Stephen Schwarzman ’69, chief executive officer of Blackstone and loyal donor to former President Donald Trump and Yale, will soon formally have his name emblazoned on a building in the heart of Yale’s campus.
But in the wake of the Jan. 6 Capitol riots — in which far-right extremists injured 140 police officers and five people died — some professors have renewed calls on the University to remove Schwarzman’s name from the new student center, now set to open within the coming year. They argue the symbolic cost of Schwarzman’s naming rights may be too high — even when offset by the $150 million donation the businessman gave to the University.
University President Peter Salovey disagrees. In an interview with the News, he said that Yale would not place a moratorium on donations from Schwarzman or rename the Schwarzman Center — actions the University has taken against others in the past. Schwarzman, Salovey argued, has broken from Trump in the wake of the insurrection.
“I think it’s really important here to report the facts,” Salovey said in an interview with the News. He quoted from statements that Schwarzman made on Nov. 23 and Jan. 6. “He’s saying here, within weeks of the election, that the outcome is very certain and the country should move on.”
Some faculty remained critical of the decision in the wake of the election.
“I think that the affront that many people in the University community feel by having that center named for a figure like him is a cost that ought to be weighed against $150 million,” said Matthew Jacobson, professor of American studies, African American studies and history.
Yale has dealt with controversy over names and donations before. In 2017, Yale renamed Calhoun College to Grace Hopper College. At the time, a committee set forth guidelines on the principles of renaming — which they write is sometimes justified, but only in exceptional circumstances.
And in 2019, the University declared a moratorium on accepting donations from Sackler family members, due to their role in causing the opioid crisis through their pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma.
Schwarzman’s behavior in the aftermath of the election last fall has renewed calls for the University to take similar actions.
In a Nov. 6 meeting among top executives and academics, Schwarzman noted that the American public felt skeptical seeing votes coming in for Biden in areas where Trump had taken an early lead. Articles about the meeting reported that Schwarzman had defended Trump.
On Nov. 23, Schwarzman’s name was absent from a letter, signed by more than 160 top executives, that demanded the peaceful transition of power. Jon Gray, Blackstone’s president, signed the letter.
That same day, Schwarzman released a statement saying that he was “trying to be a voice of reason” at the meeting, and noting that the election outcome was certain and the country should move past it. Clements said Schwarzman’s individual statement was “more targeted” than the group letter.
On Jan. 6, Schwarzman criticized the Capitol attack as an “insurrection” and an “affront” to democratic values, but he did not directly denounce Trump for inciting the violence, the New York Times reported.
Salovey said that he read the statement differently, interpreting it as Schwarzman explicitly calling out Trump and tying the insurrection to the former president’s statements.
In an email to the News, Blackstone spokesperson Tom Clements wrote that Schwarzman assisted the Trump administration with economic policy and trade, and not with politics. Schwarzman and Trump have not spoken in more than six months, and Schwarzman last donated to the presidential race in January 2020, Clements continued.
Still, professors disagree with the notion that Schwarzman’s allegiance to Trump should be ignored. Mark Oppenheimer, program manager of the Yale Journalism Initiative, said any moves by Schwarzman — who has donated almost $4 million to Trump’s campaign efforts — to distance himself from Trump came “too little, too late.”
“I have no problem with Yale accepting donations from people whose politics I disagree with,” Oppenheimer said. “It would be absurd to think that only people with a particular set of politics or views of the world could give money to a college.”
But Schwarzman is a special case, Oppenheimer said, because the executive has been a strong financial supporter of someone who tried to thwart the free democratic process of U.S. elections. Oppenheimer added that Salovey should ask the financier to remove his name from the building, and Schwarzman should comply.
In an email to the News, Clements said that Schwarzman issued multiple statements calling for the peaceful transition of power.
“Steve believed in the mission Yale presented when he was asked to support the new center and continues to believe that it will do great things for the Yale students, faculty and broader community,” Clements wrote. “While Steve disagreed with a variety of President Trump’s statements and policies, he — like 74 million Americans — supported President Trump because he believed his economic agenda provided the best path forward for our country.”
Clements added that “supporting the policy priorities” of a single political party “should not be grounds to undermine efforts” that aim to enhance Yale life.
But Oppenheimer said that the University has historically named its buildings after individuals who espouse values community members can aspire to.
Particularly distressing to him is that the new student center will paint over the name Commons with Schwarzman’s surname, Oppenheimer added. The University’s largest dining hall traditionally brought together people ranging from first years to faculty. Though the dining hall within the Schwarzman Center will still be called Commons, the name Commons said something about the University’s democratic values, Oppenheimer said.
“I’m not sure what Steve Schwarzman represents that we can aspire to aside from his checkbook,” Oppenheimer said. “Ben Franklin, Pauli Murray, Jonathan Edwards [and] Steve Schwarzman, which one does not belong?”
Other Yale professors — including Gregg Gonsalves, Jason Stanley and Samuel Moyn — have tweeted about Schwarzman and Yale’s ties to him in the days since the election.
Rose Horowitch | firstname.lastname@example.org