Tag Archive: criticism

  1. Charity Begins Abroad?

    Leave a Comment

    “Dà jiā hǎo,” Yale President Peter Salovey said in broken Chinese. “Hello everyone.”

    On Oct. 29, 2014, Salovey sat down with Pan Shiyi, one of China’s most influential businessmen and the chairman of SOHO China, a major real estate development company worth over $10 billion. Behind Salovey and Pan, both dressed in dark suits and white shirts, stood two black-clad women prepared to offer ceremonial gifts to the two leaders.

    With his three words, Salovey greeted an audience larger than those gathered in a conference room inside one of SOHO China’s futuristic Beijing offices. Rather, Salovey was addressing the broader community of educators, students and philanthropists who would likely take an interest in the gift.

    The SOHO China Foundation, established in 2005 by Pan and his wife Zhang Xin to support Chinese education, had just announced a donation of $10 million to Yale in support of low-income Chinese students. This gift was part of a larger $100 million endowment established in 2014 to fund Chinese financial aid at international universities.

    “We hope the donations will help Yale admit more Chinese students, and those from modest backgrounds,” Pan announced at the ceremony. “Every person’s potential is like a hidden gem, and education is the tool that unlocks human potential.”

    For all the pomp and circumstance of the event — the photo-ops, the official handshakes, the backdrops displaying the SOHO China and Yale logos — the donation, in relative terms, does not amount to much.

    According to the University’s most recent financial report, Yale took in a total of $346.4 million in charitable contributions in fiscal 2014, making the SOHO China donation a mere 2.8 percent of Yale’s fundraising total. And the donation was $5 million less than what the couple gave to Harvard earlier in 2014 for the same outlined goals.

    Further, compared to Stephen Schwarzman’s ’69 $300 million fundraising campaign in 2013 to establish the Schwarzman Scholars at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, Pan and Zhang’s donation appears even smaller.

    “It’s a drop in the ocean compared to what Chinese schools are raising,” said Rupert Hoogewerf, the publisher of the Hurun Report, a monthly magazine best known for its “China Rich List.

    But the gift’s significance is not denominated in dollars. Rather, the gift and the reaction to it  may symbolize changing Chinese attitudes about philanthropy — changes with direct implications for Western institutions

    With Chinese donors giving more and more to foreign causes, “I just suppose that Yale might want to draw more money from China,” said a prominent Chinese newspaper columnist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to restrictions placed on domestic journalists speaking to the foreign press.

    While Salovey did not travel halfway around the globe to merely pick up a check (he was also in Beijing at the time for the opening of the Yale Center Beijing), Yale’s eagerness stands out among its peer institutions. Harvard President Drew Faust, by comparison, met Zhang and Pan in a Cambridge boardroom and signed documents with markedly less fanfare.

    But the buzz around Pan and Zhang’s donation hasn’t been restricted to Yale — it has garnered even stronger reactions outside the US.

    “Mr. Pan’s donation is nothing…but it has an eye catching effect and has an effect on the people’s feeling in China,” Shujie Yao, economics professor at the University of Nottingham, said. “Each day [students] go to school and they don’t have even basic things.” 

    Professor Yao joins a multitude of other voices, both within China and beyond its borders, criticizing the SOHO China gift and other high-profile Chinese donations to elite American institutions over the past few years. These philanthropic gestures have sparked a firestorm of debate about Chinese philanthropy abroad, and about where Chinese donors’ loyalty should lie.

    No Good Deed…?

    The first seven-figure donation to Yale by a Chinese national occurred in 2010, when Zhang Lei GRD ’02 SOM ’02, founder of Hillhouse Capital Management, pledged nearly $9 million to the School of Management.

    According to a 2010 Asia Times article, which quoted then-University president Richard Levin, Zhang’s gift was the largest gift to date from a young alumnus and was also the largest gift to the School of Management up to that point.

    Despite the apparent act of altruism, not everyone was happy.

    In the days following the announcement of Zhang’s gift, China’s state-run Xinhua news agency had to set up a special forum just to accommodate angry debate on the topic

    And when China’s “Global Times” hosted a forum regarding the gift, they received more than 1,000 posts as outraged individuals spewed hate-filled accusations mixed with nationalist sentiment.

    “Scum, trash, dog feces, traitor,” wrote one commenter.

    The Chinese equivalent of Twitter, Weibo, was flooded with infuriated messages. Zhang was accused of “indifference” to the concerns of his own nation and even labeled a “traitor.”

    Five years later, students, professors and experts on China reflected about why these types of gifts have struck a chord with a domestic audience.

    “I think there is a very strong sense of nationalism among young people, especially young educated Chinese, who are very vocal and are on social media,” said China Insider director France Pepper, a leading consultant on travel and culture in China. “It is, in some way, surprising because you think these kids are going to the university and are outward thinking, but at the same time they are thinking of China and China’s potential.”

    This fall, much of the fury that had subsided since 2010 has been scraped raw once again. And with a larger donation, more publicity surrounding the gift, and more Chinese students on American campuses than ever before, the debate regarding nationalism, philanthropy and education appears far from over.

