Yale University is a central democratic institution, a fact recognized by its tax-exempt status. It provides a forum in which society’s most difficult issues can be confronted and freely discussed. The University educator is thus tasked with presenting their students with intellectually rigorous foundational challenges to tradition; that is the role of education in fostering autonomous thought. Fulfilling this mission will always threaten those in power, and that is why academic freedom is the University’s core principle. A university with no firewall between a society’s billionaires and its academic program is no university at all. Yet, a disturbing pattern of behavior by this University’s administration over time suggests the absence of a firewall, which is an existential threat to the University mission.
In April 2016, Yale President Peter Salovey, at Battell Chapel, addressed the assembled undergraduate body about his decision to retain the name of Calhoun College. Then, he also explained his decision to name one of the two new colleges after Benjamin Franklin, following the hopes of billionaire donor Charles Johnson, who had donated $250 million to the University. The administration had scheduled the event at Battell Chapel at the same time as the regular University faculty meeting, which they had especially pleaded with us to attend. As a result, I was one of the few faculty members to attend the Battell Chapel address anyway. In Battell Chapel that day, the undergraduates, already in the crosshairs of a national media war against them for supposedly being against free speech, mounted an extraordinary defense of the autonomy of the university.
At various times during Salovey’s remarks defending the donors, the students in the balcony showered the floor with fake one million dollar bills. When students pressed Salovey on giving in to donor demands, he replied by saying that donors help pay their tuition. According to the YDN article on the event, Salovey added that following donors’ wishes is “part of what it means to be a university.”
President Salovey’s behavior provides the backdrop to the most recent, and most worrisome, actions of this administration. In September, Yale history professor Beverly Gage resigned from her position as the head of the Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy — named in part after Johnson. Gage told the New York Times that her resignation was because “the University failed to stand up for academic freedom amid inappropriate efforts by its donors to influence its curriculum and faculty hiring.”
After a New York Times op-ed by Yale political science professor Bryan Garsten calling Trump a demagogue, donors demanded that the University appoint an advisory board to practitioner appointments of the program, concerned about Garsten’s affiliation with Grand Strategy. The advisory board was part of the original agreement of the program, but it was never implemented, likely because the past administration recognized it conflicted with the University’s core mission. The advisory board suggested by the donors was to be stocked with older conservatives, including Henry Kissinger. The administration agreed to these demands, including inviting Kissinger to join the board. Somewhat ironically, these events perhaps vindicate Garsten’s long standing concerns about “cancel culture”.
In reaction to this grave scandal, in speaking to the YDN, President Salovey reiterated his view that donors’ wishes are central to what a university is:
“There’s probably two principles that are really important to honor,” Salovey said. “The first is [that] academic freedom to teach and do scholarship in an unfettered way … is sacrosanct at the University.” The second principle, he added, is that the University “[has] an obligation to our donors to meet the agreements to honor the agreements we make with them.”
Let’s be clear: Salovey here posits an entirely fake “conflict of principles.” The only principle here is academic freedom. Someone who donates to a university is supporting the university’s mission, including this principle. An analogy may help: someone who pays another person not to produce their film is not a donor to the film, but rather they are preventing the film’s production. Similarly, a donor who demands oversight over a university’s program is not truly a donor to the university. They are preventing the university’s core functions from being realized.
Authoritarians recognize that universities are challenges to their rule. As my father, the sociologist Manfred Stanley, once wrote, “everywhere the true educators are the first to be censored, tortured, shot and silenced when a society decides the time has come for ‘order’ to be restored.” Private universities can be targeted by governments via pressure on their donors, which is why it is of utmost importance to ensure a firewall between donors and the academic program. A university that does not preserve academic autonomy is not a university, and not deserving of its tax-exempt status.
Yale is one of the two or three wealthiest universities in the world, with an endowment well in excess of $30 billion. No amount of money should be enough for a university to betray its sacred mission. And for a university as wealthy as Yale to do so should offend all. If Yale University cannot meet the minimal requirements to be a university, what hope is there for this sacred institution?
In 2016, our students recognized the existential danger the president’s money-first mindset posed to our institution and its core values. Our students’ actions then should be a model for our current faculty. In the face of this grave threat to our very identity as a university, will Yale’s faculty join Beverly Gage in defending it? Or will we capitulate, signaling to current and future donors that Yale is not a university, but simply another commodity to be bought and sold?
JASON STANLEY is the Jacob Urowsky Professor of Philosophy. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.