This is an opinion column, but, first, some facts:
Yale’s endowment is roughly $25.5 billion — larger than the GDP of Iceland or Afghanistan and larger than the endowments of University of California, Berkeley; Columbia; Georgetown; Caltech; Brown; Amherst; and Dartmouth combined.
Roughly a third of New Haven’s children are living in poverty.
At least nine senior societies own “tombs” — windowless stone structures or manicured historic homes — to host drinks and debates on Thursdays and Sundays.
In 2016, the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness estimated that 625 people are homeless in New Haven on a given night.
Even the Yale College Council — a body that has lost so much legitimacy that more sophomores wanted to lead the moribund Junior Class Council than be YCC president — has an endowment of $750,000.
Meanwhile, most New Haven public schools don’t have full-time nurses.
At Yale, we’re surrounded by wild opulence. Outside our iron gates, many people live in scarcity. It’s not something we talk about often, which is surprising, because on a national and societal scale Yalies are so concerned about and invested in issues of inequality. We’ll cheer for Bernie Sanders and mock Trump’s plans to consolidate wealth in the hands of billionaires. But as stakeholders, with real voice and power, within an institution that has consolidated an obnoxious amount of wealth in a city where too many working families struggle to make ends meet, we’re too often silent.
Why? We know that when we organize, we have the power to shift Yale’s priorities and spending. We’ve been active and aggressive in fighting injustices on campus, as we should be. In the four years I’ve been at Yale, students have successfully pushed the administration to reduce the student income contribution, expand gender-neutral housing to all four years, commit more funding and support to cultural centers and faculty diversity, improve mental health resources and policies, invest our funds somewhat more responsibly and rename Calhoun College. We know that when we have mobilized in support of what’s right, Yale has listened.
Imagine if the next student-activist movement organized around shifting some of Yale’s enormous, and, frankly, excessive, wealth to the amazing but economically depressed city it calls home. Just as we made clear it was absurd and morally incoherent to ask black students and staff to live, work and labor in a dormitory named for a vile white supremacist, what if we made clear that it was unacceptable –— and in direct conflict with Yale’s stated principles of equity and justice — for the University to stockpile billions while too many families in New Haven can barely afford rent?
Often, when I make these arguments, I am sternly reminded of the programs that Yale offers and the contributions that it makes to the New Haven community: the New Haven Promise program that pays for students with a B average to attend public colleges, the $8 million or so it contributes to city coffers voluntarily, the summer camps it hosts on campus for local high school students interested in STEM.
To be honest, this is an insufficient response. I don’t mean to deny the existence of these programs or deride their effects. I am sure they were proposed in a genuine and generous spirit, and I know that they make the lives of New Haveners better every day. But they represent only a fraction of Yale’s capacity to contribute and meet only a fraction of New Haven’s needs. For a university that prizes achieving excellence, we seem remarkably content with mediocrity when it comes to our contributions to the city that surrounds us.
I am also reminded that a strong endowment is important for the university to offer a great education, including robust financial aid. I agree with this, although no one has given me a good reason for why $25 billion is insufficient for a strong endowment, especially since the University of Chicago eliminated their student income contribution with an endowment less than a third of that size. Moreover, Yale makes substantial income from returns on its endowment — often billions of dollars a year. A fraction of this income could be directed toward alleviating hunger, homelessness and poverty in New Haven — without drawing down the illustrious endowment by a cent.
Finally, I am reminded that many endowment funds are restricted for specific purposes. Fine — use the unrestricted funds. I am sure there are more than enough.
Does this column and this situation make you uncomfortable? It certainly does me. It should bother us that we benefit from so much wealth while others have so little. This should be the next frontier on which we compel Yale to do better and embody the principles that attracted us here as prefrosh.
If this bothers you — and it should — what are you going to do about it?
Fish Stark is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .