“Here’s to Mr. Johnson, the benefactor of Elis to be! Here’s to Mr. Johnson, the patron of our beloved university! Three cheers, raised cups, long drinks all and another to Mr. Johnson!”
Alas, the tables down at Mory’s haven’t heard such toasts just yet. Charles Johnson ‘54, the founder of Franklin Templeton Investments, recently gave Mother Yale the largest gift in her history. It sponsored two excellent residential colleges up Prospect Street. There will soon live Yalies who, but for Johnson’s generosity, would perhaps languish in a certain correctional facility up north. Maybe one of them will someday work for Johnson’s prominent and successful American firm. Contrast the gratitude that young man or woman will feel toward Johnson with the disdain directed at him by many present undergraduates.
The recent quote in the News slurring Mr. Johnson’s donations as drawn from “ill-gotten gains” is the latest public condemnation of the man and his munificence coming from members of the college. Students have accused him of greed, of arrogance, of conniving with the Yale Corporation to “subvert the will” of Yale students and of other impolite things.
First things first: Vanderbilt University, the Guggenheim Fellowships, the Smithsonian Museums, the MacArthur Genius Awards — these are some of America’s great institutions. All are dedicated to public service and felicity, all were endowed, in whole or in part, by one of America’s great families, and all are named for their principal benefactors. Requesting that your big philanthropic project be an eponymous project is not unusual or despicable.
Now, Mr. Johnson did not condition his gift upon a college named for him. He asked merely that Benjamin Franklin, an American Founding Father with a Yale affiliation, receive the honor.
The first objection to Franklin College is that its namesake’s Yale connection isn’t sufficiently thick. I get it. Perhaps William Howard Taft ‘1878 or Dean Acheson should’ve received the honor. But Franklin was one of the most admirable men in American history. At the very worst (and it surely isn’t at the very worst), this is not something to throw insults about. It’s not even something to lament. The grumblers among us should instead emulate the character played by Russell Brand in the movie “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”: “I was going to kvetch — but then I just got on with my life.”
But I suspect that the Yale affiliation isn’t the real cause of undergraduate opprobrium. If Johnson had requested Frances Perkins or Diane Nash, he’d be a hero among Yalies. People are annoyed that Franklin was white, male and other things it’s not faddish to be. And so they’re angry with Johnson, who wanted one thing when they wanted another.
An argument that people should be honored only for their accomplishments, that demographics are neither necessary nor sufficient for greatness, that whatever demographics do contribute are undeserved and that what really counts is personal grit and intellect and lots else that’s impressive no matter one’s demographics or context — this is likely to be more Rorschach test than persuasion. So I’ll skip straight to one of the central and mistaken conceits of the undergraduate anger with Johnson: that the general will of the students of the college is and of right ought to be very important to how the University is run.
We are Yale’s least invested and most pampered constituency. Of all the people here, we have contributed the least to making this institution great, and we benefit more than almost everyone else from its greatness. Professors, graduate students, administrators and dining hall and maintenance workers all have longer tenure. We benefit extraordinarily from the hard work of all of them, and, while we’re students, we give virtually nothing but the occasional “thanks” in return.
I omitted one group: alumni. Generations of them, along with Yale’s brilliant investment managers (here’s to Mr. Swensen!), have funded a rich and beautiful school, replete with brilliant scholars and resources in all subjects, with facilities and medical care for which most Americans would give a limb, and a residential college system that provides Yalies with communities that few undergraduates in America have. We owe our alumni only thanks, and we owe the most generous of all the most thanks.
So here’s to the Sterlings, the Harknesses, the Basses, the Beineckes, the Grubers, the Roses, the Smilows, the Whitneys, the Peabodys, the Schwarzmans, the MacMillans … and also to Mr. Johnson, for all their generosity to the place we share and love. And to the last especially, for his refreshing reminder to undergraduates that they shouldn’t look a gift residential college (or two) in the mouth.
Cole Aronson is a junior in Calhoun College. His column runs on Mondays. Contact him at