The decline and fall of the Yale Empire began last week with a story by the News detailing the triumph of the University of Texas and Texas A&M’s joint endowment over Yale’s. The Yale Investments Office was quick to clarify — there’s no need to worry! Yale is still a richer institution because, see, it’s the endowment per student that really matters. Not even Harvard beats us there — phew!
However in recent years, the importance of Yale’s endowment — what Yale does with it, how big it is and where we invest it — has become a hot-button campus issue. Yale’s endowment has made international news headlines. It sparked a fiery “Overheard at Yale” thread last year and led to students being arrested during a divestment sit-in just over a month ago.
Yale, as a place, is a giant receptacle of myth and memory. When we pass Sterling Memorial Library or cross Old Campus, we subconsciously register that these landmarks look like, feel like and thus represent our school. And so our notion of “Yaleness” has always been wrapped up in its concrete physicality: in its symbols, in the myths stashed away in the nooks and crannies of its buildings. This “love for the soil” as Livy called it is why we feel so at home here.
But the increasing focus on Yale’s endowment in recent years has begun to culturally redefine how we identify and interact with our school. The sport of grooming our ballooning endowment creates a cult of materiality that challenges our perceptions of what it is that truly represents Yale. As the trials of our endowment step into the limelight, people have started to identify Yale more by its bank account than by any building or statue on its campus.
This does two things. First, the growing societal importance of Yale’s endowment creates a culture of disconnectedness from our University. Students at Yale are faced with a contradicting narrative of what is important about this place. We’re told that what matters is making friends, taking classes that rile us up, having perspective-changing conversations at 2 a.m. and perhaps even falling in love. We find groups and create meaning here — and somewhere along the line, we acquire a better sense of who we all are. This is what Yale offers us.
On the other hand, we see headline after headline extolling our endowment, methodically pounding in the message that, in reality, it’s what you’re worth that matters. And so all of what Yale means to us as students — life-changing friendships, nights of youth, a great love — is presented publicly as a long list of zeros stashed away in a bolted-up vault. On an individual level, we wonder if those perspective-altering courses we took really matter in the grand scheme of an endowment growth year. On a societal level, Sterling Memorial Library stops being a receptacle of myth and memories — it becomes that building that Yale spent “x” amount of dollars to construct.
Our pillars of memory are becoming totems of abstraction. This contest of endowment growth has entered into our collective psyche, fostering a reductive and harmful way of viewing our school and our experiences here.
And it’s not just Yale — the rat race among institutions of higher learning to amass the most treasure is an annual topic of interest to The New York Times (to say nothing of the News and the Harvard Crimson). But it’s all a rat race to an archetype where money is our sole end … I can only hope that this golden calf story doesn’t end like the first.
Secondly, the confusion of what “Yaleness” is creates a culture of complacency in its affairs. If our endowment is our lifeblood, then surely Yale will have no trouble getting by on its over $30 billion. No one assumes that Yale could ever possibly struggle financially, when several of its institutions — like Yale Dining — run routine deficits.
For example, while our University has certainly progressed with respect to financial aid, our $30 billion endowment causes students to forget that Yale continues to count home equity to a higher degree than every one of its comparable peer institutions when calculating financial aid packages. This practice leaves most middle-class students and students with parents nearing retirement with far less financial aid than they would receive at, for instance, Harvard — which does not count home equity in calculating one’s financial aid package.
But maybe it isn’t the focus on our endowment that makes us complacent. Perhaps we forget these policies because they simply aren’t flashy topics. To be clear, I’m not anti-endowment. But I am staunchly opposed to the cult of materialism which fetishizing our endowment creates — a cult that certainly isn’t bringing anyone new into the policy reform ring.
Madonna was right — we are living in a material world. But it’s ultimately up to us to preserve our notion of “Yaleness,” one that isn’t defined by a dollar sign.
Sammy Landino | firstname.lastname@example.org .