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The Emerging Urban University
At the news conference in Sterling Memorial Library introducing Richard Levin as Yale’s 22nd President, one of the first questions posed by reporters was what his first official act would be in his new job. Without hesitating, Levin responded that as soon as the conference ended, he would shake the hand of New Haven mayor John C. Daniels, who was standing in the crowd.
While many observers agreed that Levin’s answer revealed a refreshing dose of diplomatic acumen, they also wondered if that’s all it was. Did the President truly plan to reach out to New Haven, to forge a new, more cooperative relationship with the distressed city, or was he simply displaying a keen sense of public relations?
The intervening two years have provided some answers, and the consensus is that this early act of bridge-building was not just ceremonial, but substantive as well. From almost his first day in office, Levin—who has lived in New Haven for more than 20 years—has demonstrated an awareness of a fact that has long been ignored by many in the Yale community: that the University long ago lost its identity as a splendidly isolated institution in a peaceful New England community and is now located in a city beset with the widest possible range of modern urban problems.
Building on the foundations laid by his recent predecessors, the new President immediately set to work on what has come to be known as the Yale–New Haven Initiative. Among its components are a concerted effort to incorporate urban issues into the University curriculum, a program that offers $20,000 over ten years to Yale employees who buy homes in New Haven, and a cooperative venture between the New Haven Police Department and Yale’s Child Study Center to help children traumatized by crime. The success of such increased civic responsibility has drawn national media attention and even earned Yale prominent mention in a report released in January by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Entitled “The University and the Urban Challenge,” the report uses Yale as an example of how “the Federal Government and institutions of higher learning can work together to revitalize distressed communities.”
But even more important than the specific steps he has taken is the tone Levin has set for a campuswide reappraisal of Yale’s relationship with New Haven. In his inaugural address, the President made clear that there were practical concerns as well as a sense of moral duty behind his call for Yale to play a more active role in the fate of the city and its residents. “We contribute much to the cultural life of New Haven, to the health of its citizens, and to the education of its children,” he said. “But we must do more. Pragmatism alone compels this conclusion. If we are to continue to recruit students and faculty of the highest quality, New Haven must remain an attractive place in which to study, to live, and to work. But responsibility to our city transcends pragmatism. The conditions of America’s cities threaten the health of the republic. Our democracy depends upon widespread literacy, and literacy is declining. Freedom for all requires that those without privilege have both access to opportunity and the knowledge to make use of it. We must help our society become what we aspire to be inside our walls—a place where human potential can be fully realized.”
By most accounts, this directive from the University’s highest echelon is influencing the way practically all sectors of Yale now operate. The decades-old First-Year Building Project at the Architecture School is now devoted to the design and construction of houses for low-income New Haven neighborhoods (Yale Alumni Magazine, Summer 1994). The Drama School is currently developing a program to give inner-city youngsters a taste of the theater. A pilot program has been developed to give city residents preference for new jobs created by renovating Yale’s power plant, and the “Buy in New Haven” program is expected to increase by 10 percent the amount of money Yale spends on purchases from local vendors. It’s little wonder, then, that the Association of Yale Alumni has chosen the changing face of town-gown relations as the topic for its spring assembly, to be held from April 20 to 22. “Rick Levin made clear from his earliest conversations with the Presidential search committee that he saw New Haven as a major area of attention in the next decade,” says University Secretary Linda Koch Lorimer. “We’re serious about being a good neighbor and an involved partner to a degree that we haven’t been before.”
Nobody is more aware of the dramatic shift in Yale’s relationship with New Haven than Frank Logue '48, who was New Haven’s mayor from 1976 through 1979. “Things have definitely gotten much better,” says Logue. Yale students and faculty, particularly in the Medical and Law schools, have a long tradition of volunteering their time and expertise to needy city residents. It continues to this day through Dwight Hall, a clearinghouse for student community service opportunities, and such efforts as LEAP, an enrichment program that pairs college and high school students with city children for an intensive regimen of recreation and learning. But Logue says that what he’s observing today goes well beyond student involvement. “It’s an institutional commitment of an organized sort,” he says, “not just extracurricular altruism.”
Logue contrasts this with the situation when he was mayor—a time when Yale students threw snowballs at city parades and New Haven residents resented Yale for being aloof and arrogant. Logue remembers appearing before the Yale Corporation in 1976 to request that the University pay $500,000 a year for fire protection—a service the cash-strapped city had long provided at no charge. “They listened politely,” Logue recalls, “but ultimately they turned me down, saying that while it was an interesting suggestion, Yale had to do what it does best, which was to be a world-class institution of scholars.”
Logue says that relations between the city and the University were so chilly in those days that in planning his first inauguration, it never occurred to him or anyone in his administration to invite Yale’s President, Kingman Brewster. “I remember looking up, and off to one side was the solitary figure of Brewster,” Logue says. “I felt guilty that I hadn’t invited him, but things like that just weren’t done.” It is symbolic of the changed times that when John DeStefano was inaugurated last January, succeeding John Daniels, Levin was high on the list of invited dignitaries. (He was out of town, but Secretary Lorimer went in his place.)
