Zoe Berg, Photo Editor
Following several years of construction, the Schwarzman Center — a hub for student life and the arts — is set to open this fall.
Funded by a $150 million donation from Blackstone Group co-founder and CEO Stephen Schwarzman ’69, the Schwarzman Center is envisioned as a central facility for campus-wide interaction between students of Yale College and the University’s 13 graduate and professional schools. In fall of 2014, a committee composed of Yale College Council, Graduate Student Assembly and Graduate and Professional School Senate members presented a report to University President Peter Salovey recommending such a facility. After Schwarzman’s gift in May of 2015, Salovey announced the University’s plans to transform the historic Commons Dining Hall and Memorial Hall into the Schwarzman Center.
The announcement of the center was met with controversy — initially regarding the center’s purpose, and then regarding the center’s name. After the center’s announcement, some students argued that the project was unnecessary given Yale’s long-standing residential college system. Others, however, believed that the facility would be beneficial in creating additional gathering spaces for students. Then-Dean of Yale College Jonathan Holloway agreed, noting that while the residential colleges would always separate Yale from its peers, the “ever-widening” demand for communal spaces would be best addressed by a centralized campus center. In addition, some graduate students supported the center due to worries that the transformation of the Hall of Graduate Studies into the Humanities Quadrangle — a renovation that was completed earlier in 2021 — would eliminate a central graduate student gathering spot. Still other graduate and professional school students saw the proposed campus hub as a means of combating the social isolation of graduate school life.
In February 2016, the Schwarzman Center Advisory Committee — a 27-member group of faculty, students and staff led by Holloway and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Dean Lynn Cooley — released a 96-page report detailing recommendations for the Center. The report, which was put together after months of consulting with students, prioritized features to improve social life for graduate and professional school students, including an exclusive upstairs room, a bar venue serving wine and beer and the suggestion that the center remain open year-round.
“Making the Schwarzman Center a destination for all students will improve the environment for graduate and professional students,” Secretary and Vice President for Student Life Kimberly Goff-Crews told the News in 2016. “Programming and space that invite interaction among students will make everyone feel part of the Yale community and less isolated.”
Many faculty members, however, were not convinced. A 2017 News faculty survey found that just 14 percent of respondents viewed the project favorably.
Some professors told the News that they would have preferred the University to invest instead in its academic mission, while others lamented the disconnect they felt from Yale’s negotiations with donors.
“There’s a sense among faculty members that, when it comes to the really big-ticket items that the University is working on, like the new science complex or the Schwarzman Center, that a lot of the ideas are driven by the donors rather than driven by the faculty and their mission,” said Matthew Jacobson, chair of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Senate and American Studies professor.
Salovey noted that the idea for the campus-wide student center was first articulated by students, adding that the project also made sense “from a building maintenance point of view,” as the Commons building was aging and required renovation. Since its opening in 1901, Commons held a communal dining hall typically used by first years and for large events.
In November 2017, Commons closed its doors for the final time, and construction of the Schwarzman Center began in September 2018. Blue fences were erected to block off the surrounding area, and the windows of Woodbridge Hall were boarded up. Hewitt Quadrangle was closed, eliminating a popular shortcut from Science Hill to Cross Campus. Musical groups in Woolsey Hall adjusted their rehearsal schedules to avoid the noises of daytime construction.
During the construction process, administrators continued to consult Yale and New Haven community members to further develop the center’s vision and programming — including ways to promote the arts and improve relations with the New Haven community. According to executive director of the Schwarzman Center Garth Ross, Schwarzman’s ideas for the center largely aligned with that of community members.
Thomas Clements, the global public affairs manager at Blackstone, told the News that Schwarzman played a role in the “initial vision” for the center, but does not remain involved in its “day-to-day” development and operations.
“New performance, exhibition, meeting and dining spaces, combined with programming designed to encourage interaction between [students, faculty and larger communities], will enrich the experiences of Yale students and better integrate the school with both local and global communities,” Schwarzman wrote in a 2018 statement to the News. “I’m looking forward to seeing students bring the building to life in the near future.”
At the class of 1969’s 50th reunion dinner in May 2019, Schwarzman discussed the personal significance of the student center for him, noting that he was once a lonely first year who often ate alone in Commons.
However, some Yale community members took issue with the naming of the center, arguing that Schwarzman’s relationship and prolific donations to former President Donald Trump, as well as Blackstone’s allegedly unethical business practices, do not represent the University’s mission. The controversy came after Calhoun College was renamed Grace Hopper College in 2017 — a move that prompted further conversations about the politics of naming at Yale and other institutions.
Salovey has defended the project against such criticisms.
“Members of the University should be thankful that an alumnus is willing to be generous to Yale and serve the country,” he said in 2017.
In November 2020, the Schwarzman Center naming controversy was reignited when the Financial Times reported that Schwarzman had “defended Donald Trump’s response to this year’s US poll results” during a meeting of prominent CEOs. Yale School of Management professor and senior associate dean of leadership programs Jeffrey Sonnenfeld — the host of the meeting — disputed the claims, saying that Schwarzman had only defended Trump’s right to legal action, not his claims of election fraud. Bloomberg later reported that Schwarzman acknowledged President Joe Biden’s victory.
Still, several Yale students and professors continued to advocate for the renaming of the center.
“[Yale] is in [Schwarzman’s] pocket. Schwarzman Scholars, Schwarzman Center, why not just call it Schwarzman University?” Gregg Gonsalves ’11, assistant professor in epidemiology of microbial diseases, wrote on Twitter in November 2020.
Calls for renaming heated up once more after the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol riots, with some professors arguing that naming the student hub after Schwarzman would have a high symbolic cost.
Mark Oppenheimer, English lecturer and program manager for the Yale Journalism Initiative, said Schwarzman’s efforts to distance himself from Trump came “too little, too late.” He added that the name “Commons” embodies the University’s democratic values, and should not be replaced with Schwarzman’s name.
“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?”
But in a February 2021 interview with the News, Salovey disagreed, saying that Schwarzman had broken from Trump in the wake of the insurrection. He reaffirmed that the Schwarzman Center would not be renamed.
The Center’s grand opening, originally scheduled for fall 2020, was postponed until fall 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But despite the physical building remaining closed, virtual programming has been available throughout the past year.
The facility — a massive building on the corner of Grove and College Streets — will feature a renovated Commons with a variety of cuisine offerings, including Mediterranean, rotisserie and dim sum; “The Underground,” a space for coffee, casual dining and entertainment with a stage designed for spoken word, a capella and stand-up comedy; “The Well,” a 21-and-over pub; the “Dome,” a multi-use room with an oculus and theatrical lighting; a dance studio with a sprung floor, an AV system, mounted speakers and a PTZ camera; three galleries featuring curated displays of art and digital media from students, faculty and guest artists; and “The Bow Wow,” a convenience shop with grab-and-go food options, among other venues. The Schwarzman Center will also be home to a revamped President’s Room, which will continue to host formal dinners and receptions, as well as the Annex, a meeting and study space that will also incorporate an expansion of The Good Life Center — a student wellness space on the fourth floor of Silliman College’s Byers Hall.
“The mission of Yale Schwarzman Center is ‘to leverage dining, conversation and the arts as part of students’ educational experience, convening people across schools, disciplines and communities for moments of discovery and connection,’” Ross said. “We like this verbiage because it summarizes what students can expect to find: dining, conversation, the arts and moments of discovery and connection with people across schools, disciplines, and communities.”
Yale University Commons first opened to honor the University’s 200th year anniversary.