    “It’s a very hot topic right now,” Hoogewerf said. “There has been a lot of criticism in the press of [Pan and Zhang’s] gift.”

    Hoogewerf said many critics of the SOHO China Foundation argue that the money could have been better directed at the major problems continuing to plague China’s education system.

    “I only want to tell China’s entrepreneurs: think about children in China’s West,” wrote one Weibo user. “[They] don’t have enough food and have no shoes to wear in winter. For those students who study abroad, which of their families doesn’t have connections or money?”

    Yao said that in terms of primary and secondary education, China remains much less developed than the U.S., and the existing schools that serve low-income students in China remain underfunded.

    So even if higher education itself is well supported in China, many Chinese students could “never dream” of attending domestic universities, Yao said, let alone studying abroad.

    “And in this particular moment, [Zhang and Pan] pour so much money into Harvard and other schools?”  Yao asked.

    Still, when engaged in educational philanthropy, there remain compelling reasons for Chinese donors to look abroad.

    Alice Sun, founder of a China/Hong Kong education consultancy in New Haven called Ivy Labs, said there is a sense that donations to Chinese universities — which are largely state-run — will not have the same impact that they can have at elite American schools.

    “I heard a lot about the mismanagement of money and a lot of donors will have to question, ‘If I donate to a Chinese university, will they manage it well?’” she said.

    Aobo Dong, a student at Wesleyan and the executive director of VOCAL Mentorship, a program that assists Asian students in applying to American colleges, said that the perception of rampant corruption among government officials has left Chinese donors skeptical of domestic educational causes. Echoing Sun, Dong said that donors place greater trust in more reputable private universities in America.

    But in defending the gift, Zhang, the CEO of SOHO China, avoided the touchy debate regarding the failings of the Chinese educational system. Rather, Zhang argued that her gifts to American institutions were a form of national expression. Representatives for the couple declined to comment for this article.

    “It is important for China to be integrated with the rest of the world,” Zhang wrote in a New York Times opinion column published last month. “Our aim is to enable China’s best and brightest to act as a bridge between China and other nations — an important tool for modernizing the Middle Kingdom.”

    But whether those ambitious goals will come to fruition is far from certain.

    Chnia’s Great Wall in Education

    Despite Zhang and Pan’s intent to support China’s most promising students, some critics argue that these types of scholarships are, at best, a waste of money. At worst, they say, the scholarships can inadvertently strengthen the divide between rich and poor.

    “The scholarship will only increase Chinese inequality,” Yao said. “The people who are able to study and travel to enter Harvard, they have to be previously from [a] rich family — there is no peasant family that can go.”

    Yao argued that to even consider studying abroad, Chinese students must enjoy a level of affluence. Despite the offer of generous financial aid once a student is accepted to an American university, there is little infrastructure in early education to set students on that path.

    According to Dong, these scholarships come too late in the admissions process to offset social inequality. He added that since Yale already operates under a “need blind” admissions policy, a scholarship fund may be redundant.

    Yet current Yale student Serene Li ’17 said that Chinese students at Yale are already socioeconomically diverse. Many of her fellow Chinese students are on financial aid and receive generous scholarships, she said.

    Yifu Dong ’17 said though he does not know any Chinese Yale students from very poor backgrounds, the Chinese students at Yale are not as privileged as people in China often perceive them to be.

    And while he did not provide an exact percentage, Yale Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeremiah Quinlan wrote in an email that “most” current Chinese students at Yale are on financial aid.

    “We really hope, and the donors hope, that this type of gift really raises the profile of Yale in China and encourages more talented Chinese students to apply,” Quinlan wrote in an email. “There are many Chinese students who probably look at our price tag, don’t understand how financial aid works, and decide not to apply to Yale.”

    But Dong suggested that Yale’s profile in China hardly needs raising.

    He said Chinese students who are admitted to Ivy League schools or other famous colleges are publicly revered and even “worshipped.”

    “A lot of Chinese Yalies are in the newspaper, you read about them online, read about their stories, it is like part of the culture,” he explained.

    In recent years, dozens of consulting firms have cropped up around China charging upwards of $300,000 for admissions advice and supplemental courses. One Shanghai student made headlines in 2010 when she received a book deal just one week after her acceptance to Harvard.

    So if the donation may have little impact on Yale’s attempts to recruit low-income Chinese students, and if the donation will — at most — have marginal influence on Yale’s already considerable fame abroad, critics have speculated about an alternate motive.

    The Price of Admissions

    Zhang and Pan have two sons, aged 15 and 16, who both study English and go to international schools. With Chinese students facing increasingly cutthroat competition for spots at top American universities, the timing of the SOHO China gift has not gone unnoticed.

    “Isn’t Pan just buying an entrance ticket for his son to attend an elite university abroad?” wrote one Weibo user.

    Such speculation isn’t unique to the Chinese blogosphere. Li said she initially thought the gift may have been meant to help boost the odds of admission for the couple’s children.

    And Pepper said that with a donation of this size, the couple might be seeking some “bang for their buck” — meaning favorable status with receiving universities — especially given that securing a spot at a top school is of the utmost importance for wealthy Chinese families.