Even Paul Bass '82, the news editor at the New Haven Advocate and a longtime critic of Yale’s policies toward the city, believes that the University’s current efforts transcend window dressing and represent a sincere commitment. “It’s not just P.R. anymore,” the normally skeptical Bass says. “They’re doing some big things, but also a lot of little things that show they’re really beginning to understand what New Haven needs.”
What particularly impresses Bass is what he sees as Yale’s new willingness to suppress whatever paternalistic impulses it may harbor and to respect the opinions of the city. He cites as an example the plans to bring a four-star hotel to downtown New Haven. Last year, Yale, New Haven, and state officials hammered out a complex funding package for the effort, but when the city got nervous about the cost, Yale backed off, even though it had enthusiastically endorsed the plan. Subsequently, differences between the city administration and the developer put the future of the project in serious doubt, but there has been no “I-told-you-so” phone call from Woodbridge Hall, and Lorimer stresses that despite the ongoing uncertainty, Yale remains committed to working with DeStefano to open a downtown hotel. “We’re prepared to say that it doesn’t always have to be done our way,” she says. “One thing we’re trying to demonstrate is that being a more involved institution doesn’t have to translate into imposing our will. We’re working in concert with business, city, and neighborhood leaders to jointly fashion the future of the city.”
Although much of the credit for the new atmosphere of cooperation goes to Levin and DeStefano—who took office at about the same time—the change in the relationship didn’t happen overnight, nor is it unique to Yale. Around the country, other urban institutions are realizing that enlightened self-interest obliges them to try to stabilize the deteriorating communities in which they are located. Trinity College in Hartford, Columbia in New York, Brown in Providence, and the University of Chicago have all taken steps to turn their neighborhoods around.
At Brown, for example, Thomas J. Anton, director of the Center for Public Policy and American Institutions, has volunteered to work with the Providence Plan, a nonprofit partnership between the university and the city to stem that city’s decline. “If Providence goes down the drain, it’s going to be more difficult for Brown to prosper,” Anton says. “We thought the time had come to try some unconventional solutions.” He adds that other urban universities across the country are receiving wake-up calls they can no longer ignore. Only last month, a gun battle between robbers and an armored-car guard erupted in Harvard Square, and MIT is now installing metal detectors at campus parties in hopes of stemming a series of stabbings and shootings.
Yale is all too familiar with the impact of such events. In February of 1991, sophomore Christian Prince was shot and killed a few blocks from the President’s house. That spring, while Yale’s reputation as a dangerous campus grew, applications dropped and the recruiting of faculty became more difficult. But while the shooting prompted a massive expansion of Yale’s campus security system, it also signalled a need to address the larger issues that contribute to such tragedies. “We can never build a wall high enough to make the campus secure if the surrounding neighborhoods are blighted and dangerous,” says Yale Corporation member David Boren '63, the former U.S. senator who is now president of the University of Oklahoma. “The only way to make Yale safe and improve its quality of life is to improve the quality of life of those in the city around us.”
Douglas Rae, a professor at the School of Management, is reluctant to put too much emphasis on the Prince murder in trying to explain the reason for Yale’s new commitment to New Haven. “There’s nothing as sharply defined as an exact turning point,” he says. “I think the shock of discovery about the depth of the city’s problems has passed, and there’s been a gradual maturation and recognition about our circumstances. We weren’t all that fast about getting there, but finally people are saying, ‘Okay, now let’s try to deal with it.’”
Rae himself is a major part of that effort. Working with the secretary’s office and Yale’s Institution for Social and Policy Studies, Rae has created a series of maps based on information about New Haven drawn from a variety of sources. The maps allow policy makers to study in detail such data as the distribution of income, birth rates, the incidence of crime, and racial concentrations. The goal is to help assess the effectiveness of programs such as community policing and neighborhood watch groups and, by gaining an accurate picture of the city down to the block level, shape programs and strategies for the future.
The challenge that Yale faces can be gauged in a number of ways. New Haven has the second-highest overall tax rate in the state and the fourth-highest residential property tax rate. The per capita income is $12,968 (roughly half what an undergraduate pays to attend Yale for one year), while the average household income is $25,811. Almost 41 percent of New Haven households are considered very low income, and 97 percent of the region’s poor minorities are concentrated in New Haven. To make matters more difficult, 40 percent of the city’s land is tax-exempt, meaning that it must rely on a payment in lieu of taxes from the state, ranging from 60 to 80 percent of the assessed value of the property.
An ongoing source of tension between tax-weary city residents and the wealthy university located in their midst is that Yale pays no taxes on most of its campus property. Estimates vary widely on how much New Haven would receive from Yale if the University’s 225 buildings and 820 acres of land were on the tax rolls. The University administration puts the figure at roughly $19 million, but city activists say it’s more in the neighborhood of $60 million. In an effort to defuse this situation, former President Benno Schmidt agreed in 1990 to pay the city more than $1.5 million annually in lieu of taxes, to add the Yale Golf Course to the tax rolls, and to pay New Haven $1.1 million to close parts of High and Wall Streets to vehicular traffic. This past year, Yale paid $4.9 million to the city in taxes on noneducational property and motor vehicles, and in fire, sewer, landfill, and other fees.
