Back in college, with too much time on our hands to contemplate the wonders and annoyances of the universe (i.e., pre-Internet and social media) my roommates managed to work themselves into a lather over Yale’s placement in alphabetical listings of universities. With the exception of Yeshiva, Yale was last in every directory. So in the grand American tradition of yellow journalism, the tabloid newspaper we founded attempted to foment revolution.
The article, We’re #1 – Alphabetically, began by postulating crisis. Per an unnamed student from the Class of ’96: “The vast majority of American high school students are now choosing their college through the yellow pages” (clearly pre-Internet). “Yale cannot afford to continue losing this market.” The solution? “Many members of the Yale community have suggested a new name: ‘A Yale University’, which would allow Yale to keep its name while rendering it first alphabetically.” The Director of the Harvard News Office was asked if ‘A Yale University’ could pose any problems for Harvard. He said Harvard “could easily counter Yale’s move by renaming Harvard ‘AAA Harvard University’.” The article was written by my friend Phil Obbard, under the byline “A. Philip Obbard.”
I thought about ‘A Yale University’ when I heard Yale would be renaming Yale School of Drama after David Geffen, founder of Asylum and Geffen Records and co-founder of Dreamworks SKG. Make no mistake: colleges and universities name everything after everyone. Buildings, libraries, theaters, classrooms, professorships, benches, and even street lights sport price tags. Since our tabloid had spoofed U.S. News’ college rankings with a systematic and authoritative ranking of “Yale’s Best Bathrooms,” for years my roommates have contemplated endowing a highly ranked Yale bathroom. But until now, Yale stopped short of selling schools. Undergraduate residential colleges are not to be named after living individuals; the most recent names selected were Franklin, Pauli Murray, and Hopper. And graduate and professional schools had but one name: Yale.
No longer. David Geffen was able to slap his name on America’s top drama school for a $150M donation that eliminates tuition. That sounds important, and despite Yale School of Drama’s need-blind admissions policy, it’s all but certain that the list price of $33K has kept some number of aspiring thespians and dramaturges from a Yale education and degree. When Yale School of Music received a similar $100M gift in 2005 to become the only tuition-free program of its kind, it made a splash. After all, as the Music School dean said at the time, “these alums generally don’t go out and become captains of industry, nor do they become rock stars.”
But there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in this (tuition-free) philosophy. First, the Drama School was already providing 90% of the cost of attendance (i.e., tuition and living expenses) for students “with demonstrated high financial need.” Assuming Yale treats Geffen’s donation according to current endowment spending rules (5.25% of corpus annually), $150M adds $7.9M to the Drama School’s existing $7M financial aid budget. So Yale sold the name of one of its top schools for $7.9M per year, or to double the Drama School’s financial aid budget.
If eliminating tuition at the Drama School is an institutional priority – as it was for the Music School 16 years earlier – a university with an endowment of over $30 billion and an operating budget of $1.4 billion can probably find $7.9M somewhere. In fact, it already has it. Last year, Yale produced a $203M operating surplus.
Rather than finding this pocket change in its giant gothic couch cushions, Yale may have been hoping to make a similar splash with the Geffen donation; announcing something’s free can change consumer behavior (dramatically). Perhaps Yale wanted to (dramatically) broaden the top of the funnel in its search for future Meryl Streeps. But the David Geffen School of Drama at Yale University has made a different kind of splash.
According to the L.A. Times, “alumni and many faculty members felt blindsided.” Alumni took to social media to complain about colonization, erasure, and enshrined whiteness. A retired faculty member called it “corrosive… not least because ‘Yale’ is now an afterthought.” When asked whether the name change posed any danger to the school’s identity, the Drama School dean told the L.A. Times, “no more than an actor changing their name threatens their identity.”
If the dean didn’t intend this to be comedic, it’s tragic. Yale School of Drama students bought an education and a degree, but they also bought a brand; Yale by any other name wouldn’t smell as sweet. A school’s brand defines not only current future students, but also thousands of alumni who thought the deal with their alma mater was signed, sealed, and delivered. It was, of course, until David Geffen stepped forth with $7.9M per year. Changing a name for a good reason – like a college named for a former vice president and senator known primarily for his defense of slavery – is one thing. But changing it for a megalomaniacal donor is another thing entirely. (It should be noted that the Music School donation was made anonymously at the time. Now it’s known the donors were Stephen and Denise Adams, but the name of the school remains Yale School of Music.)
