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The Tragedy of the Yale Commons

How private equity baron Stephen Schwarzman has steamrolled our civic culture

Eric Piermont/AFP/Getty Images

When 18-year-old Stephen A. Schwarzman, the son of a Philadelphia dry-goods store owner, entered Yale in 1965, he took his meals, like all freshmen, in the Commons, a vast, baronial dining hall in a cluster of beaux-arts colossi that the university had constructed for its bicentennial in 1901. The Commons seemed to him like “a train station full of hundreds of people eating,” he recalls in his recently published business memoir, What It Takes. “The loneliness was crushing. Everything and everyone intimidated me.”

Now Schwarzman, the multibillionaire CEO of the Blackstone private equity group and Donald Trump confidant whose personal net worth is approximately $19 billion, is turning the tables on the Commons. In 2015, he donated $150 million to his alma mater to repurpose and rename that part of its semi-sacred civic center for himself. Since then, he’s engaged directly in the renovation of the Commons into the Stephen A. Schwarzman Center, another of the lavish bells-and-whistles amenities—a hive of junior-business start-up platforms, performance spaces, and more—that upscale American universities and private schools are scrambling to erect to lure student customers. (In 2009, the Yale Daily News uncovered Yale administration memos calling students “customers,” inspired perhaps by vice presidents of the university who’d come over from PepsiCo and General Mills.) The center is due to open next fall, and growing discontent with Schwarzman’s “philanthropy” may presage a broader reckoning with how finance capital is deranging American higher education and civil society.

Universities increasingly do understand themselves as corporations in an education industry that incentivizes students to envision themselves not as citizens of a republic but as self-marketing, indebted buyers and sellers. That sea change, symbolized by this transformation of the Commons, submerges a lot of instructive history. When Yale celebrated its bicentennial in 1901 with “a great torchlight parade of five thousand graduates and students in costumes illustrating [its] history” and opened the new cluster of buildings that includes the Commons, the school presented an honorary doctorate of laws to Theodore Roosevelt—a graduate of Harvard and champion of its football rivalry with Yale—soon after he succeeded the assassinated President William McKinley. “I have never yet worked at a task worth doing that I did not find myself working shoulder to shoulder with some son of Yale,” he told his New Haven audience. “I have never yet been in any struggle for righteousness or decency, that there were not men of Yale to aid me and give me strength and courage.”

Roosevelt’s “sons of Yale” included John Campbell Greenway, one of his fellow Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War, and would soon include Roosevelt’s friend Gifford Pinchot, a pioneer in wilderness conservation whom he named as the first chief of the United States Forest Service in 1905. Another of Roosevelt’s Yale sons was William Howard Taft, his secretary of war and successor in the White House (who would later go on to serve as the chief justice of the Supreme Court). That day in New Haven, Roosevelt and the 200-year-old college were riding a high tide of American nationalism, congratulating one another for conquering the western frontier in 1890 and the Spanish empire in 1898. Yale graduates had founded and led scores of American colleges in that century. Muscular Christian Yale football heroes, real and fictional (Dink Stover and Frank Merriwell among the latter), were winning young Americans’ hearts. Other undergraduates were powering a national crusade for “the evangelization of the world in this generation” (a slogan of the American Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions, whose archives rest, fittingly, at the Yale Divinity School). The movement’s missionaries in China also raised future sons of Yale such as Henry R. Luce, co-founder of Time magazine and herald of the “American Century,” and the writer John Hersey.*

A lot has changed, much of it for the better, since Roosevelt ended his New Haven visit with a reception in the just-opened Commons. But nothing symbolizes more clearly what’s changed for the worse than rechristening the structure for a wayward son of Yale who’s working shoulder to shoulder with Trump on tasks Roosevelt would have denounced as unworthy, unrighteous, and indecent—not to mention destructive. You needn’t endorse everything Roosevelt championed—he was often a blowhard, with a bullying streak—to see that Schwarzman and others of today’s sons of Yale, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin (and, until recently, former national security adviser John Bolton) have joined forces with Trump to enrich and defend “malefactors of great wealth,” as Roosevelt called their predecessors in 1907. Roosevelt’s broadsides against the Stephen Schwarzmans of his day came at a charged historical moment, as the American republic was lurching from Gilded Age plutocracy to Progressive administration, with nods to populism along the way.

These days, Yale is far from alone among universities in honoring drivers of economic inequality and civic decay, disdaining thousands of their past graduates’ intense and self-sacrificing (if also inevitably flawed) efforts to strengthen civil society and defend the republic. Adjacent to the Schwarzman Center is Memorial Hall, a rotunda where the names of alumni and faculty who died at war stand engraved in icy marble under apothegms such as “Courage Disdains Fame and Wins It.” No kindred spirit of self-sacrifice has been mobilized to gratify Schwarzman’s infamous edifice-complex, as insatiable as that of the founder of Trump University and Trump towers and casinos. (Schwarzman’s financial empire dwarfs Trump’s; his Blackstone employs more than 360,000 people in the firms it owns.)* He’s emblazoned his name on centers, colleges, and programs at MIT, Oxford, China’s Tsinghua University, and the New York Public Library’s flagship beaux-arts building in Manhattan. He’s made himself the Cecil Rhodes of China with the Schwarzman Scholars Program, based in Beijing.

Along the way, of course, he’s drawn some unwelcome attention. An open letter protesting the new Schwarzman Humanities Centre at Oxford University charges that its name whitewashes Blackstone’s “exploitation and disenfranchisement of vulnerable people across the world.” The consequences for America’s civic-republican colleges deserve protest, too, not least because journalists and public intellectuals have descended upon them to shift blame for our civic and political crises onto presumptively coddled students and “social justice warriors.” Most of those young campus protesters are hypersensitive barometers or canaries in the coal mine, registering tremors of our civic and political implosion that they can’t help but carry but certainly haven’t caused.

What they’re trying to send us—and what their detractors are trying to deflect—is the message that a liberal republic depends on a critical mass of its citizens to uphold certain public virtues and beliefs that sometimes put public interest ahead of their immediate self-interest. Neither the liberal state nor markets do enough to nourish or defend such virtues—the liberal state because it’s not supposed to select one version of the good life over another, and markets because they “work” by treating investors and consumers as self-interested individuals, not as citizens who can restrain self-interest enough to sustain what used to be called a commonwealth.

Yale’s Commons picked up such resonances in the century after Roosevelt’s visit. What Schwarzman recalls as “a train station” was more than an intersection; it was an institution of civil society, where civic associations, church groups, immigrant settlement houses, YMCAs, sporting leagues, and colleges stand somewhat apart from markets and states. Young Americans learn there “to convene, to set a direction at the level of broad principle, to negotiate, and ultimately to come to a result that moves everyone—imperfectly and with some noses out of joint—toward an incrementally more desirable outcome,” as the political theorist and classicist Danielle Allen puts it in “The Road From Serfdom,” in the special December edition of The Atlantic on “How to Stop a Civil War.” She laments that this “democratic work of organizing is something that many Americans are no longer capable of doing.”

Why aren’t they? In the same issue of The Atlantic, ideas editor Yoni Appelbaum fingers a host of strains on our sense of civic well-being: “The stresses of a globalizing, postindustrial economy. Growing economic inequality. The hyperbolizing force of social media. Geographic sorting. The demagogic provocations of the president himself…. [T]he biggest driver might be demographic change.” But the most likely driver of the upheavals he mentions, including the demographic, is the “globalizing, postindustrial” investment strategy whose malefactors are reducing every social, cultural endeavor to its market value. Its all-enveloping power is contorting culture-making—the slow, intergenerational nurturing of consensual understandings within which many matters can be vigorously but constructively contested—into instant “culture” marketing. The latter’s relentless attention-seeking is gutting redoubts of culture-making such as book publishing, filmmaking, news reporting, even university teaching—and it’s draining wellsprings of democratic energy and morale.

The financialization of everything by Schwarzman and other private-equity masters banks and channels what should be democratic energies to serve engines that titillate, intimidate, monitor, indebt, and dispossess Americans of their dignity and equity, private and “common.” Universities, struggling to survive with fewer civic-minded donors, are being forced to honor donors who are hollowing out the commonwealth and, with it, liberal education’s mission to induct students into its conversation across the ages about lasting challenges to politics and the human spirit.

It ought to matter to Yale that the man for whom it’s renaming the Commons invests heavily in schemes that have hoodwinked millions of hard-pressed homeowners into becoming temporary tenants in homes they once thought they owned. Schwarzman’s Blackstone and its subsidiaries swept up legions of such properties at foreclosure, thereby transferring billions of dollars of residents’ equity to Blackstone, as the journalist Aaron Glantz demonstrates with macroeconomic rigor and novelistic intimacy in Homewreckers: How a Gang of Wall Street Kingpins, Hedge Fund Magnates, Crooked Banks, and Vulture Capitalists Suckered Millions Out of Their Homes and Demolished the American Dream.

It ought to matter to Harvard, MIT, and other institutions of higher learning that they have accepted millions of dollars from the late Jeffrey Epstein, even as he systematically raped young women, with the active connivance (and at times the outright collaboration) of other powerful men. It ought to matter that Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School, Brown University, and the University of Michigan accepted millions of dollars from the late A. Alfred Taubman, a prominent New York shopping-mall developer and former principal owner of the elite Sotheby’s Auction House. Taubman was imprisoned in 2002 for running a price-fixing scheme with Sotheby’s competitor, Christie’s, that cheated buyers and sellers out of some $100 million. At least Taubman cheated people who could afford it; Schwarzman, by contrast, has profited from the dispossession of thousands of people who can’t afford to be cheated. (The same is true, it bears reminding, of Mnuchin, who also made millions as a foreclosure vulture in the wake of the 2008 mortgage meltdown.)

