A. Bartlett Giamatti, in his 1978 inaugural address as Yale’s new president, broke from the policies of his predecessors who, for decades, ensured Yale’s separation from New Haven, physically and financially. “The economic and cultural health of New Haven is intimately tied to Yale’s health,” Giamatti began, “and our future is entwined with New Haven’s…. The only attitude that will reflect reality is one of mutual regard and collaboration. The University must do all it can to assist the City in its development, and in those ways that it legitimately can, it will.”
The City of New Haven’s effort today to seek an increase in financial contribution from Yale is more historically justified than is often recognized. President Peter Salovey declined, his tone familiar to those who know Yale’s history of cultural insecurity and exploitation. “New Haven would be Bridgeport,” Yale leaders would often say, “if it wasn’t for Yale.” That narrow mentality is Yale’s central reason for being: We are, and we create, leaders. Be like we tell you to be. New Haven served frequently as its “laboratory.”
Yale, Giamatti retorted knowingly, “cannot condescend to or smugly distain whatever is not encompassed by them. Such an attitude has brought…the scorn they deserve.” Salovey —as “leader”—reflects timidity and fear Giamatti, who advocated principled, responsible citizenship, never displayed.
There was a moment of promise in Giamatti’s effort at repair and battle when, in 1980, Biagio DiLieto became mayor. DiLieto had already declared that, if “New Haven were Bridgeport, Yale would be the University of Bridgeport.” Despite the Giamatti-DiLieto Era’s constraints —especially former Yale President Kingman Brewster’s cultural obtuseness and financially inept legacy — the promise warrants revisiting.
Mayor Dick Lee (1953–1969) shared Yale’s “Bridgeport” sentiment. Yale was the singular beneficiary of urban renewal: 30,000 people, mostly immigrants and migrants, were forced from their homes, hundreds of industrial and office buildings destroyed. Yale and Lee’s imperative: expand Yale’s “campus” into the Hill, Dixwell, and Dwight neighborhoods, with damage to neighborhoods elsewhere. The “moat” the Yale/Lee mayoralty sought, disparaged by Yale students and faculty in 1960 —Giamatti’s class— yielded only the enduring need for battle and repair by neighborhoods and elected officials.
Giamatti made three historic moves. He reinstituted the Sterling scholarships that provided New Haven high school graduates the opportunity to attend Yale. Also, Giamatti established the Yale-New Haven Teacher’s Institute to provide support for public school instruction and academic counseling and thus reconnected Yale to the public schools. And Giamatti sought out DiLieto —prior to his successful campaign— for civic dialogue on means of collaboration.
DiLieto knew budgetary needs were severely strained. Lee —with federal taxpayer financing— had surrendered taxable land to Yale in such enormous quantity and value that by 1967 New Haven could not afford to meet basic municipal needs. Lee groveled before Brewster, and was ignored. Further, Yale received Connecticut taxpayer appropriations and sweetheart city deals to construct campus buildings —that Yale’s expansion was the product of alumni contributions and investments was a charade.
Meanwhile, federal and foundation money for municipal programs diminished; no reasoned budget reductions could alter the structural deficit DiLieto and his predecessor inherited. New Haven needed a new strategy. Giamatti’s commitment was, DiLieto said, “undreamed of in the past.”
Giamatti invited New Haven to celebrate its mayoral inauguration at Woolsey Hall for the first time. DiLieto’s address centered on a “Better Way” in Yale-New Haven relations. Giamatti arranged for DiLieto to address incoming students, and alumni assembled for “New Haven and Yale: On Common Ground.”
“We are mutually dependent,” DiLieto told them. “And from where I stand, I have no qualms about asking Yale for more.” Giamatti responded, “We must be sensitive to the City’s needs and neighborhoods and not our own gain alone when developing our land.” Our “purpose is mutual understanding,” and “not just between mayor and president… to build the future.”
Giamatti had DiLieto’s Development Administrator John Sawyer encourage Yale Corporation members to invest in New Haven. DiLieto sought a dedicated investment fund, acknowledged publicly as $750 million, to restore New Haven’s tax base. Giamatti encouraged Yale hospital’s aid in financing concentrated parking; partnered to transform the Winchester factory complex into the “New Haven Science Park” to “stabilize” the neighborhood; ensured the city could acquire Yale property, below market price, on Whitney and Grove Streets for taxable projects; provided loans for Taft Hotel renovation; invested in Chapel Square Mall renovation; and through Secretary John Wilkinson, supported New Haven’s economic and civil rights battle against the proposed North Haven Mall to regain regional centrality Lee and Yale had relinquished.
Giamatti, the Elm-Ivy Award recipient and region’s United Way fundraising chair, was both praised and criticized by faculty and students. He welcomed debate. He did not seek a safe haven. Despite the valuable lesson Giamatti taught, today we witness timid withdrawal behind the moat, fear cloaked in “leadership.” Mayor Justin Elicker has a principled antecedent to propose: the Giamatti-DiLieto Era of mutually constructive civic responsibility when, in a promising moment, citizenship in New Haven mattered at Yale.
Neil Thomas Proto is the author of Fearless, A. Bartlett Giamatti and the Battle for Fairness in America (SUNY Press, 2020). A lawyer who taught at Yale University and Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, he chaired two DiLieto inaugurations.