    “Even though these people are the elite, they are all obsessed with Ivy League schools,” she said. “Education is the top priority of Chinese families and [they] are likely not going to give their money to a hospital in Iowa, for example.

    Even if the relationship between donor and administrator may not be as quid pro quo as some cynics have argued, a high profile gift to a prestigious university has its benefits.

    Sun said that although she believed the SOHO China gift and similar donations were “from the heart,” major gifts to universities have perks that can ultimately raise admissions chances. She said that students may be able to get exclusive access to such things as faculty clubs and time with professors, in addition to gaining opportunities such as research experience or summer programs.

    But Yale administrators denied that the donation carried unspoken expectations.

    Yale Vice President for Development Joan O’Neill said in December that the couple’s generosity stemmed from Zhang’s personal experience studying abroad. In the 1980s, she was awarded scholarships to study in England at the University of Sussex and at Cambridge University.

    “With the help of financial aid, I went from factory worker to university student, then became an entrepreneur and eventually, chief executive of my own company,” Zhang wrote in her December Times column. “That opportunity to study was the most dramatic turning point in my life.”

    Salovey similarly dismissed the accusations leveled against the couple.

    “My experience of philanthropists — from the United States and from around the world — is that they make their gifts to Yale and other institutions from their desire to do good,” he wrote in an email. “In this case, Ms. Zhang and Mr. Pan clearly want to help make possible a future in which students of limited financial means can have access to a great education.”

    Whatever the couple’s reasons for giving, donating to a university isn’t a guarantee of getting one’s child admitted. Hoogewerf said though preferential treatment for large donors may be more common at less prestigious universities, there is often greater division between the development office and the admissions office at elite schools. He recalled a case in which a wealthy Chinese family donated a large sum of money to the University of Cambridge only to have their child rejected months later.

    Giving and Receiving

    Despite domestic backlash, the flow of money from Chinese coffers to foreign institutions seems unlikely to dry up anytime soon.

    Pan and Zhang, for example, have pledged to continue providing major gifts to leading American institutions. They stated in October that they have set their sights on Duke and Stanford.

    With new money fused with new attitudes, China may be entering a golden age of charitable giving — exemplified by the SOHO China donation, the similar donation by Zhang Lei in 2010, and most recently, a $350 million gift to Harvard from a Hong Kong foundation this September.

    “There are a lot of relatively young entrepreneurs who are fortunate enough to create spectacularly successful businesses in China,” said Yale School of Management professor Stephen Roach, a senior fellow at Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and the former chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia. “Younger wealth tends to have a different approach towards philanthropy and giving back to society.”

    Pepper agreed, saying that though large-scale donations to institutions have been a very American and European concept, these charitable principles are now starting to become ingrained in Chinese society.

    And in light of the growth of Chinese philanthropy, the pomp and circumstance surrounding Yale’s acceptance of the gift takes on a new significance.

    If Chinese donors present a major source of new income for Yale and other American universities, Yale’s gesture may have been meant to entice more donors.

    “If [Yale] is not trying to tap into sources of wealth internationally, they are making a mistake,”  said Richard Hesel, a principal at Art and Science Group LLC, a firm that advises colleges and nonprofits.

    He added that Yale’s decision to “flatter donors in a public way” might be intended to offer prospective benefactors the promise of affiliation with a prestigious university.

    Yale, for its part, acknowledges the potential benefits of courting foreign money, and has seen recent success in doing so.

    “Yale has made a commitment to engaging donors around the globe for many years,” O’Neill, the Vice President of Development, wrote in an email.  “A number of significant gifts from non-U.S. donors in the past year, while not at the magnitude of Harvard’s $350 million gift, are testament to the growing success of those efforts.”

    Though China currently ranks eighth globally as a source of foreign donation to US universities, CEO Zhang Xin argued these attitudes are changing in a big way — for Yale, for Harvard, and for the world.

    “I believe that the year 2014 is a turning point in Chinese philanthropy,” she wrote in her NYT opinion column. “This tradition is finally getting the impetus it needs to flourish.”

    As Chinese philanthropy looks west, American institutions will look east ready to receive. Those in China may not be so enthusiastic to see money flowing out their country, even as it remains plagued with problems.

    But for Chinese donors, even when seven-figure philanthropic gestures and glitzy ceremonies provoke harsh domestic criticism, charity abroad may be worth the price.

  2. Why Are We Here?

    Leave a Comment

    My mom didn’t want me to go to Yale. We only fought about it a couple times, sure, but in early April of my senior year, she wore her disapproval like a sunburn. Angry and stinging and warm. I’d sneak a glance in her direction on the drive to school every morning. Her mouth was a hard, straight line. She pursed her lips. She didn’t want me to go Yale because, in her day, she’d taken the party bus from Smith College to New Haven a few times. At mixers, she sipped punch and warded off lecherous nerds.

    She also didn’t want me to go to Yale because my father’s coworker — a real snobby misogynist — was a proud Yale alumnus. I stammered and blushed too much, she thought; I wasn’t put-together or driven or hungry for success.