Schwarzman’s investments seed the social inequality, atomization, and rancor that have produced President Trump and the cohort of authoritarian demagogues who are shredding the liberal civic order across the globe. Their practice, as Theodore Roosevelt memorably characterized it, has been to “bring about as much financial stress as possible, in order to discredit the policy of the Government … so that they may enjoy unmolested the fruits of their own evil-doing. [T]hey have misled many good people into believing that there should be such reversal of policy.…”

So what, you might ask, if self-aggrandizing, self-exculpating donors get their names on university buildings but don’t meddle directly in what’s taught inside them? So what if, for example, a center for journalism at Harvard is housed in A. Alfred Taubman Hall, where I and many other journalists on fellowships have produced noble assessments of our craft, some of us even challenging premises and practices not unlike those that made Taubman rich?

Again, it ought to matter at Yale, where students and faculty argued furiously in the 2015–2016 academic year about whether to rename the university’s John C. Calhoun College in order to cease honoring that defender of slavery and white supremacy, even as they celebrated or accepted silently the renaming of the Commons for Schwarzman.

For Schwarzman, politics is just another market investment. Assessing his preferences through that prism, he hedged his bets at first in 2016 by donating to Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign. But after the primaries, as The Washington Post reported, he met with Trump, whom he’d known for years. During that period, Schwarzman’s Blackstone real estate division lent $312 million to Kushner Cos., a company owned by the family of Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, and its Brooklyn partner. And immediately after Trump’s victory in the general election, Schwarzman donated $250,000 to his inaugural committee—the first of “a surge in donations that has made him one of the biggest financial supporters of the president and the Republican National Committee,” the Post noted.

Soon he was chairing the new president’s Strategic and Policy Forum of corporate CEOs. Schwarzman notoriously stuck with Trump even after most of the forum’s members departed in recoil at the president’s racially divisive remarks about the white supremacist torchlight parade and riot in Charlottesville. On election night 2018, Schwarzman sat alongside Trump in the White House, watching returns from races in  which he’d donated $7.25 million through super PACs in a failed effort to keep the Republican grip on Congress.

Trump speaks alongside Schwarzman at a policy forum at the White House in 2017.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Schwarzman is also Trump’s most important business emissary to China, where Blackstone has done billions of dollars in business. And in October 2019, he went to Riyadh for a Saudi-sponsored “Future Investment Initiative Forum”—an event that business and political leaders had boycotted in 2018 to protest the Saudis’ murder of dissident writer and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. In 2019, though, Schwarzman, Mnuchin, and hundreds of others attended, oblivious of objections such as former World Bank senior manager Paul Cadario’s comment to The New York Times, “I’m not sure what has changed since last year when the World Bank and the world community said we are not going to be a party to corruption, harassment of dissidents and to extrajudicial killings.” Schwarzman moderated a conversation in Riyadh with Jared Kushner, who announced that “enthusiasm for [President Trump] right now at home is stronger than it’s ever been.” They might as well have been dancing on Khashoggi’s grave, not least because Trump considers the Times and the Post “enemies of the people.”

In 2017, undergraduate Yale Daily News reporters had published a series of damning exposés on Schwarzman’s portfolio and ethical profile. As I noted in Dissent, Yale administrators tried to make them apologize to Schwarzman. (They refused, and one of them is now working for The New York Times.) But there were not widespread protests against the proposed center, and one student, a fellow of the conservative William F. Buckley, Jr. Program, published a column in the Yale Daily News titled “In Defense of Schwarzman.”

Controversies about racism and sexism on campus and in high-profile national incidents understandably preoccupy college students more than do the inner workings of global financialization. But the intense moralism in those controversies, and their reverent invocations of “diversity” and “identity,” suggest a desperation to excuse or cover the soulless Mammonism that grips students seeking to carve out competitive edges in the world that Stephen Schwarzman has made. They find themselves scrambling toward a protected prosperity whose injustices and inequalities inevitably deepen sexism and racism among those who lose out. The true and urgent claims of #MeToo or Black Lives Matter can be compromised by the implausible presumption that breaking a structure’s glass ceilings necessarily reconfigures its walls and foundations. Absent that, we too often see glass-ceiling breakers such as Trump Cabinet secretaries Betsy DeVos, Ben Carson, and Elaine Chao heedlessly defile our civic birthright—alongside similar ceiling-smashing Silicon Valley malefactors such as Peter Thiel and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.

