Tag Archives: Michael Denning

Eli’s Comin’—Hide Your Heart, Girl: Why Yale is Going to Singapore

20 Jul

In Fall 1998, my penultimate semester at Yale, I TA’d for a course called “Yale and the External World.” Taught by historian Gaddis Smith, it was part of the university’s annual DeVane Lectures, in which a distinguished member of the faculty is given an opportunity to expound over the course of a semester—to students, alums, and the public—on a topic of his or her choice.

Other DeVane Lecturers have included Nancy Cott on the history of marriage, whose lectures ultimately became this excellent book, Michael Denning on democracy, and more. But in 1998, Yale was heading toward its tercentennial, and President Richard Levin wanted someone to take stock of “the evolution of the University’s place in the modern world.” Smith, with his long ties to Yale—he had been an undergrad and a grad student there—was the man for the job.

Back in the 80s and 90s, you’ll recall, there was a lot of huffing and puffing—among liberals and conservatives—about how American students were focusing too much on their identities: black students were enrolled in African American history, women in women’s studies, and so on. Yet here were 500 Yale undergraduates attending lectures on the reorganization of the provost’s office after World War I and writing term papers on topics like the history of the  swim team—I’m not shitting you—and no one on the faculty, anywhere, blinked an eye.

Due to a misprint, the course catalog titled the lectures “Yale and the Eternal World.”

It has always been thus at Yale: the university’s relationship to the external world of money and power are intimately bound up in its conception of itself as the embodiment of, if not the Deity, then at least the World Spirit. It is the place where God and Mammon freely and happily commune. As I wrote over a decade ago in a piece that has barely seen the light of day:

Despite the admission of women and a century of other social transformations, Yale in 2002 remains, in one critical respect, little different from Yale in 1902.  It is still a gentleman’s college, a learned estate where youthful minds amble among the colonnades of western civilization.  Small colleges dotted throughout the campus evoke that medieval fellowship of students and scholars forged long ago at Oxford and Cambridge, while letters of Latin and Hebrew carved into the facades of campus buildings suggest to one and all that even the gods of ancient Rome and Israel went to Yale.

Admissions brochures at Yale offer snapshots of thoughtful intimacy between students and professors, deftly portraying the university’s marriage of promised power to inherited culture.  Every June, students graduate from Yale, ready to embark on their journey to the commanding heights of the international political economy.  But before they go, they must be certified as fully trained in the liberal arts by a Yale professor.  Yale is this communion of privilege and poesy, a stately mansion where the professor stands proudly at the apex of the knowledge class, while the student stirs hopefully on the threshold of the ruling class.

Fast forward to 2012. The University is now preparing to open a campus in the repressive state of Singapore. When students enroll there next year, they’ll be entering a Yale in which they will be forbidden to engage in political protest or join  “partisan political societies.”

Well meaning voices on the right and the left are crying foul. Setting up shop in Singapore, they say, is inconsistent with the university’s values. With a very few exceptions, no one has asked the obvious question: what if it’s not?

While I was at Yale, a very smart labor leader told me something I’ve never forgotten. Everyone at Yale, he said, thinks of the place as a pyramid, with the president at the top, the provost and deans beneath him or her, and the faculty beneath them. The reality, however, is that Yale is an upside-down pyramid. The president is at the bottom (the rest of the administration and faculty don’t matter at all), and it goes up and out from there to the board of trustees (aka “The Yale Corporation“) and the rest of corporate America.

The fact that the Yale administration has consistently and roundly ignored faculty opinion on this Singapore matter should tell you something about who calls the shots—even on vital questions of the university’s academic mission—and whose values matter most.  As Charles Bailyn—future dean of the Singapore campus, member of the Yale faculty, and son of Bernard Bailyn, arguably the most influential historian of the American Revolution in the last half-century—said: “The vote won’t derail our work.”

(Something else this labor leader told me: Yale is like a great big Saint Bernard lumbering through the alpine snow. It focuses on a distant goal—endowment growth, new campus in a peninsular tyranny—never casting a sidelong glance at the passing obstacle. Or protest.)

To its denizens, the place seems like a university; to its managers, as the U. Mass. economist Rick Wolff likes to say, it’s an investment fund—19.4 billion dollars at last count—with a small educational operation on the side.

So why is Yale in Singapore? After all, there are cheaper and easier ways to make money.

For starters, there’s that investment fund.

Members of the Corporation see the Yale board in the same way most wealthy people see their board memberships: not only as a source of cultural prestige but also as an opportunity for building personal economic networks. Corporation members get to make and get to know important contacts that way; they’re also sitting on top of a huge pile of cash in the form of the endowment that, if it gets put in the right places, can open up doors to them and their own investments.

From that perspective, the Singapore adventure could be a goldmine. As Jim Sleeper has written, three current and recent members of the Yale Corporation “are now or have also been directors, advisors, and investment officers of the Singapore Investment Corporation Pte Ltd. (GIC), which is chaired by the country’s prime minister and manages at least $100 billion of assets.” Just a hop, skip, and a jump from China, the Singapore campus will give Yale’s elites an excellent perch from which they can develop the kinds of personal contacts in East Asia that will lead to more and better investment opportunities.

These guys aren’t  just looking at their own pockets; they’re also looking at Yale’s. We forget that a lot of Yale’s spectacular endowment performance over the last two decades was due to its investments in private equity. Success in that arena often depends on insider knowledge and personal contacts, the kind of tactile wisdom one gains from years of experience and immersion in a place. Especially in a place like China, which is undergoing such rapid change—particularly in its regulatory regime—these kinds of contacts and networks are essential. Again, Singapore would be a very nice perch from which to develop them.

But more important than these immediate and even long-term monies is the vital question of class reproduction, specifically, ruling class reproduction. As capitalism becomes ever more global, the institutions that produce and reproduce its ruling classes must become equally global. Not only must students at Yale feel at home in that world—but Yale must feel like a home to that world. Particularly East Asia, which houses some of the largest and fastest growing economies in the world.

In theory Yale could simply expand its campus in New Haven and admit twice as many students, many of them from places like China, Hong Kong, and Singapore. But New Haven is a minefield for development, and its Board of Aldermen—now in the hands of Yale’s unions—can prove a source of thorny opposition (a point of leverage the unions recently exercised in their contract negotiations with Yale.)

Far easier to build a campus in Singapore, where the politics are, shall we say, under control. Singapore’s also more local: it might be easier to attract students from East Asia to Yale if Yale is actually in East Asia.

Insofar as Yale’s in the business of education—and remember what Rick Wolff said—it’s in the business of producing the people who govern (not for nothing did Yale political scientist Robert Dahl title his study of politics in New Haven Who Governs?). With so much of the action in global capitalism happening in East Asia, there’s a premium on breaking into that market, on being the university that trains those new governors, not only in China but ultimately perhaps in India as well.

Yale also knows that if they don’t get there soon, Harvard or Stanford will beat them to it, if they haven’t already. (NYU already has a campus in Abu Dhabi.) That wouldn’t just hurt Yale in the international market; it would also hurt them, ultimately, in the US market.

And what of those Yale faculty, who voted in April to register their “concern” over the deal?  I suspect they’ll ultimately get into line, pack up their pickets, and go home. Don’t get me wrong: their protests are sincere, if largely ineffective. But the same humanism that drives them to protest the Singapore adventure will ultimately compel them to close up shop.  As I concluded in that piece I mentioned above:

The faculty at Yale…juggle two heartfelt commitments:  a devotion to high-minded liberal principles and an equally strong devotion to Yale.  Although they see themselves as the bearers of an exalted tradition of humane learning – which envisions in education an ameliorative path to freedom and progress – they are ineluctably pulled by a not-so-exalted tradition of elitism.  Knowledge and privilege are, for them, necessarily fused; one cannot have the one without the other.  And so, despite their best intentions, they float everyday further and further from the spirit of Socrates, Mill, and Freud.  It’s not that they don’t care about ideas.  It’s just that for them a job at Yale is an idea.

And in time, a job at Yale in Singapore will seem like an idea too.  An idea whose time has come.

Update (July 21, 8 am)

Here’s an excellent—though old—piece by Jim Manzi on Harvard as “a tax-free hedge fund.”

So if you just think about how much cash went into the shoebox and how much came out of it, a more accurate accounting for Harvard for FY 2007 would, in rough numbers, be a lot more like the following:

Receipts = $2 billion of operating revenue + $7.3 billion of investment income + $0.6 billion of gifts to the endowment = ~$10 billion.

Operating costs = ~$3 billion.

Profit = $10 billion – $3 billion = ~$7 billion.

This explains why Harvard’s net assets increased about $7 billion in 2007, from about $35 billion to about $42 billion.


A Solidarity of Strangers

8 Jun

My “Challenge to the Left” has provoked a fair amount of discussion and pushback (the latter mostly on Facebook and Twitter, as well as on email listserves, or so I’m told). Part of the problem with this discussion, to my mind, is that very few people have a real sense of what organizing entails. One of the ones who does have a sense is Jay Driskell, a talented young historian at Hood College. Jay offered some thoughts on my Facebook page, and I asked him to turn them into a blog post.  So here it is.

• • • • •

Since the defeat of Tuesday’s recall effort in Wisconsin, there has been a lot of debate over whether it was a good idea to hitch the energies of the February 2011 occupation of the State Capitol to the vehicle of electoral politics. Many have questioned the relationship between the labor movement and the Democratic Party and how that relationship—not to mention “union bosses”—tamps down worker militancy.

I’m sympathetic to that critique, but I’d like to offer another perspective.

In the weeks following the introduction of Walker’s bill stripping public workers of the right to organize, several unions affiliated with the South Central Federation of Labor voted to endorse a general strike should the state legislature pass Walker’s bill. Most folks I know in Wisconsin, however (none of them “labor bosses”), counseled against it.  Why?

Two reasons.

First, aside from a militant core of people willing to occupy the Capitol and face arrest (and those with the free time to attend seemingly endless meetings), most folks who would have had to participate in that strike were too scared of losing their jobs for something that might not have worked at all.  What the advocates of the general strike in Wisconsin were up against here were not “labor bosses” demobilizing otherwise radical workers but the same old thing that every organizer contends with: fear and hopelessness.

