Nearly two years have passed since University President Peter Salovey announced that Stephen A. Schwarzman ’69 pledged $150 million for the creation of a student center. Since then, Yale students and faculty have expressed significant opposition to the Schwarzman Center. Criticism of the building’s name has come in the form of Facebook posts and opinion pieces in the News, and, in one particularly entertaining stunt, the appearance of duct tape bearing Schwarzman’s name on nearly every Yale building.
There seem to be two objections to the naming of the Schwarzman Center. The first is that no donor, no matter how great his largesse, should be able to exert influence on the naming of a building, especially if they want to name it after themselves. This argument not only ignores long-standing precedent but misapprehends the spirit of philanthropy. While one can hope that alums would exert influence in less egotistical ways, part of what makes charity to one’s alma mater appealing is the ability to hold a continued stake in the institution.
Naming rights do more than reward donors; they tie the legacies of donors to student experiences at the University. When John W. Sterling, class of 1864, left a $17 million bequest to Yale, he requested “one enduring, useful and architecturally beautiful edifice, which will constitute a fitting memorial of my gratitude to and affection for my alma mater.” In tying his legacy to Yale, Schwarzman carries on this tradition of gratitude. Indeed, many of Yale’s defining offerings, such as the Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy and numerous endowed professorships, would not exist without the continued monetary support and involvement of our alumni.
Even if one believes that money ought not to buy influence at the University, the fact remains that without the generosity of our alumni, we could not hold our place as a globally prominent institution. Moreover, our financial health has allowed Yale to become more meritocratic than ever before. There is an incredible irony in a student railing against the naming of the Schwarzman Center in the morning and protesting the Student Income Contribution in the afternoon. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.
The second objection is that Schwarzman himself is so evil that taking his money is morally compromising. According to the University’s newly adopted guidelines on renaming, “a namesake’s ‘principal legacy’ must not conflict with the mission of the University.” A recent News feature notes that “some students, faculty and alumni contend that Schwarzman should be disqualified because of the damage Blackstone has inflicted on the American economy” (“Profit at any cost,” April 7, 2017). Private equity firms, they argue, take over companies and cut costs, laying off workers and slashing pay.
Yes, firm buyouts can hurt workers. However, employees laid off in such transactions would, in most cases, have been laid off later when the companies failed from inefficiency. The cost-cutting methods employed by private equity investors increase profits because they are sorely needed. Indeed, leveraged buyouts work because they slim down companies that would otherwise fail. This is why School of Management professor Andrew Metrick ’89 describes private equity investors as “radical surgeons” who sometimes have to amputate a limb to save a patient.
Furthermore, it is patently absurd to claim that the work of financiers conflicts with the mission of the University when nearly a quarter of Yale’s graduates go into finance or management consulting. Numerous buildings around campus, including Sterling and Bass Libraries, bear the names of businessmen and financiers. Yale is inextricably linked to the financial system.
The Yale endowment, in fact, invests 15 percent of its portfolio in private equity firms. One of the reasons Yale has been able to grow in recent years is the success of our fund managers. It is not only the University that benefits from firms such as Blackstone. State pension funds and 401(k)s do the same — and that is money that goes to predominantly middle-class Americans. Given these facts, it is difficult to say that Schwarzman is such an abominable man that his money should not be in our coffers.
All in all, we might miss asking friends to get lunch at Commons. But the exigencies of the contemporary American research university require periodical compromise. We should be proud that our alumni stay engaged for decades after graduating rather than vilifying their attempts to assure that the University prospers in the future. And in return for accepting Schwarzman’s money, one of the most magnificent buildings on campus will go from an underused dining hall to a hub for students to congregate.
Daniel Tenreiro-Braschi is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College. His column runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .