Spiderweb: Whispers of Wealth at Jonathan Edwards College
“We are commanded…to give our poor neighbor what is sufficient for his need,” wrote Jonathan Edwards in 1732.
In his eighteenth-century Great Awakening sermons, Edwards, who graduated from Yale College in 1720 at age 17, championed the Protestant virtue of asceticism. But the residential college named after him is Yale’s wealthiest.
Jonathan Edwards (JE) has a reputation for luxury: the college’s first-year handbook promotes JE as the “the classiest college”; its annual Spider Ball is “the swankiest party on campus all year.” Among students, too, in the game of Residential College word associations, if Morse and Stiles are “ugly,” Franklin and Murray “new,” TD and Silliman “far,” then JE is undoubtedly “rich.”
“I just remember freshman year my friends in JE getting to go to Hamilton and being low-key jealous,” one upperclassman told The Politic.
“I heard that they had a special endowment for tulips,” added another.
A third student concurred: “A friend said that there’s 60,000 dollars endowed for tulips every year…It sounds like something that could happen, but it also sounds unlikely.”
The speculations were even stronger when The Politic asked students where they thought the money came from. Many responded simply with “alumni.” Specifically, one student thought JE had the “strongest alumni network,” which translates to more donations. Others even spoke of an offshore account.
JE does have the same budget, at least nominally, as other colleges, following equalization measures in 2010. The university used to allow alumni to donate to specific residential colleges, but because of the reforms, JE alumni must donate to Yale College, not their residential affiliation.
But unlike the other colleges, JE maintains a trust that provides ancillary funding—on average about 40,000 dollars a year, according to the Trust’s tax returns.
Tracing the history of JE’s wealth requires a broader examination of the residential college system’s history. The residential college system started in 1926, with a gift from Edward Harkness, class of 1897. Harkness, a philanthropist, borrowed the system from Cambridge and Oxford. At the time, Yale’s population had grown to over 1,500 undergraduates; student overcrowding was rampant, and housing largely depended on where Yale could find swing space. Harkness hoped the new system—of, at that time, eight smaller college communities within the university—would help recreate the smaller Yale College of yore, which in 1860 had only amounted to 500 or so students.
Still, while the Oxbridge model inspired his quest, Harkness wanted Yale’s colleges to be less autonomous than their British counterparts from the inception. The Yale residential colleges were meant to be microcosms of the university as a whole, rather than unique bodies.
Equality in funding for colleges was already debated in nascent years of the system. Tucked away on page 66 of the New York Times from June 22, 1941 (the front page headline was “Hitler Begins War on Russia”) lies an article in the education section: “Bequest to Yale Brings Up Problem: Officials Are Divided on The Individual Colleges Having Endowments.” The piece noted that advocates for equal budgets argued that “the creation of individual endowments of unequal amounts [could] defeat the university’s expressed wish to keep the same level of desirability in the college.” But others argued that to create equal budgets “would be to relegate the colleges permanently to the category of pleasant residential dormitories.”
Ultimately, Yale did allow for the practice of donations to individual colleges, which allowed Jonathan Edwards College to accumulate unusual wealth. Mark Saltzman, the current Head of JE, told The Politic that as a result, the ‘40s and ‘50s saw a large influx of alumni donations. At that time, the baseline budget for residential colleges differed and students were able to choose their college. (Today, students are randomly sorted into colleges, unless they are legacies, in which case they can opt in or out of immediate family members’ colleges.) In 1966, the desire to consolidate, invest, and manage these donations led to the creation of the Jonathan Edwards Trust.
In some ways, this period—with the dual effects of financial independence and students being able to choose their own colleges—was the height of college heterogeneity.