    But I needed to prove something to someone, and so I kept telling her: Mom, it’s the best liberal arts school in the world. I just want to sit at a seminar table with the smartest young minds and a brilliant professor. I just want to learn.

    Since then, I’ve wanted to ask my past self — what the fuck does that mean? The best liberal arts school in the world? Why are you parotting those stupid propaganda pamphlets? (I’ve even wanted to ask — why are you going to college at all, Jane?)

    Because my past self is stuck in 2012, fighting with my mom and trying on prom dresses, I looked elsewhere for answers. It appeared that I wasn’t the only one. In 2012, Nathan Harden wrote the controversial book “Sex and God at Yale,” in which he lamented Yale’s failure to instill a moral code in its students. In 2013, high school senior Suzy Lee Weiss wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed titled “To (All) the Colleges that Rejected Me,” lambasting the universities that turned down her application. And in July 2014, William Deresiewicz came out with the inflammatory New Republic article “Don’t Send your Kid to the Ivy League.” Professors and students and parents have responded in droves, of course.

    As International Affairs Lecturer Charles Hill says, “Editors and publishers love it. To them, Yale is like catnip.”

    While cats don’t ever become catnip-resistant — science! — I will say that Yale students stop noticing the headline “Yale.” In other words, I’m not writing a sensationalist critique of the University.

    What follows instead is a long, winding response to the question — what kind of education does an elite liberal arts school like Yale offer? And why do we want it?


    At first, I did the “research paper thing” and read a few articles about Old Yale. Written in 1701, the Yale Charter describes the University (then known as the Collegiate School) as an institution “wherein Youth may be instructed in the Arts & Sciences who through the blessing of Almighty God may be fitted for Publick employment both in Church & Civil State.”

    Yale was originally a religious institution, turning the sons of the Connecticut elite into morally upstanding ministers. In the early 18th century, the faculty was academically inflexible: To them, a Yale education was a classical education and only a classical education. All students read Greek, Latin and Hebrew. Yale President Ezra Stiles eventually dialed down the requirements, and in 1790, he named Hebrew an optional area of study. In 1926, for the first time in Yale’s history, students could opt out of the daily compulsory chapel.

    Then I read a few articles about New Yale. Over 300 years later, the current Yale admissions website praises our liberal arts education as one “through which students think and learn across disciplines, literally [sic] liberating or freeing the mind to its fullest potential.”

    This is a pretty standard definition. The verbs “to think” and “to learn” both appear, as well as a neat little superlative and noun pairing: fullest potential. I like the word potential because it implies a great, dark well of talent hidden deep inside me. I’d love to reach my fullest potential.

    Students themselves offer similar interpretations, but ones tempered by irony or self-effacement. They skirt the issue as they might a riddle or a trick question. “I think a liberal arts education is about becoming a full person,” Eli Westerman ’18 says. “It’s about excellence in mind, soul and body.” And then he laughs, a little unsure, shifting in his chair.

    “It’s an education where you have access to ideas from as many spheres as possible,” Liz Jones ’15 says a few days later. And then she gives me a quizzical look, and glances down at her knees.

    “I think it teaches you how to think in a different way,” Francesco Bertolini ’18 says. Then he concedes that “Fractal Geometry” hasn’t yet taught him that different way.

    For authors and social critics like Deresiewicz (“Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life”) and Harden, this bashful hesitation suggests that the Ivy League is doing something wrong. Students are confused because they’re not receiving a true-blue liberal arts Education. To these cultural critics, the students’ confusion betrays an uptick in preprofessionalism and a decline in personal development.

    In his New Republic article, Deresiewicz calls Yale students — to whom he taught English for 10 years — “great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.” He pushes against the notion that top-tier universities “teach their students how to think.” In other words, Yale students can’t define a liberal arts education because they’re not getting one.

    Harden takes a similar stance. To him, the University fails to deliver an effective, intellectually stimulating education, since “there is no commitment to intellectual diversity whatsoever.”

    Both Deresiewicz and Harden maintained that the Ivy League lacks a diversity of background and ideology. Since this diversity is the linchpin of a liberal arts education, Yale can only offer a one-sided, partial schooling.

    “How are students supposed to learn to critically examine their beliefs and viewpoints if they spend four years in an ideological echo chamber?” Harden asks.

    Jones, however, takes issue with these sweeping generalizations, particularly Deresiewicz’s praise of state schools. While he claims that they offer more diversity, many of her friends at Ohio State shut themselves off from all novelty. “With so many people, it’s so much easier to segregate yourself. If you don’t have a dean who knows your name, it’s so easy to say ‘I just want to study this’ and never have anyone challenge your ideas.”

    If homogeneity in the Ivy League is the issue, perhaps the solution begins in the admissions office, which faces the yearly task of selecting around 2,000 admits from an applicant pool of over 30,000. With so many hopefuls, why would Yale have any trouble constructing a diverse class?

    The University itself divulges precious little information about its admissions process.

