Yale students are smart. And they are certainly compassionate. Too often, though, students let passion rule common sense. Sometimes, they make up words like “invisibilizes” or “logics” to conceal their failures at eloquence in the News’ Opinion section. Often, they advocate fiercely for causes which they fundamentally misunderstand; sometimes with good intentions, usually out of self-righteousness.
But when liberal students en masse wrongly attack the single most progressive investment model used by universities across the country, then they deserve to be called out. If it weren’t for Chief Investment Officer David Swensen’s endowment strategy, I and many other low-income students across the world could never have even dreamed of coming to a place like Yale.
Put simply, the perfectly ethical investment model which activists envision would bankrupt the University and revert it back to the rich white boys’ club that they claim it once was. It should be obvious that divestment from all companies deemed even slightly immoral — by the activists’ standards — coupled with an extreme redistribution of leftover funding toward free tuition and additional support to New Haven — a job which has nothing to do with the endowment, by the way — is economically infeasible. Yale doesn’t literally have a renewable pot of $27 billion from which it can dip into whenever a socially righteous cause presents itself. The endowment is mostly liquid and will deplete in any given year if not spent wisely and protected through future investments. Tuition grants to low-income students, current levels of support to New Haven, research money to support — yes — socially righteous causes, and funding toward — gasp — the hiring of a more diverse faculty, intellectually or otherwise, are all dependent on a healthy endowment.
And as far as investing goes, Yale’s model is already more ethical than most. Swensen himself has previously criticized Wall Street for losing its “moral foundation,” according to a 2013 article in the News (“Swensen criticizes Wall Street”), and in 2014 he spearheaded an investing movement away from fossil fuel companies and toward companies that support renewable energy. Students protested this partial divestment in 2016 as only fueled by financial incentive, but Swensen has already addressed those concerns many times over. It’s as if students will just not accept that administrators aren’t rotten to their cores. Although Swensen is the highest paid employee on campus, the fact that he earns millions less than his counterparts at Harvard, Columbia and other prominent universities — with worse performing endowments — should attest to his devotion to the school and to a vision of a more accessible Yale.
In his rift with the News last week, Swensen unfortunately chose to levy his complaints against the school paper instead of student activists — whose so obviously misguided efforts he dismissed with little more than a shrug. It is the News, he argued, that deserves blame for not properly assessing the inaccurate claims of protesters.
Yet this argumentative framework led to a petty, unproductive debate on the ethics of investment and journalism. The students at the News volunteer countless hours every night to produce a full paper that, unlike the majority of other college papers, actually serves as the locus of most campus controversies, the Swensen debate included.
Claims that the News should have followed The New York Times’ publishing standards are absurd. Not only because the News doesn’t have nearly the same time, money and manpower as the Times, but also because the national paper isn’t exactly known itself for being unbiased. Writers take pains to insert a liberal bent in their reports, blending fact and fiction at the expense of any semblance of “objective” journalism.
That said, the News was wrong to publish Swensen’s piece as a full column in the first place. It should have run as a Letter to the Editor, with an accompanying editor’s note addressing the supposed factual inaccuracy. With apologies to Swensen and the News staff who dealt with the onslaught, at least take comfort knowing that many people welcomed the theatrics of the last few days as a much-needed break from midterms.
A better critique of our financial holdings by students would entail a detailed report of faculty hiring statistics versus administrative costs of overstaffing in such bureaucratic places as the Center for Teaching and Learning and in the overabundance of ambiguous deans’ offices. We should make sure the University is doing its job before rehashing ethical disputes that are likely antithetical to our progressive aspirations.
Meanwhile, I suggest that administrators should take a cue from the activists — “re-educate” the Yale population through a series of teach-ins. Teach us about the basics of endowment growth, what it means for Yale to spend money from donors or what the student income contribution really is. Make it as basic as possible and use plenty of “vibrant photos and precise figures.”
Oh, and better underline your title and put it in all caps. Then we’ll understand. I’m sure.
Leland Stange is a junior in Ezra Stiles College. His column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .