Republican Senator Tom Cotton normally spends his time doing things like bashing immigrants, trying to escalate tensions between the United States and China, and calling on Trump to deploy the military to use “overwhelming” force against racial justice protesters. In the last few weeks, though, he’s also found time to denounce what he sometimes calls the “Jacobin mob” toppling statues.
Last week, Cotton discovered what he clearly thinks is a glaring hypocrisy in the position of that “mob.”
Yale was named after a notorious slave trader.
If the liberal mob wants to destroy Mount Rushmore, when will they rise up to change the name of Yale?
— Tom Cotton (@TomCottonAR) July 2, 2020
It’s extremely unlikely that Yale will change its name, but the idea became a bit less unthinkable when Princeton University president Christopher Eisgruber announced that the college would remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from its School of Public and International Affairs.
Activists at Princeton had been pushing the idea for years, but the rapidly shifting political environment finally caused the administration to concede. As President Eisgruber acknowledged, Wilson segregated the civil service after it had been integrated for decades. His “racism was significant and consequential even by the standards of his own time.”
So, should Yale change its name, as Tom Cotton so helpfully suggests? And if so, what should be its new name?
The median family income of an incoming Yale student is almost $200,000 a year. Sixty-nine percent of those students hail from the wealthiest 20 percent of US society. Only 2.1 percent come from the poorest 20 percent. Lists of the university’s notable alumni include a rogues’ gallery of corporate CEOs, war criminals like Dick Cheney and the Bushes, judges who serve the interests of the 1 percent, and pro-business politicians.
The main reason that Yale won’t change its name is that the prestige associated with the moniker provides too much valuable social capital for its graduates. In other words, Yale functions to enhance the preexisting advantages of its well-off students and train the next generation of men and women who will preside over a deeply unequal society.
In a sense, it’s only appropriate that the university bears the name of a monster who profited off of a previous form of injustice. Similarly, the Wilson School at Princeton is an elite institution that saw Samuel Alito, Judith Miller, and David Petraeus pass through it doors. The school bearing the name of the president who segregated the civil service and jailed Eugene V. Debs for his opposition to World War I is just truth in advertising.
Even so, it’s a positive sign that Wilson’s name is going to be dropped. And Yale should change its name too. Specifically, it should change its name to UConn New Haven.
Why the Ivies Should be Public
While running for president, Bernie Sanders popularized the demand that tuition should be abolished at public universities. That’s a very good idea. But what about private universities like Yale and Princeton?
If tuition were scrapped at public universities but private universities were kept private, it could actually exacerbate the gap between the two tiers of American higher education. Universities that relied entirely on state funding would be less able to compete for prestigious faculty members.
Private universities would feel less pressure to give generous scholarships to poor students if those students could go elsewhere for free. And with a much larger percentage of Americans from working-class backgrounds continuing their educations past high school, merely having a college degree would offer even less value on the labor market than it does now. This would give middle-class strivers an extra incentive to send their children to more prestigious private schools.
Why do Ivy League colleges exist at all? What social function do they serve? If the answer is that they help give their graduates the aura of membership in an elite club that connects them to many of the richest and most powerful people in the country, why would a society that claims to care about equality of opportunity or justice tolerate their continued existence? On the other hand, to the extent that the Ivies provide their students with a uniquely valuable educational experience, why would we want to treat such an experience as a commodity to be sold at exorbitant prices?
Of course, if Yale became UConn New Haven and Princeton was absorbed into New Jersey’s state university system as Rutgers Princeton, and if their massive endowments were redistributed to more important social purposes, and if tuition were abolished at each, these institutions could no longer claim to offer a particularly “unique” educational experience.
Under the Sanders plan, tuition at all public universities would be paid for with a modest federal tax on Wall Street transactions. Presumably, universities with exalted histories couldn’t ask for a greater share of these funds simply because of their formerly rarefied status. State governments might choose to supplement the federal money, but it’s unlikely that any proposal to give the New Haven branch of UConn more funding than other campuses would be a political winner.
Deprived of the ability to soak the parents of wealthy students with $50,000 tuition bills, UConn New Haven wouldn’t be able to offer famous professors higher salaries than UConn Hartford or UConn Storrs. And teaching at UConn New Haven would be no more prestigious than working at the other sites. Over time, the educational experience at the various branches of the University of Connecticut would start to become more equal. And that would be progress.
We already live in a savagely unequal society. Educational institutions that perpetuate and deepen that inequality don’t need to exist.