    “Yale is looking to create a class of the best students from around the world with a variety of backgrounds and experiences,” Yale Dean of Admissions Jeremiah Quinlan says. “We’re looking for students who are most suited and ready for making the most of Yale’s cutting-edge resources and faculty.”

    The wishes and thoughts expressed on College Confidential, “the world’s largest college forum,” are equally vague.

    Scrolling through the “Yale Class of 2018 RD Discussion Thread,” I get that horrible, gnawing high-school-senior feeling again. That we’re caught in a crowd, trampling friends underfoot. That we’re reduced to “stats,” each fraction of 2400 no different from the next.

    The thread is 60 pages. 888 replies. Of the 15 comments on page 55 (all from March 27, 2014) nine are variations on an original theme:

    “rejected!! woo!”

    “Rejected … As expected”

    “Rejected! My dream school! May my life be f____ed.”

    Most of the users (and their siblings and parents, who also participate in the online discussions on behalf of their DDs and DSs — Dear Daughters and Dear Sons) seem to value the Ivies for nebulous reasons. Yale is everyone’s “dream school” or “reach school,” but not much more.

    And yet, Yale philosophy professor Shelly Kagan and English professor David Bromwich don’t teach drones. Neither agrees with Deresiewicz’s claim; both are impressed by their students’ creativity and curiosity. According to Kagan, “If Deresiewicz didn’t find his students here intellectually curious and alive, caring about ideas, then I can only report that he didn’t have my students.”

    Many undergraduates notice similar levels of commitment in their peers. Freshmen as well as seniors marvel at the student body’s passion and curiosity. In a survey sent to a random sample of undergraduate students by the News, only 18 percent of the 117 respondents agreed with the statement that “Yale students don’t have enough intellectual curiosity.”

    “You label someone as something, and then you discover they’re a philosophy major and also pre-med. It’s amazing,” Antonia Campbell ’18 says.

    Zana Davey ’15 has been impressed by her friends’ senior theses, all of which reveal “academic niches” and a real intellectual investment.

    While no one denies that Yale kids are passionate, some hesitate to call those passions academic commitment. Kate Miller ’16, for one, thinks that the University doesn’t always encourage intellectual activity at a high level. She finds that students can complete their coursework without immersing themselves in their studies.

    “Deep academic engagement usually requires a kind of vulnerability, and a Yale education doesn’t necessarily ask that of us.” she says.


    I don’t disagree.

    For a while in high school, I wanted to study astrophysics. (Back then, the universe seemed like an amazing thing.) The summer after my junior year, I went to a fancy science camp outside Santa Barbara where I learned to code and use a telescope and predict the motion of an asteroid. Once I got to Yale, of course, everything changed. I forgot about astrophysics, read Aeschylus, then Cervantes, and, somehow, in the spring of my sophomore year, wound up in ASTR 135: “Archeoastronomy.”

    Turns out, the professor had also taught at my science camp. When I was seventeen, I heard him explain orbital eccentricity to a handful of teenagers. At twenty, I heard him define the scientific method to a hundred impassive college kids. Each time I entered the lecture hall, I felt a rush of shame.

    “A lot of things could be changed about the distributional requirements,” Jones says. She’s sympathetic to students who are interested in quantitative skills but not pursuing a science degree. Jones adds, shaking her head, that “The only science that’s available to them are these guts.”

    Miller agrees—to her, the sacrifice of depth for breadth is often deleterious to Yale students. A broad education can be a scattered education. “That’s a paradox,” she says. “You’re supposed to take a wide range of classes according to the standards of the discipline, and that’s virtually impossible.”

    In fact, she goes on to offer an alternate definition of the liberal arts. She pauses, collects her thoughts, takes a breath and says: “a liberal arts education is just the performance of a liberal arts education.”

    Imagine this: the year is 2020 and you’re at a cocktail party downtown. The girl with pink hair and a nice hovercraft comments on President Hillary Clinton’s recent speech. In response, you say something clever about power and oppression, alluding to Machiavelli’s Prince. Then the cyborg nearby comments on the Medicis, and banking in Renaissance Europe. And the cyborg’s wife brings up the chemical properties of poison that killed Catherine de Medici. Everyone laughs appreciately. Their spacesuits crinkle like bags of chips.

    These (past, present and future) cocktail parties can be a sort of culmination, the endpoint of all-nighters and crying fits and color-coded notes. After all, here you are among other young professionals, chatting idly about art and history and current events. You got educated to act educated.

    Of all the critiques leveled at the Ivy League, this one seems to ring the truest. 71% surveyed agreed that Yale students are excessively concerned about their image and/or career.

    But a wide, shallow pool of knowledge offers certain comforts — especially in an era of economic uncertainty, when making a choice feels like slamming a door.

    In his 22 years at Yale, Hill has certainly noticed a rise in such academic caution, which sometimes reveals itself in preprofessionalism. (By definition, a liberal arts education is intended to provide general knowledge rather than professional or technical skills.)  “What has happened in our society has been a smothering effect,” he says. More and more, undergraduates endure social and familial pressures to enter and conquer the job market as quickly as possible. They have received excessive guidance, which creates “a sense of uniformity from which students cannot escape.”

