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Town and Gown
Yale and New Haven
Many American colleges have tense relationships with the towns they
occupy call home. The relationship between certain schools and cities, such as Northwestern and Evanston, has been fraught for decades. Complaints from the town are usually similar: university students throw raucous parties, colleges will figuratively (or even literally) wall themselves off from the community, college officials are condescending, etc. But the biggest cause of consternation, as with so many relationships, is about money. One of the most notable, and contentious, town-gown relationships is between New Haven, Connecticut and Yale University.
Yale University is a non-profit organization. It does not have to pay taxes on any buildings that are being used for educational purposes. This isn’t unique; the vast majority of colleges in the US are non-profit. But what makes sense for a small college that caters to the local area isn’t necessarily fair for a world-beating university like Yale. Yale’s operating budget is $5.57 billion. Their endowment, the second largest in the US, is an astonishing $42.3 billion. To put that in perspective, Yale’s endowment is roughly the size of the economy of Nepal. Compared to Nepal’s 30 million people, the Yale community has about 28,000 students, faculty, and staff. Yale is a behemoth.
New Haven, on the other hand, is not a world-beating city. The Elm City certainly has its charm, and punches way above its weight culturally, but is also a city that has seen better days. In some ways, it’s a place with small city amenities and big city problems. The poverty rate is 24.6 percent, nearly a quarter of the population. Crime is high; during the summer residents play the game “gunshots or fireworks?” during weekend evenings. That said, progress has been made. Several neighborhoods are now relatively safe and downtown New Haven is filled with good restaurants and nightlife. But the city still needs work.
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The result is that you’ll generally hear two different narratives about New Haven (town) and Yale (gown). People on the “gown” side of the debate will say something like this:
Yale is the best thing that has ever happened to New Haven! This place is the cultural capital of Connecticut. All those fancy restaurants, nice hotels, and VIPs that visit every week are here only because of Yale. Locally, think of all the jobs that Yale University provides for unskilled workers. If you get a job with Yale, you never have to worry about being laid off. It’s a paycheck for life. And have you heard about the New Haven promise? Yale will pay full tuition for any public university in Connecticut for a student that completes K-12 in New Haven Public Schools. Yale also has the second-ranked university art museum, which is free, runs summer camps for New Haven kids, and provides countless other intangibles. Since Yale is a non-profit, it doesn’t pay taxes, just like every other non-profit. But it does give tens of millions in volunteer payments to the city every year, making it one of the city’s biggest taxpayers. Yale single-handily saved the city by buying up commercial properties in the 1990s and offering generous rental contracts to local business owners when the downtown was in freefall. There is no way you can possibly look at New Haven and say that it isn’t significantly better off with Yale. In fact, we know what New Haven would be without Yale. It would be Bridgeport.
Someone on the “town” side will say something like this:
It is unconscionable the way Yale treats New Haven. Here you have a university that has an endowment the size of medium size country’s entire economy not paying property taxes! Yale’s property value alone is in the billions. How can a city of only 135,000 people be expected to provide services for nearly 30,000 members of the Yale community if they don’t pay their fair share? Yale has literally tens of billions of dollars, yet The Yale Employee Union had to fight to get them to pay above minimum wage! So generous. And the school constantly preaches about inclusivity and equity but then admits silver-spoon-fed children of wealthy alumni over local kids who graduated from high schools that had metal detectors instead of equestrian teams. If they want to increase equity, maybe unlock the gates and start admitting more than a handful of token kids from local high schools each year. Also, what’s with all these Yalies traveling around the world to volunteer for orphanages for a week? How about instead of spending thousands on a plane ticket to a different continent they help out around here. That’s great that Yale voluntarily pays a pittance each year to the City of New Haven, but it would be better if they just paid the same tax that every other business has to pay. Yale is a joke.
People often argue their side so vehemently that they miss a great irony: none of the arguments presented in the two rants are mutually exclusive. Team Gown focuses exclusively on the good Yale brings and Team Town exclusively on the bad. Both sides have good points. Yale does provide an incredible set of amenities to New Haven and a host of other businesses exist because of the money the Yale community is spending. At the same time, Yale’s record does not match its rhetoric. The school has built plenty of walls, both symbolic and real, to limit interaction with the local community.
Both sides’ main points are not in conflict with one another. It’s frankly silly to argue that Yale doesn’t make New Haven a better place. Of course it does. There is some truth in comparing New Haven to Bridgeport. Both were industrial cities that fell on hard times during the second half of the 20th century. Today, Bridgeport is a shell of its former self, while New Haven was named to the New York Times' 52 Places to Go in 2023.
The hypocrisy of Yale is also obvious. Yale preaches equity and inclusion but admits children of alumni before local students. It is a bastion of wealth and privilege that exists right next to very poor neighborhoods. They don’t even provide decent Wi-Fi to someone using their facilities without a Yale.edu email. $100 million in property taxes is less than two percent of their total budget. Yale could become a model of town-gown partnership by devoting itself to the local community. Instead, members of the Yale community travel the world addressing other problems and turn a blind eye to their own backyard.
After living in New Haven for six years, my view is simple. Yale is an unarguable good for the city of New Haven. It has made the city far better than it would be otherwise. Given its stated purpose, however, it needs to do considerably more. Not only would that improve New Haven, but it would make Yale a better place as well.