Liberal-arts colleges and their graduates might better draw inspiration from Schwarzman’s own high school in Abington, Pennsylvania. In 2018 he offered its school board $25 million to rename his old school the Abington Schwarzman High School. But so many of the school’s students and parents, together with other community members, rose to protest their institution’s renaming to honor, in perpetuity, one of Trump’s collaborators that Schwarzman had to settle for his name on a new science and technology center.

Even that compromise is a civil war’s distance from what Yale should accept, much less honor. When the university announced Schwarzman’s donation in 2015, no one foresaw Trump’s presidential candidacy, let alone his victory. And now that the reconstruction of the Commons is well underway, opponents of honoring one of Trump’s favorite sons of Yale may feel just as lonely as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Lloyd Garrison, or John Brown felt while challenging slavery in the 1840s and 1850s, when it was still securely legal—indeed, constitutional—and, in many Americans’ eyes, morally acceptable.

Ultimately, abolition of the monstrosity of abducting and enslaving millions of Africans required something beyond moderation and compromise among slavery’s opponents and “statesmanlike” defenders, such as Calhoun, and ambivalent apologists (including even Abraham Lincoln, who long prioritized saving the Union above emancipating the slaves). The only thing that may now forestall the threat of violence among the opponents and defenders of what the rampant financialization of honor, faith, and everything else is doing to America would be a similar mass awakening. We need to acknowledge that even as unmoored financing brings new brick and mortar and the apparent bloom of fresh health to some institutions, it’s robbing its putative beneficiaries of the opportunity to exercise and cultivate the dignity and freedom of full citizens.

Derivative-driven, supposedly seamless finance capital has become so destructive and immoral as to bear comparison to—though not be equated with—the vast gulag of slavery that Calhoun defended and that Lincoln temporized about until well into the Civil War. “There’s a word we can use,” Danielle Allen writes

to describe a condition when people feel helpless, whipsawed, and disconnected from the levers of personal and economic autonomy; when people feel trapped in a particular place and circumstance; when decisions about one’s life and work and mode of cultural existence seem to rest in the hands of others; when even personal property seems to be evanescent, or nonexistent, or on loan. It’s an extreme word, but let’s put it on the table. The word is serfdom.

Curiously, Allen’s Atlantic colleague Appelbaum parses the polarization over slavery in the 1850s to contend that now, as then, the United States needs a moderate, center-right party and presidency—he may have Michael Bloomberg in mind—to fend off alt-right extremists and leftists who provoke them. But has Appelbaum considered that if slavery’s defenders had reacted more moderately to abolitionist attacks, such as John Brown’s at Harper’s Ferry, not only might the Civil War have been averted, but slavery would have been continued? Does he think that Americans should have settled for that?

David W. Blight, a professor of African American Studies at Yale and the biographer of Frederick Douglass, reminds us in that same issue of The Atlantic that in 1847 Frederick Douglass announced, “I have no love for America, as such,” because “The institutions of this country do not know me, do not recognize me as a man…. I desire to see its overthrow as speedily as possible, and its Constitution shivered in a thousand fragments.” Although Douglass became hopeful after the Civil War and Emancipation that a cosmopolitan republic would absorb and uplift all of its citizens and newcomers, Blight makes clear that Douglass never believed that moderation and compromise in the 1850s could have opened that bright prospect.

Nor, I fear, can we expect now, as confidently as some of us once did not so long ago, a continued advance of the opportunities and moral equity limned in Emma Lazarus’s famous poem “The New Colossus,” which was inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty when the frontier and demand for labor were still huge. We can’t blame the country’s increasingly unnerving defaults of opportunity and common purpose on only alt-right white supremacists and Trump and his other acolytes, hoping that they and extremists on the other side will be sidelined by center-right moderates. Such reveries underestimate the growing power of crony  and finance capital—a social formation that’s no longer just a bugaboo of dogmatic Marxists. We need to think inductively, not ideologically, about the horrors unfolding before us and within us.

Admittedly, this warning is as old as the American republic: “Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey, / Where wealth accumulates, and men decay,” Oliver Goldsmith wrote in 1770. Greed antedated capitalism by millennia, and its condemnation by Old Testament prophets likewise well antedated its condemnation by Teddy Roosevelt. Whether Americans can reorganize an increasingly uncivil society now to meet the challenge of that warning is a question that not even our universities, try though they may to stand somewhat apart from markets and politics, can keep on finessing without losing their mission and their souls.

* The article has been updated to remove references to South Asian “sweatshops.” Blackstone formerly controlled Jack Wolfskin, a German outdoor brand that bought clothes at Indonesian factories. The article also misstated the co-founder of Time magazine.