    Bromwich and Kagan have also noticed this change — Bromwich describes it as a constellation of tendencies: “to be highly organized, to keep a careful count of one’s skills, attainments, and extracurricular assets, to prize ‘results’ over adventure.” According to the professors, these habits betray a growing anxiety about future prospects and life after graduation.

    In describing her last year at Yale so far, Davey draws a comparison. She’s been thinking about the difference between high school and college, she says.

    “Senior year of high school, you probably know you’re going to college. But now, graduating from college, everyone is on a different timeline.”

    In other words, undergraduates in a single age cohort begin to move at different rates: this discrepancy leads to insecurity. Students who haven’t found jobs encounter students who have signed on with corporate firms, and they suddenly feel that they’re out of the loop.

    As Andrew Giambrone ’14 puts it, senior year is “a sort of mad dash to have figured out as soon as possible what you’re doing after graduation.”

    And yet, while both Deresiewicz and Harden attack this anxiety, they don’t acknowledge that this problem extends beyond Ivy League gates. Yale students feel social and familial pressures just as students do in state schools and catholic schools, institutions which Deresiewicz considers superior to elite universities.

    Hill says, “These are national matters.”

    In his New Yorker essay “What College Can’t Do,” Joshua Rothman reaches a similar conclusion. He parses Deresiewicz’s claims with intellectual generosity and critical remove, and still asserts that the Ivy League is not the culprit. Modernity is the culprit. “The fact that you can feel soulless in such an intellectual paradise suggests that the problem is bigger than college,” he writes.

    All the professors I consulted agree: this preprofessionalism, this busyness, this fear, is simply a cultural phenomenon, rather than a malicious attempt on the University’s part to crush our souls. It’s economic anxiety in an economically shaky time. Pure and simple.

    In general, really, Yale students and professors pull apart Deresiewicz’s argument without breaking a sweat. Kagan is candid — “Had he submitted the essay to me for a class, I would have failed it.”


    “It was my first week at work,” Giambrone recalls reading the article in late July. “I remember being kind of incensed by it: it didn’t resonate with my experience as a Yale student at all.”

    He felt compelled to respond — on July 28, the New Republic published Giambrone’s own essay, “I’m a Laborer’s Son. I Went to Yale. I Am Not ‘Trapped in a Bubble of Privilege.’” The piece touches upon Giambrone’s socioeconomic background, as well as Yale’s generous financial aid policy. Now an editorial fellow at The Atlantic, the recent graduate writes that Deresiewicz’s “argument effaces important economic, social, and personal differences among students, conveniently neglecting the fact that elite colleges allow athletes and engineers to sit around the same seminar tables as sons of farmers and daughters of CEOs.”

    Jones, who is also from a lower-income family, found glaring problems in Deresiewicz’s conclusion, in which he implores students to attend second-tier liberal arts colleges, places like Reed.

    In her experience, Yale offers better financial aid than most of these other schools.

    “The smaller liberal arts colleges that he mentions are the places I would never in a million years be able to go,” Jones says.

    After all, the critics of the Ivy League don’t really acknowledge the privilege implicit in their own arguments: For the most part, they do not take financial aid into consideration. They assume that all prospective college students have the luxury to reject elite universities. Many people do not.

    “In terms of socioeconomic stratification, the Ivies are still among the worst,” Deresiewicz says. Fifty-three percent of respondents to the News survey respondents agreed: Yale students are not exposed to enough diversity of socioeconomic backgrounds.

    But even Deresiewicz concedes that Yale may indeed have a better financial aid policy than other schools. The University offers scholarships to over half of its student body, operating on a need-blind admissions policy.

    Jenny Nguyen ’16 cites organizations like QuestBridge, a nonprofit program that connects low-income students to scholarship opportunities, when discussing Yale’s financial aid policy. “It’s very important to be able to ameliorate your situation,” she says. “Yale opened a lot of doors for me.”


    On Sept. 24, Deresiewicz sits down to a room full of Yale kids and explains why the school is killing their souls. The spacious living room in Morse College can barely accommodate all the visitors, so some students sit on the floor. Others stand in the back. Eventually, the college master Amy Hungerford opens her french windows, and latecomers stand in the courtyard. I cannot tell if we showed up for personal edification or enlightenment or perverse pleasure. I listen to Deresiewicz as best I can, noting the jokes he lands, the calculated colloquialisms, the drastic shifts in tone.

    Deresiewicz seems to establish a critical vocabulary — he doesn’t like the word “passion,” but prefers to say “purpose.” He doesn’t like the expression “find yourself,” but prefers to say “build yourself.” With these rational feints, he gives the impression he has a careful, coherent thesis in mind.

    But he does not.

    Instead, during his talk, he offers students an incomprehensible parable, paternalistic advice, and a set of terms he never defines. I want to be sympathetic, I do — his is a herculean task. He wants to take stock of an entire country’s educational system, one that’s been shifting and growing for hundreds of years. But the scope is too wide: Deresiewicz crams economic worries and moral imperatives and analytical skills into the blender and hopes for an argument. The result is mush.