Despite these steps, however, there are still many in New Haven who believe Yale should pay taxes. Lorimer says she knows of no organized effort to lobby the state legislature to revoke Yale’s tax-exempt status, but she admits that it remains a perennial issue for the University in its relations with its host city. “What we need to do more effectively,” she says, “is to communicate the benefits we provide to the community that justify our tax exemption.”
While Yale’s financial commitment to New Haven has been substantial in recent years and has included a pledge by Schmidt to invest $50 million from its endowment, Lorimer says money is just part of the equation Yale officials are applying to improve life in New Haven. She says University officials are now taking a three-pronged approach that involves economic development, human development, and neighborhood revitalization. “Our strategy goes well beyond bricks and mortar,” Lorimer says. “We want to bolster the infra-structure as well as the prospects of the residents who live in the neighborhoods.”
As an example, the secretary describes the way in which Yale went about reclaiming a Howe Street apartment building from drug dealers and prostitutes. “We could have just bought the building, taken it off the tax rolls, and used it for overflow student housing,” she says, “but we decided it would be better all around if we could invest in the community.” The result was a limited partnership with a local entrepreneur, who then bought the building and refurbished it.
Another initiative that Yale and city officials cite as an illustration of how old problems are being tackled in new ways is the creation of two “Family Campuses” in New Haven. The idea is to have these campuses, which will make use of two abandoned schools, serve as one-stop community centers for families needing human services such as schooling for their children, prenatal care, job training, drug abuse treatment, daycare, or family counseling. Yale is helping the city apply for foundation grants to fund the program, and University personnel will help provide the services. If these two pilot projects succeed, the plan will be expanded citywide.
Noble as such enterprises may be, they inevitably raise the question of whether urban renewal should be the responsibility of an institution whose main mission is higher learning, especially at a time when tuition is rising and the cost of running a major university is burdensome even to a school with a $3.6 billion endowment. “It’s not do-goodism,” Lorimer responds. “It’s part of a plan for enriching a major component of the Yale experience. Just as we nurture our fiscal and educational endowments, it’s important for us to take care of our environmental endowment, which is New Haven.”
This philosophy is not lost on members of the Yale Corporation, who support what Levin, Lorimer, and others are trying to do. “Yale’s involvement with New Haven is not optional,” Boren says. “Both from the point of view of our humanitarian values and our own institutional self-interest, it is mandatory.” As for the city’s response to this burst of civic responsibility on the part of the University, Mayor DeStefano says he’s pleased with the relationship Yale and New Haven now enjoy. “The fact that we had a change in leadership at both places at about the same time gave us an opportunity to redefine our priorities and roles,” he says.
Yet pockets of dissatisfaction persist. One of the most outspoken critics is real estate developer Joel Schiavone '58, who is less than overwhelmed by the form Yale’s efforts have taken. “Yale is good at reacting to particular needs—the Ninth Square, Broadway, whatever,” he says, referring to two current Yale-backed neighborhood improvement projects. “But its leaders still don’t have an overall view of what the city should look like when they get done.” Schiavone argues that Yale is wasting its money trying to eradicate poverty in New Haven. Instead, he believes the University should concentrate its efforts on economic development, particularly in shoring up the neighborhoods that directly abut the campus, and attracting a more upscale citizenry. “All of their initiatives are well-meaning and get good press, but what do they really accomplish?” Schiavone asks.
Lorimer counters that Yale has paid special attention to the streets adjacent to the University, but argues that such efforts alone are insufficient. “We could have done only that, and certainly making sure that our faculty and students are safe is a priority of ours,” she says. “But we also felt we had a moral obligation to pay attention to the human dimensions of the city. After all, what is a university if not an institution that invests in human beings?”
The irony in all of this is that, while Yale is trying to help stabilize New Haven, evidence is growing that too much success—turning its host city into a homogeneous community of gentrified neighborhoods and antiseptic shopping districts in imitation of some other universities—might prove a mistake in the long term. Indeed, Yale officials contend that while the University’s setting in the heart of urban America may prove daunting to some potential applicants, it holds a growing appeal to many others. More than 80 courses are currently offered in the College on urban issues, and many have a clinical or field-work component in New Haven. Largely in response to student demand, plans are now underway to offer a team-taught course on cities. “New Haven isn’t just the site of students' education; it can be a part of it as well,” says Michael Morand ’87, a special assistant to the secretary.
Yale’s fundamental challenge, then, as it strives to give New Haven a helping hand, is to make the city as safe and hospitable as possible without losing sight of what makes it stimulating and diverse. Again, there’s that phrase: enlightened self-interest. “By providing a laboratory of experience for faculty and students,” says Boren, “Yale’s location in an urban environment with social challenges can in fact be turned into a positive factor for the University.”
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