I seriously doubt Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver, Liev Schreiber, Angela Bassett, John Turturro, Paul Giamatti, Lupita Nyong’o, or Francis McDormand are excited to append the Geffen brand to their degree. Even if David Geffen is – in the words of Jackson Browne in The History of The Eagles – “a Medici, a Medici of rock ‘n roll,” and although his philanthropy has included hundreds of millions of dollars to combat AIDS plus donations to UCLA School of Medicine (now the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA) and Lincoln Center (Avery Fisher Hall is now David Geffen Hall), his most notable acts of the past 20 years may be keeping the public off his Malibu beach, playing host to Ivanka Trump and outed sexual harassers, and a pandemic posting on Instagram that he was self-isolating somewhere in the Grenadines on his $590M yacht (the sixth largest in the world) – just him and his 45-member crew.
As the retired faculty member told the L.A. Times, “nobody in the school should be encouraged to fashion his or her or their life on Geffen’s model.” While actual scandal hasn’t reached Geffenland, my wife, who enjoys nothing more than tracking which Hollywood big shots have been canceled, asked me this question: what will Yale do if Geffen gets canceled? While it’s certain Yale did ample due diligence on Mr. Geffen, for an institution like Yale, no amount of due diligence could be sufficient for – and no realistic amount of money warrants – naming a school after a living individual and linking the brand of the institution to that person, even if he’s the Second Coming (which Geffen apparently isn't). As Rosaline says in Love’s Labor’s Lost, “We can afford no more at such a price.”
How did Yale’s board make this decision? It’s hard to see how it was even a close call. One possibility is groupthink. As defined by Yale psychologist Irving Janis, groupthink is “a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohensive in-group, when the members’ striving for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.” At companies that have suffered major scandals, boards have been criticized for unquestioning conformity: Enron, Volkswagen, Olympus, Toshiba, and Theranos, where the board consisted solely of accomplished old white men who viewed founder Elizabeth Holmes as a surrogate daughter.
Homogeneous boards are more susceptible to groupthink, more loyal to the board itself than those they purport to represent. Such boards demonstrate a go-along, get-along, hobnobby culture, where pleasant (and expensive) board dinners may matter more than what’s decided at meetings. The result can be a slow drift away from mission towards bureaucratic oblivion. It may well be groupthink that has kept our most selective universities from considering innovative ways to dramatically expand enrollment in a nation gasping for more socioeconomic mobility.
The antidote to groupthink is board members with different and divergent points of view. This means diversity not only in terms of gender, race, and ethnicity – which boards like Yale now do a good job at – but also background, experience, and perhaps a mandate to represent specific constituents. While coverage of higher education’s current crisis of governance has focused on political tussles over public university boards in red states (or purple states with conservative-dominated boards), at least these trustees are clear on whose interests they’re representing. At UNC Chapel Hill, eight trustees are appointed by the system board, four by the General Assembly, and the president of the student government serves ex-officio.
Perhaps not coincidentally, at the end of May the Yale board of trustees announced that, henceforth, candidates for the board would no longer be able to qualify for the ballot via petition. The stated reason: a desire to avoid divisive candidates and elections. As a result, there’s now only one way onto the board: to be selected by the board. As terms expire, ten of Yale’s 16 trustees are directly appointed by remaining board members, while six are “elected” – one each year – from a choice of two candidates. Who selects the two candidates? The board. Such carefully curated and stage managed elections are more reminiscent of what goes on in Iran or Russia than anything in these here United States (although today’s Republican Party, where candidates seem to require being annointed by a certain former President, may come close).
This change also has alumni up in arms. One letter to the alumni magazine accuses the board of depriving “Yale graduates of the opportunity to vote in a free and open election.” Another reminds alumni that the Yale board “had not, in its wisdom, seen fit to appoint a Jewish alumnus to trusteeship until forced to do so by the election of petition candidate William Horowitz ’29 in 1965.”
Ironically, the alumni magazine also features a large advertisement for Yale’s upcoming “historic, five-year capital campaign.” As the last campaign raised $3.88 billion, this one will probably target $5 billion or more. But based on alumni reaction to these decisions, Yale may find itself coming up short. Which is why my roommates think it’s an ideal time to propose a gift for Yale’s remaining #1 school still uncontaminated by a donor’s name. We’re going to pass the hat to rename Yale Law School as the Irv Pinsky School of Law at Yale University in honor of our favorite New Haven ambulance chaser. We might even propose dramatically improving the law school’s alphabetical position by naming it after Irv’s phone number: the (203) ATTORNEY School of Law at Yale University.
Or perhaps Yale will learn something from this drama and implement a new mechanism for selecting trustees who understand that all that glisters is not gold.