Yale University has been scrambling to cut its expenditures by $350 million a year in order to deal with a 25 percent decline in the value of its endowment after the recent collapse of the financial markets: from a 2008 high of nearly $23 billion to less than $17 billion currently. Budget-cutting measures at Yale have included freezing salaries, reducing the number of students admitted to graduate programs, and changing the set-points on campus thermostats so as to reduce heating and air-conditioning costs. Now Yale proposes yet another tactic to reduce costs: Setting a $1,000 cap on the dozens of cash prizes that Yale awards each year to high-achieving students. The prizes, funded from gifts by Yale donors over the past three centuries, reward a wide range of student academic accomplishments, from top-rated performance in engineering or astronomy to writing an outstanding essay on Greek philosophy.
The proposed prize caps, announced in mid-March by Yale vice president and secretary Linda Lorimer, have generated quite a bit of opposition from students and faculty members—and for good reason. The caps amount to a subsidy by high-achieving Yale students to students of lesser achievements or perhaps no achievements at all. The idea, according to Lorimer, is that any overage above the base $1,000—and some prizes can top $10,000 thanks to returns on the investment of donors’ gifts–would go to offset the financial aid that the winning student might be collecting from Yale, and the freed-up aid would in turn fund more financial aid for Yale students in general. Since Yale long ago switched from a merit-based scholarship model to a need-based model keyed entirely to the student’s family income, the prize cap is essentially a transfer of funds specifically earmarked to reward academic merit to a program in which academic merit plays no role whatsoever.
Yale deputy provost Charles Long, in an interview with the Yale Daily News, termed the current prizes “a huge windfall”—as though the fact that the recipients of the prizes work hard to earn them were entirely irrelevant. It is true that many of the donors’ original gifts, some of which date back to the 18th century, have ballooned in size over the decades thanks to investment returns. For example, the Samuel Henry Galpin Latin Prize, now likely worth well into five figures annually (no one at Yale will say exactly how much), started out in 1901 with a $1,000 gift to Yale (about $23,000 in today’s dollars) from Galpin’s son, Samuel A. Galpin, Yale class of 1870, and the original prizewinners received only $50 (about $1,100 in today’s dollars). Yet Galpin, who was far from wealthy at the time of his death (he had studied for the ministry, but poor health led him to choose a civil-service career), specifically stated that the prize, representing the income generated by his gift, was to go to “the sophomore [at Yale] standing highest in a competitive examination in Latin.” Did Galpin really want the bulk of the income from his hard-earned donation to go instead to Yale undergraduates who might not know a single word of Latin?
In fact, Yale’s administrators are struggling with the legal issue of thwarting donors’ clearly spelled-out intentions by funneling their gifts elsewhere. They are expected to go through donors’ wills with a fine-toothed comb on a hunt for loopholes in the language. The more serious problem, though, is Yale’s unwillingness to reward excellence among its students. Why bother competing for a prize, whether it’s excelling on a Latin test, writing an outstanding essay, or studying hard to become the top chemistry major in your class, if you know that you’ll get only a pittance and that most of your prize money will be doled out among students who slept through chemistry or think that “Latin” refers to Jennifer Lopez’s Grammy awards? If you’re already receiving financial aid from Yale anyway, what will be the point of bothering to make the extra effort to be the best?
One Yale faculty member, Leslie Brisman of the Yale English Department, complained to the Yale Daily News that the $1,000 cap amounts to an “emasculation” of prize gifts. For example, the Sholom and Marcia Herson Scholarship, awarded to senior English majors who intend to pursue graduate studies, is currently worth more than $10,000 a year. “If that is reduced to $1,000, nobody can go to graduate school feeling that even a significant dent has been made in the expenses of graduate school,” Brisman said.
Yale is clearly looking around desperately for stashes of money in coffers to raid in order to balance its operating budget during hard times. Donor gifts earmarked for student prizes are one of those stashes. By deciding to channel the income from those gifts into its need-based scholarship fund, Yale plans to bypass its benefactors’ intentions where legally possible and give its students a financial disincentive to compete for prizes. Worst of all, Yale is sending the message that academic excellence doesn’t mean much in New Haven.