At the class of 1969’s 50th reunion dinner in May, Stephen Schwarzman ’69 — a business mogul who founded The Blackstone Group — rose to the podium. Standing under a tent on Old Campus, Schwarzman explained why he donated $150 million to the University in 2015 to transform Commons dining hall into the Schwarzman Center.
“People who have resources get some unwanted friends, and [University President] Peter [Salovey] came to me with a list of projects Yale wanted to fund,” Schwarzman said, as Salovey stood several feet away from him. “I said, ‘I don’t give a shit about this list.’”
Schwarzman went on to discuss his experience as a lonely first year who often ate alone in Commons. He explained that the new student life hub is personally significant to him because he learned to be independent during his time at Yale.
In an email to the News in July, Blackstone spokesperson Christine Anderson clarified that Schwarzman’s comments at the class reunion dinner were “made in jest and in a lighthearted way.”
“Steve was describing the origins of his gift to Yale and his desire to support a project that would have a meaningful impact on the Yale community,” Anderson said. “The original ideas simply did not meet this criteria, whereas the student center has the potential to really bring the university community together and address some challenging issues the university was confronting.”
For his part, Salovey said he “did not find the remarks he offered to the room to be in any way insulting,” adding that he is used to hearing comments that are “wry and earnest” in such settings.
Still, according to Class Secretary Kenneth Brown ’69, Schwarzman’s comments rekindled the debate around the construction of the Schwarzman Center.
For one, political science lecturer Jim Sleeper ’69, who was present at the dinner, interrupted the business mogul during his speech and criticized Schwarzman for Blackstone’s alleged role in “dispossess[ing] tens of thousands of people out of their homes.” Later, Sleeper revisited the encounter in a blog post on the class of 1969 webpage.
“There is some stuff that Yale simply should not eat, and as I watched some other diners rolling their eyes and shifting uncomfortably in their seats while Steve went on and on, I decided that someone had to object,” wrote Sleeper, who has criticized Schwarzman and his company for their allegedly unethical business dealings in op-eds published in Salon, Dissent Magazine and Washington Monthly, among others.
Moreover, the business mogul’s claims about his indifference towards Yale’s priorities stood at odds with the University president’s previous explanations about the circumstances surrounding the $150 million gift.
In 2015, the announcement of Schwarzman’s gift for a student life hub drew criticism from faculty members and students alike, who argued that the money could be better spent on other projects on campus. Many, including American studies professor and former chair of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Senate Matt Jacobson, expressed concern that major University projects seem to be driven by donors, rather than by faculty members and the University’s mission.
At the time, Salovey defended the project by noting that Yale had long been worried about the state of the aging Commons building, which was built in the early 20th century. He approached Schwarzman with several proposed ideas, and among them, the idea of a student center resonated personally with the businessman, Salovey explained.
“I go to donors with ideas,” Salovey said in an interview with the News in November 2017, shortly after Commons closed its doors for renovation. “In the case of the Schwarzman Center, … this was a need that had been articulated first and foremost by students themselves.”
In an email to the News on Thursday, Salovey clarified that while he initially presented a number of gift ideas to Schwarzman, their follow-up conversation about the businessman’s love for Commons was what actually led to the discussion of a possible student center. Creating a student center had been on his mind since September 2014, when he received reports from the Yale College Council, the Graduate and Professional Student Senate and the Graduate Student Assembly recommending a central gathering place for students, Salovey explained.
In addition to questions about Yale’s priorities, Schwarzman’s controversial business dealings and affiliation with President Donald Trump prompted debate among students about the symbolic implications of the names of buildings. The University’s announcement of the gift shortly preceded the yearslong debate about the renaming of Calhoun College, and some members of the Yale community argued that the namesake of the Schwarzman Center does not represent the University’s educational mission.
In 2016, Trump named Schwarzman the head of a new White House business council and gave him the unofficial title of “job czar.”
In an email to the News, Anderson said that there “have been no controversial business dealings.” She added that Schwarzman has helped U.S. presidents from both parties and explained that “duty to country is a value he learned at Yale.”
In the past, Salovey has defended Schwarzman’s donation and said that there is a “a great danger” in creating “political litmus tests around charitable giving.”
“Members of the University should be thankful that an alumnus is willing to be generous to Yale and serve the country,” Salovey said in 2017.
But what does — and what should — Yale consider when negotiating a gift with a donor whose priorities differ from that of the University?
The process of courting major donors and negotiating their gifts takes years of fundraisers, meetings and conversations behind closed doors. According to former University President Rick Levin, members of the Yale Office of Development collect information about potential donors’ careers, interests and previous philanthropy to translate the University’s priorities into catered pitches.
“Donors who are giving nine-figure gifts are typically unwilling to simply leave a bag of money in your office and never speak with you again,” Salovey told the News in 2018. “That is just not the way it works.”
According to Salovey, his conversations with donors take place in three stages: Getting to know the donors’ interests and laying out Yale’s investment priorities, before finding an intersection between the two. The University’s priorities are set by administrators and faculty members who listen to Yale community members’ needs, Salovey explained.
Capital Campaign Director Eugénie Gentry told the News in December that while the development office is not involved in setting the University’s vision, donors’ investment decisions are one of the key determinants of which projects Yale ends up pursuing. For example, Yale is unlikely to receive donations to support all the initiatives recommended by the University Science Strategy Committee, and conversations between development staff and potential donors will guide Yale’s next steps, Vice President for Alumni Affairs and Development Joan O’Neill explained.
In the past, faculty members and students have questioned the extent to which wealthy alumni’s willingness to donate should have influence over major University projects. In addition to Jacobson, who said that many initiatives are driven by donors rather than Yale’s mission, French professor Ruth Koizim GRD ’74 said faculty members often feel disconnected from administrators’ conversations with donors.
Still, other faculty members have defended controversial donations from alumni. History professor Jay Gitlin ’71 MUS ’74 GRD ’02 — who teaches a popular seminar “Yale and America” — said “much, if not most, of what we do here relies on the financial support of alumni.”
After University officials and a donor reach an agreement on what the gift will entail and how it will be used, years of meetings culminate to a gift agreement, a document that details the donation process and describes how Yale will use the gift in the coming years.
For example, the 2009 agreement between Yale and John Jackson ’67 — which spelled out how the University would use a $50 million gift to establish the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs — specified Yale’s fundraising plans for the new institute, faculty appointments and building location, among others.
The details of Schwarzman’s gift agreement with the University are not available to the public. Still, Thomas Clements, Blackstone’s global public affairs manager, said that Schwarzman was involved “in the initial vision for the project and remains closely interested in its progress.” He is not “involved day-to-day” because that falls to Yale, Clements explained.
“Our vision for the center continues to evolve as we gather input from the key stakeholder groups for the Schwarzman Center,” executive director of the Schwarzman Center Garth Ross said.
THE POLITICS OF NAMING
Four years after Schwarzman’s controversial gift to the University, the construction of the new student life hub is still under way, slated for completion in fall 2020. Meanwhile, Schwarzman has made two other major donations to institutions of higher education.
Last October, the billionaire gave $350 million to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for the establishment of Schwarzman School of Computing. In June, the University of Oxford named its new humanities center after Schwarzman, following his $188 million gift for humanities research.
Echoing the 2015 controversy at home, several MIT students and faculty members criticized their university for naming the new School of Computing after the businessman. In an op-ed published in the MIT school newspaper, The Tech, in February, a group of 18 students, alumni and faculty members criticized the businessman’s political associations and said that for the MIT administration, “money trumps concerns for human rights and economic justice.”
In particular, the group denounced Schwarzman for agreeing to advise Trump as the leader of the White House business council, opposing an affordable housing bill in California and hosting the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after Blackstone received an investment from the Saudi government. A petition addressed to MIT president L. Rafael Reif and chair of the school’s corporation Robert Millard, which demanded a change in the college building’s namesake, garnered 90 signatures from MIT community members.
Meanwhile, the response to Schwarzman’s gift to Oxford “has been very good,” according to the school’s strategic communications manager Matt Pickles. Scholars and University staff members “welcome the endorsement of their work that the investment represents, and are enthusiastic about the new facilities including auditoria, exhibition space and a significant library,” Pickles said.
Still, Oxford student Atticus Stonestrom told the News that Oxford’s decision to accept a gift from Schwarzman fits into the broader phenomenon of marketizing education. While several Oxford students also question Schwarzman’s business practices and the university’s decision to name a humanities hub after him, voicing their opposition was difficult because the announcement of the gift coincided with exams period, Stonestrom said.
In a statement to the News, Schwarzman said funding transformative projects in higher education has regularly encountered a “small group of naysayers throughout history.” These initiatives are supported by university trustees and administrators, who have the long-term perspective to understand the gift’s impact and are responsible for stewarding the institution, Schwarzman added.
“Responsible private giving is an American tradition, and I am fortunate to be able to be a part of it,” the businessman said.
Frederick Hess, who is the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, agreed that higher education institutions have benefited from philanthropists for centuries.
But the debate about the namesake of Calhoun College in 2015 launched similar conversations about the politics of naming across the world, including at the University of Oxford, Harvard University and Princeton University. The reckoning over the significance of naming has renewed the public’s attention to how universities name institutions today, Hess explained.
In an interview with the News, editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy Stacy Palmer said that naming a school after a donor can become complicated if the individual’s name somehow gets defamed, and the institution is pressured to take the name away.
“Another problem is the symbolism of naming schools after donors rather than other people instrumental to the university like scholars and professors,” Palmer said. “It’s the idea that donors are the ones whose names are most valued … Some may feel that commercialism is taking part of the nonprofit world.”
On Yale’s own campus, when Schwarzman began advising the U.S. president in early 2017, photographs of Schwarzman and Trump appeared on bulletin boards, bearing the caption, “What is Stephen Schwarzman’s ‘Principal Legacy’?”
“Schwarzman learned at Yale in the 1960s that serving one’s country is a core value and duty if one is able to help,” Anderson, his spokesperson, said in an email to the News. “He is proud to have helped the last three presidents of the United States (both Democrat and Republican) with important initiatives.”
In an interview with the News, law professor and Head of Davenport College John Witt ’94 LAW ’99 GRD ’00, who led the committee that established Yale’s renaming guidelines, distinguished questions about Schwarzman Center’s namesake from previous discussions on Calhoun College.
Witt argued that there is no position on the Dodd-Frank legislation — a series of Wall Street regulations that Schwarzman strongly opposed — that is “fundamentally at odds with the mission of the University.”
While Witt says that it is exciting to see members of the Yale community mobilizing against Trump’s policies in a constructive and energizing way, the movement to change the new student life center’s namesake “is not one of them” and “does not warrant even the slightest review,” Witt said.
Purchasing naming rights
For now, most universities do not have concrete guidelines for how much influence donors can have over major projects and how their buildings are named.
According to Pickles, Oxford does not have “hard and fast rules” for choosing namesakes. While some describe the research activities that the buildings house, others are named after prominent figures who played a significant part in the building’s development or in the subject being studied in the building, Pickles explained.
He added that naming buildings after philanthropists has a long tradition at the school, where Sheldonian Theatre, Sir Andrew Wiles Building and Beecroft Building are all named after major donors.
In a statement to the News, Reif, the president of MIT, said “there is no one-size-fits-all approach to naming gifts at MIT.”
“MIT is aggressively focused on addressing the challenges and opportunities of the computing age, and through his philanthropy Mr. Schwarzman has demonstrated a shared dedication to ensuring that technological advancements benefit all,” Reif said. “The naming of the new college reflects our shared interests in this area of research, education and innovation, and Mr. Schwarzman’s uncommon insight and generosity.”
As for Yale, Salovey said that when University administrators plan a new building, they identify different features and facilities that can be named in recognition of certain donations.
For example, he noted that brochures about the Yale Science Building or the new humanities hub at 320 York St. list classrooms, halls and courtyards donors can name by making a gift to the University. According to the brochures, naming rights to a large courtyard at the former Hall of Graduate Studies cost $20 million, while one can name a lobby by giving Yale a million dollars. Naming rights to the new science building and its plant center can be purchased at $100 million and $5 million, respectively.
“Donors at these levels may choose to name buildings or areas of buildings for themselves, their family members, or a Yale alumnus or faculty member who influenced their lives,” Salovey said. “I am always glad when donors take an interest in supporting the facilities projects that are essential to our ability to serve our mission, our students, and our faculty. We simply could not provide the education we provide our students, or conduct the research that transforms and improves lives, without their generous assistance.”
Serena Cho | firstname.lastname@example.org
Correction, Sept. 9: A previous version of the story said the Schwarzman Center will open in 2021. In fact, it will open in 2020.