Discover more from Econ Soapbox
What should Yale do?
Possible solutions for the Town-Gown problem
My post last week about the fraught relationship between Yale University and New Haven, Connecticut resulted in more feedback than any article I have written. Several reached out to me via email, as well as the comments on the post. Most were in general agreement with my opinion that Yale is an inarguable net good for the city of New Haven, but given Yale’s stated devotion to equity and inclusion, it should do more. Several readers also asked me the natural follow-up: What more should Yale do? It’s a great question and one that needs to be considered carefully.
First and foremost, Yale is in rare air. The below suggestions do not necessarily apply to all, most, or even any other university. The combination of a $40 billion+ endowment, location in a small city with a high poverty rate, and stated commitment to diversity and inclusion results in a different set of obligations than a public or less wealthy private university would have. This might seem like a cop-out, especially given that I work for a much more modest university, but I think it’s a fair assessment. To give a sense of perspective, Yale has an endowment of over $3.5 million per student. To my knowledge, this is the highest per-student endowment of any American institution of higher education. Yale also has a very left-of-center student body and faculty that are generally on the forefront of progressive issues. So they need to behave differently from other universities for their record to meet their rhetoric. Yale is one of the best institutions for learning on planet Earth. one of the best that’s ever been. If anyone can cause a transformational change at the community level, it’s them.
Econ Soapbox is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
First, Yale should pay more taxes. It is honestly great that Yale voluntarily pays New Haven a substantial sum of money every year - around $23 million after a recent doubling. This is far more than any other university pays in tax and should be acknowledged as such. But the total still pales in comparison the the value of all Yale property. If Yale were a for-profit corporation, Mayor Justin Elicker has estimated it would pay $150 million per year. That’s a far cry from $23 million. It’s also well within the school’s means. Yale’s current operating budget is around $5.35 billion, so $150 million would represent less than 3% of its current budget.
The reasonable response, and one I agree with, would be, “Yale generates an enormous amount of good for the city of New Haven and is a non-profit, but you want it to pay property taxes as well? Why don’t you do the same for the churches and charities in town.” Yale should not be treated as a private corporation. Perhaps a compromise would be for Yale to pay 1% of its operating budget in tax each year. This would be about $53 million per year, or double their current payment. I also recognize that even $150 million per year would not solve all, or even most, of New Haven’s ills. The city already spends $600 million per year, so $53 million would be a helpful but not revolutionary addition.
Next, Yale should found an institute for post-industrial studies. Top faculty from around the world can be brought in to decide how to solve the problems that New Haven and hundreds of other cities around America are going through. What are the best ways for a city to adapt after industry has left? What are the best ways to lower crime rates? How can a city gain prosperity and share those gains equally? I do not expect any institution to single-handedly answer any of the problems, but the lack of such an institution (as far as I know) at any university is an obvious niche that Yale as well as New Haven would benefit from. Given the number of other institutes at Yale, I’m surprised there isn’t a post-industrial center and wonder why there isn’t one. Looking at the list of Yale centers and institutes, my guess is the goals of such a center are under another center’s umbrella. It should be on its own.
Third, unlock the gates and bring down the walls. Yale alumni have told me that Yale students used to be told during orientation to never “go past the Popeyes”. Basically don’t leave campus or downtown. This is nonsense. New Haven does have dangerous areas, but Yale’s reaction should not be to completely close itself off. Offer free Wi-Fi. Provide continuing education courses to local non-degree-seeking students and adults at a heavily subsidized rate instead of charging over $7,000 per class. Admit a serious number of New Haven public school graduates every year, say 50, instead of a token handful.
Finally, figure out a way to get more students involved in the local community. How many undergraduates wrote in their application essays that they started a non-profit in their hometown? How many said they want to make the world a better place? Let them start in New Haven. I know that international voluntourism is on the downturn (thankfully), but students have the opportunity to do more than spend just a few weeks helping out to pad a resume. If Yale students’ record matched the rhetoric, you would see hundreds of Yale students volunteering in schools and other civil groups every weekend. I’m sure some Yale students do this and have committed serious time and energy to making New Haven a better place. It just needs to be more common given the Yale mindset.
Is all this unfair for an institution that has done a great deal of good for its city? Perhaps. I firmly believe that Yale is the number one reason New Haven is the dynamic and diverse city it is. And the volunteer taxes they pay are truly commendable. But I also think that Yale is better positioned to revolutionize the relationship a world-class university has with its environs. That would set Yale apart from anyone else, be it Harvard or Oxford. There would be missteps and failures along the way, but success would cement Yale as the university to rebuild a successful community after decades of decline. That's a legacy worth fighting for.