    Towards the end of the talk, he cites the New York Times article “Becoming a Real Person,” in which Jackson Institute Senior Fellow David Brooks divides a university’s goals into three categories: professional training, critical thinking and character development. With this final objective, Deresiewicz’s aim comes into focus. He thinks that Yale hasn’t been developing our characters. We need a “moral education.”

    When I hear this, I feel like some dumb, proverbial weight has been lifted from my shoulders. I understand the problem.

    The question was: what kind of education does an elite liberal arts school like Yale offer?

    My answer is: I don’t know, but I do know this — I’m not looking for a moral education. I don’t want to consider my “purpose” or “build myself.” I am all in favor of self-knowledge and reflexivity, sure, but I didn’t come to Yale to learn how to live.

    Sometimes, I’m happy enough just to think. I’m happy enough to listen in lecture and write all my papers. I don’t want to graduate with a freaky, mystical sense of “purpose.”

    And so I called my mom on Tuesday and asked if I could make her a framing device in this article. She was hesitant at first, but then I said, “Mom, it’s true. You didn’t want me to go to Yale.”

    “I didn’t want you to go to Yale because Yale is full of assholes,” she said. “But I am happy that you’re getting so much out of college. You seem to really love the things you do and I am happy to be wrong.”

    Correction: Sept. 29

    A previous version of this article stated that Jenny Nguyen ’16 benefited from QuestBridge. While she is a QuestBridge scholar, she has not financially benefited from the program. 

  3. Boola Boola?

    Leave a Comment

    The “Yale College Class of 2018” Facebook page launched on Dec. 16, 2013, the same day that admissions decisions were delivered to the University’s early action applicants. Within minutes, the site’s membership swelled with excited prefrosh, who peppered the “timeline” with exclamation marks, congratulations, caps-locked comments and other expressions of sheer elation.

    Just a few years ago, I stood in their shoes. I posted overeager comments and questions in the group, made new Facebook friends and planned out the next four years in my head, considering all the interesting people I was sure to meet and the enlightening courses that I would take.

    “So excited to bond with you guys over Taylor Swift’s new album!”

    “Any other people here who are interested in both pre-med and the humanities?”

    “What is everyone’s favorite movie?

    But this winter break, I was the one congratulating students and offering some answers. As an undergraduate recruitment coordinator for the Office of Undergraduate Admissions, I engaged with admitted high school students whose attitudes ranged from relieved to overwhelmed, extroverted to insecure.

    One sentiment, however, was common among the new admits: They were all happy with their acceptance. They all appeared to be unmistakably in love with the University.

    When I arrived outside of Lanman-Wright Hall in 2012, suitcases in tow, I shared in this idealism. It took just a few weeks for me to realize that Yale was not the fairytale fortress that I had envisioned. There were people I didn’t like, classes that were at once boring and incredibly stressful, and a social culture that I wasn’t used to.

    But I was still happy — and am still happy — with my time here at Yale. For a while, I assumed that we all were. Even if I can never seem to muster the level of school spirit that pervades Harvard-Yale Games, or if I sometimes wonder whether I would have been “a better fit” at Harvard or Princeton, I am content with where I am.

    Recently, however, I have been getting a far different impression. If my Twitter feed and the string of national headlines are any indication, Yale has been faltering under the limelight.

    In a Jan. 21 New York Times piece, the University was described as having “gotten a schooling” from the founders of Yale Bluebook Plus, an online course catalog that was conspicuously shut down by the administration on the first day of the semester’s shopping period. Students and onlookers alike denounced Yale for practicing censorship, and for its opaque handling of the situation.

    This incident, along with a slew of others including negative reactions to Title IX reports and criticism of the search for the new Yale College Dean, pointed to a striking dissonance between our professed pride for our school and our willingness to condemn it.

    When I revisited the Class of 2018 Facebook group in early January, I saw that the Times story had been posted by an admitted student. The bad news had reached the incoming class — a group of students just recently inundated with reasons for why Yale was the ideal place to spend the next four years — and I wondered what I would have thought if the controversy had surfaced two years ago. I wondered if I would still have chosen to be a bulldog.

    * * *

    Suzanne Ingram ’86 gets the Yale Daily News delivered to her door each morning in Wilton, Conn. At the end of the week, after she’s done with the papers, she walks over to the house of her neighbor, Adrian Offinger ’42. They look at the papers again together, and oftentimes, they talk about some of the pieces for a few minutes.

    Lately, Offinger has been dismayed by the paper’s opinion section. Every piece seems to argue against something or advocate for some sort of change, he told Ingram.

    If everyone wants to change the University so badly, why do they even choose to attend Yale? he asked her one day.

    Offinger attended Yale during a completely different era — a time in which, for instance, there were still no female students on campus. But his concerns about criticism of the University are shared by some students today.

    “There are a lot of things that we can’t understand because we’re not on the administration side,” Hannah Gonzales ’16 said, adding that she often wonders if students are too forceful in their demands for change.

