schwarzman donation was a big failure,” said another Yale College grad — under the condition of anonymity — who has worked in several roles within University administrative departments. “It’s not as though Yale lacks world-class performance spaces and programming, and as much as I support President Salovey’s ‘One Yale’ philosophy, it shouldn’t cost this much to create a University-wide space,” he said. “I can think of so many other, better uses of that capital.” The short list of worthier causes includes the computer science and engineering programs, financial aid for middle class students, resources for faculty of color, a physical space for the LGBTQ Co-op and expanded mental health counseling. Activities described in the recent Schwarzman Center Advisory Committee report — from its “workshops on basic electronics,” to its LGBTQ Co-op “luncheon forum,” to its “weeklong Africa Festival” — read like a medley of half-hearted conciliations.
I have never seen my friends incoherent with rage because Yale did not provide them a “state-of-the-art campus center.” I have never seen anyone weep for want of “cultural programming.” If Yale wanted to put the money to better use, but Schwarzman insisted on a new student center, then it’s shocking that an institution older than the American republic and wealthier than many nation-states capitulated to a private equity CEO. Even when we concede that Commons could use a renovation — let’s say $40 million, to be generous — splurging more than $100 million on a “state-of-the-art campus center” still has the primping illogic of the doctor who performs breast augmentation surgery to treat a bacterial infection. Yale can’t tell the difference between what it needs and what it really, really wants.
Schwarzman’s donation is a calculated purchase of influence. The New Yorker journalist Jane Mayer writes in her new book “Dark Money” that conservative billionaires have spent millions ingratiating themselves with higher education. Yale is no exception. The Olin Foundation, endowed by industrial tycoon John Olin, gave $7 million to Yale Law School to establish a “Law, Economics and Public Policy” program, which subtly espouses free-market no-regulation policies favored by the one-percent. Schwarzman’s Center, with its ambitious “cultural programming,” shouldn’t be above similar suspicion.
Yale has made itself beholden to a man who inspires less than light and truth. It’s a reality of University fundraising, but if we must be beholden, let the names on our buildings remain testaments to our ideals. Let the money that makes us beholden help our University become not a glitzier, but a better place.
Nathan Kohrman is a senior in Saybrook College and a former staff columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .