The Plutocracy Comes to Campus

The Plutocracy Comes to Campus

When undergrads challenged a rich donor close to Donald Trump, his biggest defenders were their own university’s leaders.

Stephen Schwarzman (center) at a reception in Davos, 2016 (Financial Times / Flickr)

If you worked full time at raising money for a hard-pressed public school district or even a major American university, you might be thrilled at first to find a donor such as the multibillionaire global asset manager Stephen A. Schwarzman, chairman of the Blackstone private-equity group. Schwarzman has an “edifice complex”—a mania to name everything after himself—as virulent as Donald Trump’s, but since he doesn’t seem to be dictating any school’s curricular and hiring decisions, you might think that its students and faculty would be grateful.

Think again.

We now have Schwarzman College at Tsinghua University in Beijing, where Schwarzman Scholars are trained to join “the next generation of global leaders” as their patron becomes the Cecil Rhodes of Asia; the New York Public Library’s flagship beaux arts Stephen A. Schwarzman Building; and the Stephen A. Schwarzman Center, a $150-million remake of Yale University’s civic Commons. And there’s more to come.

Yet like Rodney Dangerfield, Schwarzman can’t “get no respect.” The harder he tries to turn America into the United States of Schwarzman, the less respect he’s getting, even from his intended beneficiaries. Instead of extending their trembling hands in awe and gratitude, some have been disrupting the delicate dances through which their institutional leaders and development officers have courted self-aggrandizing donors like Schwarzman.

The courtiers’ motives are understandable enough: Although a civic or liberal education needs some independence from profiteers if it’s going to prepare future citizens to “speak truth to power,” it also needs some independence from the partisan and ideological demands that often come with public funding. With even the best public funding declining these days, the race is on at every educational institution to find private donors, however crass, who won’t ask more than to name buildings after themselves.

For a long time, Schwarzman didn’t seem to ask more. He seemed content with garish self-promotions, however widely lampooned, like the $3 million sixtieth birthday party he threw for himself a decade ago in Manhattan’s hulking Seventh Regiment Armory, with a performance by Rod Stewart. As recently as last week, New York Times style writer Jacob Bernstein portrayed Schwarzman as “a 5-foot-6-inch bundle of testosterone” and “a flash point for income inequality, a man with more money than respect,” in a colorfully photographed account of the Met’s annual fashion gala—this year themed around the Schwarzman-funded exhibit “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.” Yet his continuing failure to win respect “seldom stops him from having the last laugh, or getting the multi-million-dollar tax write-off,” Bernstein noted.

Nevertheless, as I reported last year, criticism has been darkening, not only among observers of the glitterati and among investors who consider Schwarzman’s business practices nasty and destructive. It’s darkening also among students, parents, and teachers who you might not expect to bite a hand offering to feed them. They don’t like seeing beloved civic institutions (and themselves) forced to honor, in perpetuity, someone who rushed to chair President Trump’s business Strategic and Policy Forum and stayed with him even after it disbanded in a recoil at Trump’s indulgent comments on the white nationalists who led the riots in Charlottesville.

The most impressive rebuff came in April, when residents of suburban Philadelphia’s Abington public-school district rose angrily against his bid to rename its high school after himself in return for a $25 million donation, the largest ever given to an American public school. This is the high school Schwarzman graduated from in 1965, and that took $400,000 to rename its football stadium for him in 2005.

At first, the astonished school board had embraced the deal. But as word spread of Schwarzman’s ties with Trump and of the ways other megadonors are pulling strings in education—including the Koch brothers, whose donations to universities give them influence on teaching and curricula—a huge petition and tumultuous public meeting forced Abington’s school board and Schwarzman himself to drop the renaming plan and renegotiate the other terms.

That revolt made reporters at the student-run Yale Daily News wonder why their university’s governors hadn’t similarly declined Schwarzman’s offer to donate $150 million that is now transforming the Commons, a massive hall in the university’s sacred civic complex, into the Stephen A. Schwarzman Center. Schwarzman, whom Yale President Peter Salovey says is intimately involved in the redesign, once recalled taking his meals there in 1965 as a lonely freshman, the son of a dry-goods store owner struggling to cope with then heavily preppy, WASPy Yale. Turning the tables at Commons must be giving him satisfaction.

But it’s also teaching Yale about the desperate, delicate dance of donors and recipients, thanks to investigative reporting by the student-run Yale Daily News. In 2016, the YDN published a striking condemnation of Schwarzman and, a year later, a profile of Schwarzman, “Profit at Any Cost,” that recounted his meteoric rise in finance capital, his dubious business premises and practices, and his seemingly endless craving for name recognition. The article prompted Yale’s vice president for communications and its chief of staff to invite the student journalists in for what turned into three grillings, two of them in the presence of Yale President Salovey. The administrators requested that the paper apologize to Schwarzman, even though it had also published a conservative student’s column, “In Defense of Schwarzman”— for which Salovey had sent that student a letter of thanks.

Instead of bowing to the pressure, the student reporters raised the bar. On April 27 they published a 4200-word investigative story by Hailey Fuchs, “The Donor Game,” exposing Yale’s delicate dance with Schwarzman. Overseen by YDN editors Jacob Stern and Rachel Treisman, the investigation revealed that in 2008, the financier had offered $125 million to build a new Yale residential college on condition that it be named after him. Informed that no Yale college can be named for anyone living, “Schwarzman walked away from the gift.” A seven-year-long minuet of offers and counter-offers ensued until Yale agreed to re-design and re-name Commons.

The story explains that although the university has been more successful in its endowment investments than most other Ivies, its 225 development officers have more difficulty than Harvard or Stanford in raising the money to invest, because Yale’s smaller, newer business school hasn’t as many wealthy alums (Schwarzman earned his MBA from Harvard after graduating Yale in 1969), and doesn’t have as many science labs and research projects that attract large funding.

Remarkably, Fuch’s story also details the administration’s relentless pressure on the YDN after it published “Profit at any Cost.” Reporter David Yaffe-Bellany told her that it seemed like the three administrators were “running public relations interference for one of the wealthiest, most powerful men in the country.”

“We ultimately issued a few clarifications but no corrections” of the Schwarzman profile, former YDN editor David Shimer said. “But my suspicion is that this unusually tense meeting—which was clearly and unfortunately meant to intimidate us—had less to do with inadvertent factual errors, which the News is always eager to correct, than with the pressure the administration was under.'”

The pressure on university leaders is characterized well in former Harper’s editor Lewis Lapham’s classic 2001 essay on Yale, “Quarrels With Providence.” As Lapham recalled, the university’s president of the late 1970s and early ’80s, A. Bartlett Giamatti, complained that “It galled him to bend the courtier’s knee to the ruling prejudices in the money rackets,” not least because “a university president was supposed to cut a more dignified figure in the world than that of a ‘song-and-dance man, stepping brightly through the paces of the beggar’s pantomime.'”

Students who’ve exposed the dance of a money racketeer and his campus courtiers are teaching their administrators and alumni what parents in Schwarzman’s high school have taught their school board: that instead of preparing students only to “make a living” in a burning house, a real education has to rescue democracy from plutocracy. That would require running schools less like corporations and more like training grounds for what the educational philosopher Robert Maynard Hutchins called liberal education’s Great Conversation, including “the task of every generation to reassess the tradition in which it lives.” Abington School District residents and Yale Daily News writers found themselves doing that. You might think that the conservative campus “free speech” warriors at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education would congratulate them for resisting pressures to silence themselves and apologize, but we may have to wait a while for that kind of support.


Jim Sleeper is a lecturer in political science at Yale.


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