    While she generally supports student initiatives, she said she sometimes feels out of place for not agreeing wholeheartedly with some of the arguments made against the University. As a prestigious brand, Yale has to protect itself, she said, which may mean restricting student voices —  the University’s power to do so is one Gonzales does not always support, but ultimately accepts.

    It’s possible that this more sympathetic view toward administrative control is something that comes with age. All three Freshman Counselors interviewed acknowledged that there exists, to some extent, a “culture of controversy” — or more crassly, complaining — within the student body.

    Yale students enjoy the attention that accompanies having their opinion heard, Gonzales observed.

    This social impulse is rooted in psychology. According to Professor John Bargh, people generally pay more attention to negative events because they challenge our survival and are unusual occurrences in our otherwise consistent lives. When compounded with the human instinct to focus on the local, this negativity bias causes students to focus their attention on even minor incidents.

    * * *

    Prospective students don’t appear to be fazed by this year’s controversies. This winter, Yale College received more applications for admission than ever before in its history.

    Stephen Hall ’14, a Jonathan Edwards College freshman counselor, isn’t surprised by this development. To him, the national headlines don’t signify scandal. Rather, they are manifestations of the student body’s culture of activism and innovation — traits for which Yale recruits.

    Moreover, Hall said the current student body forgets that these controversies are often preceded by prior instances of cooperation between students and the administration. He recalled entering an app competition in which Yale Bluebook was a contender. Although Yale Bluebook was not selected as the contest winner, the then-newly designed website was eventually acquired by the University.

    “It’s not like they’re quelling all the innovation,” Hall said, adding that the University’s move to buy a student-developed application was “just as revolutionary” as its recent blocking of Yale Bluebook Plus.

    If we really looked, Hall said, we would be able to find examples of the University paying attention to student voices everywhere. Newer developments include the implementation of fall break and the extension of dining hall hours after Commons was closed for dinner in 2011. Hall said even his job as FroCo could be viewed as teamwork between the administration and students. Few other universities have such a position that juggles being an employee of the residential college administration with being a student and representing that voice.

    Michael Protacio ’14 added that he believes we pay insufficient attention to the positive happenings around us. Even the claim that there are no positive voices in campus publications, he said, is ignoring writing venues such as Vita Bella, the student magazine celebrating all forms of beauty in life. Still, he conceded that Vita’s small campus presence is perhaps another indication of our fixation on the negative.

    “This is an environment where everyone has been successful by meticulous self-improvement,” he observed. “It’s logical when you see something that you think could be improved to take action.”

    All students interviewed came to a similar conclusion — that the criticisms against Yale only persist because the students behind them love the institution and are driven to improve it.

    For activists such as Sophie Nethercut ’14, a former member of Students Unite Now, vocalizations of student opinion are the only way to propel the University’s progress. She noted that many of the University’s most triumphant policy changes have come about as a result of persistent activism, citing principally the movement to bring coeducation to campus decades ago.

    “Without student voices, you fall behind the times,” Nethercut said. “I think some people are afraid to speak up because they are so thankful to be here, but you can still voice your demands in a way that is respectful.”

    Hall viewed the desire to take action as generally positive. Students may be perceived to be complaining, but they’re largely making things better, he said.

    And it’s this process and act of fighting for change, Hall said, that might actually make Yalies happy — not just the ultimate change itself.

    “If they’re seeing themselves as making a difference and growing here,” Hall noted, “then in some sense they’re achieving their goals and being happy.”

    * * *

    Dec. 15, 2011

    It was 5:09 p.m. when I received my decision. In my excitement, I had clicked past the singing bulldog — my sound was off — and arrived immediately at the welcome letter, so it took me a while to realize what the verdict was.

    No one else was home except for my Bichon puppy Lily, who wagged her tail and shared in my happiness.

    My parents had already each called me twice in the nine minutes between the expected decision time and when the news arrived. My mother later confessed to me that she had gone to church every day that week and kept a Bible in her purse, praying for good news. My father, ever the solemn and quiet type, did nothing of the sort. Instead, he offered words of support over the phone.

    I called my mother first. She cried and yelled the announcement to her colleagues in the bank where she works. I called my father, who said, “Good job, son.” I understood then that this was his way of freaking out.

    My mother and I went out for sushi. I had been too nervous to eat during the day, but even at dinner, I could only bring myself to pick at a few pieces. I was still in disbelief.

    Later that night, my father arrived home and we replayed the opening greeting a few times, to make sure it wasn’t all a mistake. We would do so every day for the next week, just in case.

    I like this story because it reminds me of the good that Yale tries to do. The University’s decision to grant me admission, as unlikely a candidate as I saw myself to be, brought my family together for a moment that has never left me.

    I’ve had my doubts about my place inside Yale’s gothic walls. My idealistic notions have been replaced with sentiments much more muted and complex. And maybe that makes my school spirit more real than the image that first attracted me as a prospective student commenting excitedly on the Class of 2016’s Facebook group.

    I’ve realized, much like the students interviewed, that my dissatisfactions with Yale are rooted in a deep gratitude: for me, everything changed on December 15, 2011, at 5:09 p.m.