Over the years, individual colleges developed reputations based on the types of students who chose to apply to each. By the time the endowments were equalized in 2010, the Yale Daily News noted that in the ‘60s, “Calhoun was full of ‘jocks,’ Davenport housed many upper-class students and Timothy Dwight and Silliman, because of their closeness to Science Hill, attracted science majors.” Back in the ‘50s, the Harvard Crimson, in an article entitled “Eli Colleges Outclass Houses as Social Centers,” provided a more thorough genealogy, and this account did not put JE at the top: “Davenport, Pierson, Branford, and Calhoun are ellegedly [sic] the homes of the socially prominent…‘white shoe men,’ and hence the most desirable. Berkeley, Jonathan Edwards, and Timothy Dwight fit into a middle caste. Silliman is the home of vigorous but not big time extroverts, and Trumbull and Saybrook are shunned as ‘black shoe’ choices.”
The same ‘50s-era Crimson article conceded, however, that “these distinctions [between colleges] are pretty spurious since a Council of Masters carefully [planted] a balance of high school men, prep school men, and scholarship students in each College.”
In general, the inequality between college reputations was not as visible as inequality between the students themselves. “Dinner was actually served with white tablecloths and waitresses who served us,” Miles Alderman ‘58, who was a student in JE, told The Politic. “The students who were on scholarships were working in the dining halls.”
But per Alderman, this elitist practice existed in every college—with so much visibility of the differences in student wealth and prestige, gradations of opulence among the colleges were less noted.
Since Alderman’s time at Yale, the student body has become more diverse and the residential colleges have become—at least formally—more uniform. The 1960s saw the end of student choice over residential college assignment (the sorting process is now randomized, except legacies can choose to opt into immediate family members’ colleges); the 2000s saw a new wave of standardization among the colleges, as Yale increased its oversight over college Heads’ actions. Most significantly, in 2010, the University announced that it would equalize residential college endowments.
For Jonathan Edwards College, this decision ended the years of a greater formal budget. Unlike all other of Yale’s 14 colleges, however, JE still had its own Trust, which remained untouched.
Mark Ryan, who received his Ph.D. from Yale in 1974, is a spirited emblem of Yale—and of JE in particular, where he served as dean from 1976–1996. Today, he serves as the chair of the JE Trust.
Ryan’s strong ties to Yale, to JE, and to the concept of residential colleges are on display in his 2001 book. A Collegiate Way of Living: Residential Colleges and a Yale Education is a 150-odd page work bound with an image of Harkness tower on the front cover and JE’s Great Hall on the back. “This publication is made possible by the Jonathan Edwards Trust,” reads an acknowledgment.
The trust, like Yale as a whole, is a 501(c)3—a tax-exempt non-profit. As such, its 990 tax forms are available online back to 1997. By then, it had already accumulated a significant valuation. JE’s aforementioned lack of status as a wealthier college may appear to stand in conflict with the growth of its trust. But, according to Ryan, this perception in fact led the college to pursue and manage donations.
How did JE become the “rich” college in the minds of students? Ryan told The Politic that JE was originally “perceived as the most poorly endowed of the new colleges, in terms of facilities. JE’s relatively small footprint and the need to incorporate pre-existing buildings made it appear less architecturally distinguished, and more cramped, than the spacious and uniform facilities of, say, Branford or Pierson.”
A concerted effort to compensate for this reputation led to the influx of donations, ultimately formalized in the trust. “For nearly four decades after its inception in 1966, the Trust’s funds were managed by outside agencies designated by the board,” Ryan added, namely, securities traded through Sanford Bernstein & Co.
“As part of its independent status, its funds are controlled by its own board, not by the University; that is the reason that those funds were not included in the equalization measures of 2009,” he continued.
“In 2004, at the board’s request, the Yale Investment Office agreed to assume management of the funds as units in its unitized pool of assets,” Ryan told The Politic. Had the trust been under university control, it would have been susceptible to the equalization measures.
Since it receives its resources from independent shares in the endowment, and not the Yale budget itself, the trust can maintain its growth. It can continue to receive funding, without technically receiving any more resources from the University itself than any other college.
In addition to shielding it from reform efforts, receiving shares in Yale’s endowment has helped the trust grow significantly in value. In 2003, the trust was worth about 20,000 dollars less than it had been in 1997, adjusting for inflation. In 2004, after the management change, the Trust’s value grew by 17 percent. By 2006, it broke a million dollars.
What does this actually mean for JE students?
The trust has averaged a roughly 40,000 dollar payout each year to JE since 1997. Originally, the money was spent on a panoply of new resources for the college: art exhibits of the works of Paul Cadmus (10,000 dollars, 1997) and George Platt Lynes (10,000 dollars, 1998), grand pianos (15,000 dollars total, 1998–2000), the publication of Ryan’s book (5,000 dollars, 2000) and another history of JE published the same year (15,000 dollars, 2000); and, indeed, several allocations for those much-discussed tulips.
Since the reforms of 2010, Yale allocates funds for such purchases equally to colleges through the Arts Discretionary Fund. Now, the trust has been dedicated to sending “small groups of undergraduates and fellows to cultural events in New York,” explained Ryan. A JE first-year described this process, referred to as a “Culture Draw.”
“We enter a pool and are randomly drawn for tickets to different events, from opera shows to Broadway shows to art exhibits in New York City and New Haven, as well as pre-experience dinners,” the student explained.
Many students don’t know where money for these “Culture Draws” comes from. Sarah Naco ’18, head JE first-year counselor and former Head of College aide, said in an interview with The Politic that she wasn’t aware of the source of this money. Since the trust pays out its grants directly to the college, funding coming from the Trust is indistinguishable to the students from regular college-supported spending.
As far as former JE Head of College Penelope Laurans is concerned, JE itself doesn’t meaningfully differ from other colleges in terms of wealth, even with the Trust. She stressed that the same case of JE’s comparative advantage in resources could be made for any college.
“JE, for example, would love to have a pizza oven,” Laurans told The Politic in an email, referencing a perk found in some residential college’s dining halls.
“We’d love to have the same number of singles as Stiles and Morse or the spacious rooms of the new colleges. We’d love to have a separate common room that was not a pass through to the dining hall as Branford and Trumbull and some other colleges do,” she continued. “I could go on in this vein forever.”
Laurans’ list of college differences, the spirited competition of intramurals, and postprandial debates over the merits of Morse/Stiles versus Murray/Franklin pizza crust reveal the ways in which each college strives to seem unique. Laurans told The Politic that “as to equity among the colleges I like something I once heard Dean Chun say: ‘Residential college resources are equitable, not equal.’”
Indeed, for multiple JE administrators and students that The Politic interviewed, the college’s traditions, often without the support of the trust, form an important part of their identification with the college. But JE’s ability to weather the process of endowment equalization in some ways depends on its trust, creating the potential for accusations of inequality.
A few years ago, Pierson College, which also had an endowment that was larger than average, had to cancel a yearly spring break trip to Italy for members of its senior class who won a lottery. Harvey Goldblatt Ph.D ’78, the Italophile and then-Master of Pierson who spearheaded the trip, retired in 2010, the same year the endowment was equalized. Sources speculated in the Yale Daily News at the time that Goldblatt’s departure was connected to disagreements with the administration over the individual college budget cuts and Yale’s growing oversight over colleges’ actions. As with many residential college traditions, students felt the loss not so much of resources, but of an opportunity to build community with individual college traditions.
And perhaps this sentiment applies to JE’s wealth, too. Its mechanics are widely unknown and misunderstood, and when they are revealed, may appear comparatively minor; its current use of the Culture Draw serves only a limited number of students per year. But do these very limitations—on JE’s extra funding and on student understanding thereof—serve as a greater enriching resource than the trust itself?
The monetary mystique surrounding the college shrouds all of its resources in intrigue. The quest to win the Hamilton tickets and the ignorance of how the funding operates within JE keep the mystery alive for Spiders. While the quibbling over college endowments stretches back to their foundation, college pride is its own kind of currency. Supplied with whatever it has, each college works to cultivate its gardens—whether tulip-filled or not.