On November 17, Yale University affirmed its unprecedented new commitment to add an additional $52 million to the City of New Haven’s budget over the next six years. This was one item in a list of new commitments to the city that the university made. This announcement comes following news that universities throughout the country are seeing record returns on their endowments in this fiscal year. Yale’s nearly quadrupled to $42.3 billion.
The community organization New Haven Rising recognized this as the victory it is: a material distribution of power to the community that props up the university. And, pretty beautifully, a proof that coalitional organizing works. Resident-driven community organizations, unions, local elected officials, and more have worked together to put pressure on Yale.
Wesleyan University is a private liberal arts university that resides in Middletown, a half hour north (and slightly east) of New Haven. While we aren’t running significant budget deficits like New Haven, Mayor Ben Florsheim earlier this year described our city budget as lacking wiggle room, and residents have been advocating for more funding for essential public services and community programs. The most recent Census Bureau data tells us that 12% of Middletown lives below the poverty line, and 38% of adults over 25 hold a bachelor’s degree or higher. While these numbers tell a “better” story than those of some other more cash-strapped municipalities in Connecticut, the idealist in me (who is quite grateful for her higher education) finds our higher education rate a bit silly, given the elite university’s presence.
Earlier in 2021, the Wesleyan Democratic Socialists published a Letter to the Editor in the Wesleyan Argus, proposing that Wesleyan establish a community fund in the fashion of Yale’s Community for New Haven Fund. The proposal calls on the university to kick off such a fund with a contribution of one tenth of one percent of its annual budget, which amounts to about $200,000, and to raise more money for local civic institutions through its vast and wealthy alumni and parent networks, like Yale’s does. Leaders in the local nonprofit sector informed us that even a $200,000 contribution would make Wesleyan one of the biggest sole funders of smaller, often grassroots nonprofit efforts in Middlesex County.
The community fund proposal received a stamp-of-endorsement-via-Facebook-share from a handful of local public officials. Other than this, however, there has been no sustained effort in Middletown to call on Wesleyan to redistribute its wealth, and no movement like New Haven Rising’s that is led by non-student, full-time Middletown residents. Wesleyan’s administrators tend to count on students leaving town after four years and leaving their (often pejoratively labeled) “activist” projects behind, so without a comparable charge coming from full-time Middletown residents, there is no pressure on them to use their money liberally beyond campus borders.
As both a full-time resident of the city of Middletown and a commuter student at Wesleyan University, I experience daily a surreal, invisible barrier-crossing between this bastion of wealth and its surrounding town. The culture within the undergraduate student body is certainly reflective of an average annual family income that nearly triples that of an average Middletown family. More nefarious, however, may be the fact that the university’s endowment recently grew to $1.67 billion, and there are no plans to share any of this wealth with the city.
Wesleyan’s President Michael Roth recently had his contract with the university extended through the summer of 2026. In the announcement email that the campus received notifying us of this, Board of Trustees chair John Frank wrote, praising Roth’s efforts to improve campus: “Those on campus know very well that the university is going through a period of physical renewal; buildings are being renovated and new spaces created that will allow for more collaborative working environments.”
There is deep irony in the fact that Roth is being praised for creating “collaborative work environments” within campus borders, when, under his tenure, a beautiful collaborative effort between Wesleyan, the City of Middletown, and Middletown’s North End Action Team was demolished for not being able to generate revenue. During closure of the Green Street Arts Center at 51 Green Street — now a city-owned building, where I work as a contractor for the Middletown Youth Service Bureau — residents of the North End watched as their art was trashed, their creative space was shuttered, and their after-school programs ceased to exist. It was a travesty for many, and because all of the former student employees of the GSAC have now graduated, the university seems to count on the fact that people will forget. Why a partnership between two nonprofits and the city was ever expected or wanted to generate revenue in the most economically disenfranchised neighborhood in town is beyond me.
President Michael Roth said on the record just over a week ago that the university would not be giving any money to the city any time soon. (A citation will be available for this once notes from the meeting of the Wesleyan Student Assembly on Sunday, November 21, are made publicly available.) His answer to my question of him forecasted budgetary decisions for the next few years — specifically, “as long as [he is] president” — during which the university will instead be investing in its own infrastructure projects and gradual modifications to the financial aid program.
The task of town-gown neighborship at Wesleyan, instead of happening through material redistribution and resource-sharing, is placed nearly entirely on the work of the Allbritton Center. Though Allbritton can boast some brilliant staff, well-designed programs, and immense attention to pedagogical methods, I can say as a program coordinator in the Jewett Center for Community Partnerships that students who have experiences through Allbritton — who for the most part leave town after four years, sometimes use their civic engagement solely for academic advancement or resume-boosting, and many of whom (like myself) are only paid $13 hourly for program coordination work that goes for $25 hourly in the rest of the state — are given far too much responsibility in carrying the brunt of this neighborly relationship.
I grew up in Waterbury and received my secondary education in neighboring Wolcott. I would not have known of Wesleyan’s existence before I applied if not for the occasional ride to the casinos in Connecticut, and, very luckily, the recommendation of a kind coworker whom I met in summer 2017 while working at Lake Compounce Amusement Park. He went to Johns Hopkins, and happened to be more knowledgeable about higher education than me and most staff at my high school. We did not have college counselors, and nobody promoted any colleges to me other than the University of Connecticut, which I could attend for free for graduating first in my class at a public school in the state. Wesleyan does nothing to make its presence known in the most income-unequal state in the nation where it resides. Private schools in New York City, though, are inundated with Wesleyan recruiters, as are pockets of wealth in the Bay Area and internationally.
How is this okay?
While I don’t have an answer myself, I think the answer lies somewhere in these stories and these numbers. It does not need to be this way, and it won’t be forever if we as residents organize. It seems that universities sometimes need to be taught lessons by their surrounding communities — an irony that might be hard for some to swallow.
Emily McEvoy lives in Middletown.