Just two weeks ago, Yale launched what’s been called its “most ambitious” fundraising campaign ever. The $7 billion wish list does include requisite line items like faculty and student support, public health and of course “racial justice.” But the bulk of the price tag orbits around the lucrative research areas of data and computer science, biotechnology and engineering. The campaign is being called “For Humanity.”
From a purely educational perspective, the claim of fundraising for humanity makes total sense. An influx of cash would support classrooms and laboratories that train the next generation of leaders while also producing lifesaving discoveries for the future. But Yale’s “For Humanity” title is not actually indicative of higher education’s goodwill. Instead, it is a branding strategy, one part of an elaborate business model in which schools champion their public good status to shelter millions of corporate dollars and extract public funds from their host cities.
As Yale seeks to add $7 billion dollars to its already bulging coffers, students in New Haven attend classes without enough seats and use bathrooms with no soap. Such disparities are not by coincidence, but point to the various ways that higher education prosperity is driven by the impoverishment of its host cities and towns. And therefore, when assessing this latest fundraising effort, we must ask: for whose humanity?
On one level, we can celebrate that Yale is one of New Haven’s largest landholders, its biggest employer and hence the driving economic engine of the city. The old and profoundly racist joke goes, “what is New Haven without Yale … Bridgeport.” The point here is to suggest that without Yale’s economic prosperity and prestige, New Haven would be just another one of the urban ghettos that dots Connecticut. But let’s be clear, the impact goes both ways.
Because higher education institutions provide the public good of education, Yale’s property holdings are exempt from taxation. As far back as the 1970s, various local and state leaders have warned of the gross disparities created when the property taxes of New Haven’s biggest economic entity don’t support the city. University administrators have pointed to the jobs created, the small businesses supported and the payroll taxes generated by Yale’s presence. But a legal case from the 1980s ramped up the urgency of the growing disparity between “town and gown.”
After universities lobbied to pass the Bayh-Dole Act, schools could now own the intellectual property rights for their publicly funded research and sell this work on the private market to the highest bidder. So the science focus of this new fundraising campaign comes into greater focus. The revenues from now profitable research returns to the university in the form of lucrative royalties. The Bayh-Dole Act helped convert Yale’s campus into a profitable tax shelter for both the University and its private partners. A large portion of the prosperity generated here is pillaged directly from the tax abatement.
Under the cover of “educational purposes,” Yale’s graduate researchers work at stipend rates below their private market peers to churn out for-profit research in tax-exempt campus buildings for millions in royalties that feed the school’s tax-exempt $31 billion endowment. And this wealth regime is covered by a private Yale police department with public jurisdiction over the entire city but directed by the University’s interests. Some people call the area “Yale Haven.”
These financial arrangements bolster Yale and its corporate partners while New Haven’s schools and other public works remain hungry for property tax dollars. Yale will point out that it provides the city with a $13 million Payment in Lieu of Taxes, which is the biggest of its kind in the country. But PILOTs are voluntary and $13 million is a fraction of the additional $157 million Yale would pay if its properties were taxed.
In fact, the disparities here between Yale and New Haven are so vast and yet interdependent, that they have set the stage for a collective response. What was once the Connecticut Center for a New Economy has emerged as New Haven Rising with a vision of social transformation that connects labor, campus and community. This mobilization has shown that what had once been siloed campaigns for campus police abolition, better wages or the fight against student debt and campus gentrification are all connected.
And for better or worse, the horrifying case of “Yale Haven” is showing the world how the neat and tidy narratives of university philanthropy and scientific discovery are fraying at the seams of contradiction. A vast gulf exists between a $31 billion endowment and crumbling public infrastructure, between gleaming laboratories on tax-free land and the paltry wages of the lab techs and support staff.
We must rip off the mask of the “public good” and see how Yale, like many prominent universities, hoards capital like a hedge fund, occupies space like a real estate tycoon, monopolizes armed surveillance like a ward boss, rations care like an HMO and yet pays taxes like a nonprofit. The real question should be: what would Yale be without its host city?
The stature of a world-class university cannot be measured simply by the bank accounts of its alumni or its discoveries in a lab, but also by the health and well-being of the community where it resides. Yale has instigated a billion-dollar campaign that is branded “For Humanity.” But when looking at Yale’s business model of profiteering on the back of New Haven, the only response can be, for whose Humanity will this campaign actually serve?
DAVARIAN BALDWIN is the Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of American Studies and founding director of the Smart Cities Lab at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. He is also the author of ‘In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower: How Universities are Plundering Our Cities.’ Contact him on Twitter @DavarianBaldwin.