At Yale, as at other American universities, a new species has emerged — the ABC Distinguished Fellow and the XYZ in Residence. A post-career option for the New York-D.C. establishment, these positions heighten the University’s profile but also raise questions about its educational mission.
Consider the Kerry Initiative, described by the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs as an “interdisciplinary program that will focus on pressing global challenges.” Although the University declined to reveal the cost of the initiative, the Institute’s budget increased by $2 million in a single year, suggesting its price could very well reach seven figures.
I am sure John Kerry ’66 and the friends he invites to Yale — Al Gore, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jerry Brown LAW ’64 — are both informative and entertaining. But the real question is what price Yale should pay for the allure of celebrity. As University Provost Benjamin Polak once argued in a 2016 News profile, “We have to make tradeoffs, we have to make choices.”
A tradeoff exists as well for student bandwidth. Thousands of students attended the Kerry-led climate conference to be enamored by the all-star line-up. But perhaps the time spent waiting outside Woosley Hall could have been spent attending a lecture by one of Yale’s many climate scientists or engaging with campus environmental groups.
This phenomenon reveals a cognitive bias known as the halo effect. When “celebrity intellectuals” display expertise in one field, we automatically assume they possess expertise in others. For instance, Tony Blair once taught a class at Yale on Faith and Globalization, even though his main religious credential was his conversion to Roman Catholicism. And Blair didn’t come cheap: According to a source privy to discussions about Blair’s recruitment, he cost significantly more than the going rate of eminent academics.
Then, as now, the Jackson Institute seems to be a serial offender in its thirst for star power. Former Reagan aide Charles Hill serves as diplomat-in-residence, “teaching the classics at Yale to show young Americans how to wield power and risk destruction,” in the words of one Foreign Policy commentator. And then there is New York Times columnist David Brooks, who offers Global Affairs classes as vague as “Humility” and “Successful Global Leadership.”
To be sure, under the able leadership of Elizabeth Bradley and Beverly Gage, the Grand Strategy program has broadened itself beyond the trinity of Charles Hill, Henry Kissinger and Paul Kennedy. This is a positive development, but I fear the thirst for celebrity will only intensify if President Salovey’s proposal for a public policy school comes to fruition.
Indeed, the Schwarzman Center already heralds a shift. Judging by its first events, it will entrench the aesthetics of spectacle at the center of campus — food tastings with world-renowned chefs and performances by Grammy winners. There is nothing wrong with these activities per se, but they risk crowding out student initiative, marginalizing the experimental, ground-up efforts that are the stuff of Yale’s cultural scene. The photography show in the Jonathan Edwards basement. The dramatized student reading in the Morse-Stiles Crescent Theater. Will future Yalies be as intrepid on a campus organized around celebrity?
As the University launches a new capital campaign, we must scrutinize the nexus between star power and star donors. We should be very grateful for the generosity of alumni like Stephen Schwarzman ’69 and Charles Johnson ’54. However, we must also be critical of how their gifts can shape the program of the University (Johnson, for instance, funded the expansion of the Grand Strategy program). In 1995, Yale had to return $20 million to Lee M. Bass ’79, after Bass demanded a new curriculum in Western civilization and asked to approve faculty.
As with both major political parties, which have come to be perceived as captive to donor interests, a reliance on major gifts can corrode the clarity of the University’s mission. We must remember that Yale is founded on gifts big and small, and in large part, on the backs of “minor donors” like Mary Goodman — a nineteenth-century black laundress who left her life savings to the Divinity School, and whose bequest funds a scholarship to this day.
Alas, star donors and star power are not confined to Yale, and perhaps there is little the University can do if it wants to maintain its brand. Kerry’s Cabinet colleague, Samantha Power ’92, landed at Harvard, and rumor has it that Hillary Clinton LAW ’73 might join Columbia as a university professor — a title reserved for the most senior academics.
But at their heart, “celebrity intellectuals” expose a contradiction in the University’s liberal arts mission. For a school which denies credit for many Reserve Officer Training Corps classes and shut down its teacher preparation program for being overly pre-professional, Yale is awfully comfortable with training students to join a generalist elite — a leadership class, if you will. After all, those students will some day return as distinguished fellows — for the right price, of course.
Jun Yan Chua is a senior in Saybrook College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .