Much fanfare was made about the fact that I’d be going to Yale. My family bragged whenever given the chance. My school chose me to make an appearance on a daytime talk show. Family friends inquired about the steps I took to accomplish such a thing (no doubt hoping to replicate it with their children).
There was something compelling about the story of a kid from the west side of Chicago going off to the land of power and prestige, a sort of underdog or outsider narrative that made people inclined to attach their hopes and dreams to my college journey. This manifested in comments like “you’re going to be president,” or “don’t forget about me when you’ve made your millions.” Knowing little about where I was headed and relishing the attention I was receiving, I leaned into this story. I let myself believe that I was off to become a leader, off to use my Yale education to change the world.
But now, at the halfway point of my time here, I am beginning to realize that coming to Yale has, in a way, hamstrung my ability to advocate for the kind of change that matters to me. The conceptions of justice and equity that I want to push the world toward are in direct conflict with the university’s status, which I now have a stake in maintaining.
Universities like Yale occupy a particular space in the collective imagination. They are tickets to the American elite, training camps for world leaders and incubators for ideas that shape humanity. They are places where the important and influential congregate, and so inclusion in their ranks is seen as admission into the halls of power. This perception is what makes “elite” universities symbols of hope and promise. They can change the trajectory of an individual’s life by handing them an acceptance letter, and they can amend the course of history by giving certain people the platform and resources they need to exert influence over world events.
With this perspective on the “elite” university’s place in society, the nexus of conflict lies in competing definitions of who belongs at universities like these. The main battlefronts become affirmative action and increasing diversity because “if we just get enough good people access to a good education, progress becomes inevitable.” Through all of this, the university maintains a facade of neutrality and innocence — it confers knowledge and power, but what is done with those things is left to the discretion of the knowledge-bearer and power-wielder. And so, in this framework, it made sense for myself and others to believe that I could leverage my Yale pedigree to pursue just ends. But this perspective is so deeply and tragically flawed.
Though Yale presents itself as an impartial arbiter of light and truth, and though its faculty and students may strive to live up to that mandate, Yale, and other similarly “elite” institutions, has a material stake in the maintenance of the status quo. That’s because Yale’s power flows, in large part, from its wealth and reputation. Our university needs to be seen as a prestigious institution so that it can continue to attract top students and faculty; and it needs to have wealth so that it can retain students and faculty through generously funded fellowships and research opportunities, state-of-the-art facilities and lavish amenities.
Yale’s effort to project power and importance in a society where power and importance are often acquired through dubious means keeps it from remaining neutral. It necessitates that the university maintain and protect its swollen endowment to provide the “Yale experience,” even if that comes at an increasing cost to New Haven public services and the environment. It necessitates that the university employ a private police force to make campus feel safe, even if that endangers the lives of students of color and New Haveners. It necessitates that the university launch a multi-billion dollar capital campaign, even as it refuses to recognize its graduate students’ union. These actions signal to the world a set of values grounded in self-interest and only peripherally guided by concern for the common good. They communicate a conception of the world where appearance matters more than substance and power more than purpose.
The people that make up this university are inevitably and unavoidably marked by these values. Because our status is inextricably linked to the status of Yale, we have an interest in the university retaining its wealth and reputation, which means we have an interest in preserving the values that allow Yale to retain its wealth and reputation.
And sure, many of us are willing to challenge the university and decry its actions; but how many of us are willing to give up the power and status that come from our connection to this place? How many of us are willing to shrink and redistribute part of the endowment if it means the classrooms won’t be as nice and the fellowship funding slows down? How many of us are willing to diminish the reputation of the university if it means fewer job opportunities and less generous pay?
These divided interests — between values and status-protection — bound the power of activism that comes out of this place. They create a distance between belief and action which all too often manifests in adopting the aesthetic of activism while quietly seeking money, power and status for ourselves. And so in that sense, Yale does not create world-changers. By and large, Yale creates people who think they can change the world, but more often than not keep it spinning as is.