Overcoming that fear and hopelessness entails a good deal of organizing—that is, reaching out to strangers and artificially creating a solidarity that did not previously exist. It was the work of organizing that sustained the last fifteen months of mass mobilization. This work remains largely invisible to the armchair quarterbacks of the punditocracy. The relationships forged in the process of organizing a mass movement are easy to forget in the pain of losing a hard fought battle.

I learned this lesson as an organizer for the Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO), the union for graduate teachers and researchers at Yale University.

In 2003, we held an election supervised by the League of Women Voters, which we narrowly lost by a vote of 694 to 651. That election was my first experience of truly losing a battle that mattered to me, and it would have been easy to throw my hands up to say that it was the death knell for GESO, hole up in my ivory tower and write radical books about struggles long since over.  We had been fighting to get Yale to recognize our union since 1987: sixteen years later, we got rejected by a majority of our colleagues (including a few close friends, who later told me that they voted against the union.)

The reason I didn’t give up was because of what historian Michael Denning told us at the rally we held the morning of the election: the most radical thing a union can do is to forge solidarity among a group of folks whose companionship they didn’t choose.  By and large, we don’t choose our co-workers. They are chosen for us by the employer who hired us. We must build a community with them, whether we like them or not.

Hell, anyone can stick up for someone who thinks like themselves and looks like themselves. The real challenge is building a union or a movement alongside people who aren’t like you, who maybe make you uncomfortable and who maybe you don’t like. (And being a working-class kid who almost didn’t go to college and then wound up at Yale, there were plenty of people I didn’t like.)  At the same time, you have to ask these strangers to do something that probably scares them—and maybe they don’t like you all that much either.  Therein lies some of the most difficult—and some of the most important—work that unions do when they organize successfully.

In such a deeply divided state as Wisconsin, this forging of a solidarity among strangers ranks among the most important things unions can do. (Case in point, Wisconsin is the only state where I have been driven off the road by a pro-lifer.  My crime: a pro-woman, pro-choice bumper sticker).

I’d wager that during the recall election even getting some folks to vote for Barrett in redder parts of the state—to publicly come out against Walker—took an act of real courage.  They didn’t face guns, but they possibly faced the opposition of their fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends, coworkers and bosses.  And, since almost nobody is born with that level of courage, someone had to reach out to that voter and build a relationship of solidarity, from which that person could draw the strength necessary to be brave enough to put a Barrett sticker on their car.

Ella Baker, one of the most talented civil rights organizers of the twentieth century, once said “strong people don’t need strong leaders.”  But, as Baker understood, strong people don’t exist in a vacuum.  People are made strong by their relationships.

Having once been a Republican (I come from a long line of Reagan Democrats), my special job in GESO was to organize those graduate students who were either libertarians or conservatives or who did not seem like likely candidates for mounting the barricades. This was a group of folks who did not necessarily like me all that much at first (some still don’t) but whose support we needed to get to a majority.

Week after week, I’d knock on their door and find them after they taught, show up to their parties (I can be a real pain in the ass!) and eventually we’d talk and keep talking. If we got through enough of our ideological disagreements, what remained at the heart of their opposition to the union was a fear of retribution by their advisors (whether those advisors were radical, liberal, or conservative didn’t seem to matter all that much).  And as people wrestled with this fear, the next question they faced was whether or not joining the union, signing a public petition, or going on strike was worth all that risk.  Fear and hopelessness.

I failed a lot.  But not always.   I met with one guy—still a good friend—every week for months and months before he finally signed his union card.  After he joined, it took me another six months to get him on the organizing committee and after that, he and I walked two picket lines together.

Another guy was a leftish libertarian type. It took me weeks and weeks to get him to even come to the strike vote.  Over the course of our conversations, he would get up, storm off, yell at me, and once he even threatened to hit me.  I never got him to vote yes – he showed up, loudly voted no, but he still went on strike.  And, when he did, he wrote on the biggest picket sign he could find: I VOTED NO.  I’M STILL ON STRIKE.

That’s solidarity—and that’s what scares the bosses.  And it’s an example that what matters is not always winning the argument, but building relationships of solidarity capable of overcoming the fear and hopelessness that prevent people from taking collective action.

The challenge here is to think about how you would get that person in your workplace, the one who lives down the street, or your pro-life, gun-toting red meat Republican brother-in law—in short the least likely candidates for radical collective action—and get that person to join you.  What would you say to that person? How would you move that person? Given the enormity of what we are up against, a whole lot of that sort of work is going to have to happen—regardless of any critique of the Democratic Party or the current leadership of the labor movement.

Jay Driskell spent five years organizing for the Graduate Employees and Students Organization. He is currently assistant professor of United States history at Hood College in Frederick, Maryland. His first book, First-Class Citizens: Rights, Respectability and the Making of Modern Black Politics (currently under contract with the University of Virginia Press), traces the development of an autonomous black politics in Atlanta surrounding the fight for black public education in the early twentieth century. He lives in Silver Spring, MD.


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