To his long and controversial record in the business world, Yale donor and Blackstone Group founder Stephen Schwarzman ’69 recently added a new title: advisor to President Donald Trump.
A long-time friend of the president, Schwarzman traveled to Washington, D.C. early last month to chair the first gathering of Trump’s business council, an advisory group that consists of 17 industry leaders from across the country.
Schwarzman’s link to Trump has not gone unnoticed at Yale. Over the past few months, it has generated fresh discussion about the University’s cautious approach to the new presidential administration and led to renewed criticism of the Schwarzman Center, the campus hub Yale is preparing to construct using $150 million of Schwarzman’s fortune.
And as pressure grows on University President Peter Salovey to take a firm stand against Trump, administrators remain adamant that politics should not affect Yale’s relationship with its donors.
“There is great danger in creating political litmus tests around charitable giving,” Salovey told the News on Wednesday. “I might be able to imagine some extreme that would be problematic, but even in saying that, there’s the danger of the slippery slope. We should be thankful that a Yale alumnus is willing both to be generous to our university as well as serve our country, whether that service is to someone with whom we agree strongly or disagree strongly.”
In an interview with the News, Vice President for Alumni Affairs and Development Joan O’Neill described Schwarzman as “very curious and bright,” noting that he loved his time at Yale and was an active fundraiser for the University before he donated money toward the transformation of Commons into the Schwarzman Center.
And she emphasized that Schwarzman’s involvement with Trump is not the most salient feature of his career.
“Steve is a multifaceted individual that has lots of different — both business and philanthropic — priorities that he’s engaged in,” O’Neill said. “The fact that he’s on a committee should not define who Steve is as a philanthropist or an individual.”
Indeed, the new student center adjacent to Beinecke Plaza is just one of Schwarzman’s recent projects. He has made significant donations to the New York Public Library, whose flagship building on 5th Avenue bears his name. He also funds the Schwarzman Scholars postgraduate fellowship, which allows hundreds of students worldwide to pursue advanced degrees at Tsinghua University in Beijing.
In a recent letter to this year’s Schwarzman Scholars, Schwarzman defended his advisory role in the Trump administration, expressing “regret that some Scholars have reservations about my following this approach with the new Administration in Washington.”
“In life you’ll often find that having influence and providing sound advice is a good thing, even if it attracts criticism or requires some sacrifice,” he wrote. “I have always believed one’s obligation is to work for the common good. To the extent you can help achieve this objective for other people, you have an obligation to do so even if there is a short-term cost.”
In responding to Trump, Salovey has taken a cautious approach that has also drawn criticism, preferring to sit back while other public figures-—from Hollywood to the president of the University of Pennsylvania— harangue the new president. His only public comments on Trump took the form of two emails in January condemning the executive order that banned immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries. In his interview with the News, Salovey said it would be counterproductive to criticize Trump by name.
“To have influence, I think it’s important when one is critical to offer constructive alternatives and to try to focus on policies rather than individuals,” Salovey said. “That allows communication channels to stay open, and that increases one’s effectiveness long term.”
Still, the Trump-Schwarzman link has renewed concerns among some students and faculty about the naming of the Schwarzman Center. In an essay on the website Alternet last month, political science lecturer James Sleeper argued that Yale should follow up the renaming of Calhoun College by changing the name of the Schwarzman Center, because of “damage to our economy, society and republic” caused by Blackstone’s business practices.
Former president of the Graduate and Professional Student Senate Elizabeth Mo GRD ’18, who has long advocated for a student center and served on the Schwarzman Center Advisory Committee, said the name “will definitely be a source of discussion” when the center opens in the spring of 2020.
“I do think that’s a concern; I think students have voiced it pretty vocally,” Mo said. “The University and the students are going to have to figure out how to move forward with that, in terms of the name of the building.”
That view is not limited to current Yale students. Alumnus John Alcorn ’74 said the University’s recently established principles for renaming, which focus on whether a namesake’s “principal legacy” conflicts with Yale’s mission, should be applied to the Schwarzman Center as well as future projects.
“The procedure and analysis used for deciding whether buildings should be renamed should be no different from the process for determining whether the University should accept a donation from a given party, or whether that donation should bear the name of the donor,” Alcorn said.
In recent days, photographs of Schwarzman meeting with Trump have appeared on bulletin boards and telephone poles throughout campus, bearing the caption, “What is Stephen Schwarzman’s ‘Principal Legacy’?”
Still, a petition to rename the Schwarzman Center would have no chance of success, according to law professor John Witt ’94 LAW ’99 GRD ’00, who led the committee that established Yale’s renaming guidelines.
“The Schwarzman Center name does not warrant even the slightest review. There is no position on the Dodd-Frank legislation that is fundamentally at odds with the mission of the University,” said Witt, referring to a package of Wall Street regulations that Schwarzman vehemently opposes. “It is always exciting to see folks who are understandably upset about Trump administration policies mobilizing in constructive and energizing ways. But this is not one of them.”
After attending Yale as an undergraduate, Schwarzman — who was a member of the secret society Skull and Bones — studied at Harvard Business School, graduating in 1972.