In early November, the United States watched as numerous bomb threats emptied buildings at prestigious universities across the country, including Columbia University, Brown University, Cornell University, Miami University, Ohio University, and our home institution, Yale University. The threats were called in with the intent of capturing the attention of the nation and indeed, the nation watched and granted vast media coverage to elite universities threatened with harm. However, we believe that equal attention should be paid to the university parish – communities surrounding the institutions, which persistently suffer from racism, violence, poverty, and inequality.
Many universities pride themselves on funding programs that “give back to the community.” For example, since 1994, Yale has offered its employees assistance with down payments so that they may purchase homes across New Haven through the Yale Homebuyer Program. The trade-off is that one must be willing to live in marginalized communities – neighborhoods with poorly performing schools, increased gun violence, and other markers of poverty. Why? Because despite Yale’s prosperity and its programmatic efforts, the resources allocated to New Haven are abysmally insufficient to overcome the historic redlining and systemic racism harming these communities. For example, New Haven’s poverty rate is 26.5% – higher than our closest comparable city, Bridgeport with a poverty rate of 21.8%. In other words, Bridgeport fares better economically while lacking a powerhouse university such as Yale even with its community investments.
Despite the intense wealth housed in our academic institutions nationwide, one rarely sees tangible evidence of that wealth invested into the immediately surrounding neighborhoods. Crime rates are as high, poverty as rampant, schools as underfunded, housing markets as disrepaired, unemployment and underemployment as problematic, and the people as traumatized as the boroughs without this concentrated wealth. These disparities manifest and persist because universities like ours often exist in communities with a high proportion of marginalized people.
Poetically, the afternoon of November 5, we were meeting in our personal ivory towers, as a Yale-sponsored cohort, to discuss ways to uplift diverse opinions in the media. Suddenly, our phones and emails erupted in a flurry of messages from the university and the city government. The bomb threats against the university closed entire blocks of the city. Dozens of support personnel were called to assist. The system is shaken by threats against the university, yet no alarm is sounded when harm is perpetrated against the surrounding community. Rather, we lavish funding to increase campus security to ensure that those city problems won’t touch us. Where and when do universities start to right these wrongs?
Every university, and every city, is unique but one thing is constant: All have the potential to do so much good in the community. As faculty, we’d like to see our universities use the expertise and resources of the institution to work towards building model cities by actively investing in their futures. As an example, this past year Yale posted a blockbuster return on its endowment of 11.1 billion dollars. On November 17 Yale historically committed to lend financial support to its surrounding community. This is a start to repair historic wrongs, but to put it into perspective, it is 0.5% of the 11.1 billion dollars. If Yale and other universities were to tithe their excess returns and create dedicated community funds, the interest alone would be sufficient to underwrite truly effective programs. The funds could be overseen by the university endowment management group to maximize return as it does for its own endowment. Yale, like other universities, has long been criticized for not paying its fair share of taxes as a not-for-profit. The commitment made on November 17 is a down payment on this long wished-for investment from the university, but more is needed both in New Haven and in other university-adjacent cities.
Here are some ways we can think of to help families in the university parish. The trifecta of investment in employment, education, and health, including the health effects of violence, should be the cornerstone, with an eye to antiracism. The university could prioritize a living wage for its employees, and go further to support a city-wide living wage. Additionally, those with carceral histories should also become a dedicated focus of employment efforts. Alleviation of poverty is generally followed by violence reduction, which would increase the health of our communities. The university could support increased funding and investment for historically under-resourced schools that often disproportionately serve children of color. Funds could be directed, for example, towards superlative teacher pay, pipelines for local graduates to become teachers, additional behavioral supports for youth, and deepened collaborations with our universities and educators. Community health centers should be better networked and resourced, linked back to our teaching hospitals, and centered where people live. Safe neighborhoods and infrastructural improvements would additionally support health.
Most importantly, these initiatives must directly support the people of the local communities as they are, where they are. Specifically, care should be taken that people of color not be forced from their homes through property tax hikes and gentrification, should universities succeed in making their neighborhoods less marginalized. We must undo racism, not displace it.
Our universities purport to value the communities they reside in. The time has come to show that respect. It shouldn’t take a bomb threat to shake us out of our ivory towers.