Title

Is Yale in Decline?

Yale’s certainly richer and more popular. But is it still what it used to be?

April 7, 2022

Did you notice that the University Ranking by Academic Performance placed Yale University 30th in its global rankings? Or that CWTS Leiden Ranking had Yale at 49? Or that the NTU Performance Ranking of Scientific Papers located Yale 21st? It’s 14th in the QS World University Rankings and 17th in the RUR Research Performance Ranking. It ranks 108th for international collaboration.

Even in national rankings, Yale, the second-wealthiest university in the world, lags behind its peers. Sure, The Wall Street Journal ranks it fourth, U.S. News fifth and Times Higher Education sixth. Others aren’t so generous. Washington Monthly ranks Yale 18th among national universities, and UniRank 4icu 14th.

Yale evokes criticism in ways that its peers do not.

I’d be hard-pressed to locate books or articles decrying Harvard’s decline, or Stanford’s or Princeton’s or Chicago’s, let alone MIT’s. But Yale is another story.

Ever since the 24-year-old William F. Buckley wrote his 1951 polemic, God and Man at Yale, laments about Yale’s decline have become a cottage industry.

The criticisms have varied over time. Buckley complained about Yale’s drift toward secular humanism and its scorn for religion, free-market capitalism and intellectual pluralism.

Newsweek in 1964 claimed that Yale can “no longer … regard itself as the center of an academic world that begins at Hanover, N.H., and ends at the University of Pennsylvania campus in Philadelphia.” Sure, Yale and the other Ivies held the edge “in endowments, faculty salaries, libraries, faculty-student ratio, fellowship recipients, and alumni listed in Who’s Who and Poor’s Register.” But “Michigan, Chicago, Stanford, Wisconsin, Indiana, Illinois, Texas, North Carolina, Duke, and California are busily challenging Ivy League supremacy.”

GQ, the men’s fashion magazine, leveled a somewhat similar charge 30 years later, claiming that “Yale has lost its prestige” and “is no longer the equal of Harvard.” Among the signs of decline, Yale’s decaying infrastructure and “one of the nation’s most dangerous campuses.”

Today, critics accuse Yale of subordinating scholarship to social justice and prioritizing political correctness over intellectual diversity.

Why is Yale the object of such criticism? Because it has historically been regarded as intellectually intense and serious in a way its counterparts were not, and because, unlike its peers, it emphasized the arts, especially theater, music, art and architecture, and the humanities—above all history and literature.

In retrospect, some of the criticisms of Yale seem grossly misguided. Just a few years after Newsweek’s critique, Yale was widely regarded as the center of the humanities universe. Think C. Van Woodward, Robert Penn Warren, Jonathan Spence, Vincent Sculley, R. R. Palmer, Edmund Morgan, J. Hillis Miller, R. W. B. Lewis, John Hersey, Geoffrey Hartman, Hannah Holborn Gray, Peter Gay, Paul de Man, Cleanth Brooks and Harold Bloom.

Nor was the law school a slouch. In constitutional law, there were Alexander Bickel and Robert Bork; in legal history, Robert Cover, the leading scholar of the law of slavery; in law and economics, Guido Calabresi.

Today, of course, Yale’s faculty continues to feature many luminaries. Yet, it’s hard not to regard Yale today as more insular than its competitors and more of an inward-turning hothouse.

Think of the graduate students it failed to bring back. In my field: Jill Lenore. Steven Hahn. Jackson Lears. Patricia Limerick. Christine Stansell. And Sean Wilentz, among others. Think of the junior faculty it failed to tenure. Henry Louis Gates. David Graeber. William Deresiewicz.

At its peak, Yale was much more than a collection of intellectual heavyweights. It was the leader of key movements in intellectual thought, including the New Criticism, Legal Realism, postmodern architecture, the new Western history, slavery studies, environmental history and, of course, deconstruction.

Back then, there’s no doubt that Yale’s intellectual and cultural contributions were commensurate with its great wealth. But is that still true today? I, for one, don’t think so.

When I get pleas to contribute to Yale’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Emancipation and hear that its future is endangered, my knee-jerk response is how can an institution with a $40 billion–plus endowment not have the funds to support one of its few global educational initiatives?

Spider-Man has it right: with great wealth comes great responsibility. I fear that Yale, unlike Harvard, is not embracing its responsibilities. Harvard does far more to reach beyond its walls. It has more public intellectuals. It makes more efforts to connect with public policy through its Kennedy School. Harvard Extension has no true Yale counterpart. Whatever one thinks of edX, Harvard, in partnership with MIT, took a leadership role in making courses by some of the leading professors in the world available globally for free.

In contrast, one could even argue that Yale’s influence has not been benign. Take, for example, the fact that Yale now claims more administrators than professors. Or that its model for overseas partnerships, its failed venture in Singapore, placed this campus in what the AAUP described as “a host environment where free speech is constrained, if not proscribed.”

Or how about other misplaced priorities: the $150 million spent on the Stephen A. Schwarzman Center or the $500 million spent to create two new colleges, with 900 beds, and custom dark-stained quarter-sawn white oak millwork, red oak plank flooring and faux Gothic-style stonework.

Then there’s the decision by the Yale Corporation, taken without open debate, to end the petition process to join Yale’s governing board, leaving officially nominated candidates as the only options for voters—a decision condemned by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Senate.

Or take Yale Law School—with its $1.2 billion endowment, or $190,000 for each of its 630 students, and its 2.5 student–to–faculty member ratio. It features the highest median LSAT scores, the highest median undergraduate GPA and the lowest acceptance rate—and claims four current Supreme Court justices. Together with Harvard, its graduates make up about half of all law school faculty. And yet it ranks 38th in its percentage of students of color, 111th in minority faculty and 139th in female faculty. It could certainly serve many more students.

With its exceptionally small student body, its increasing emphasis on graduate programs, its no-grades policy (unaccompanied by detailed personal assessments), its lack of requirements and its very light faculty teaching loads, does the law school offer an appropriate model of emulation for other law schools?

We shouldn’t forget, as the astute observer of the law school ecosystem who goes by pseudonym Unemployed Northeastern has noted, its faculty rarely write for the practicing bar. Indeed, most of its faculty have little actual experience as practicing attorneys. As Judge Richard A. Posner put it, at the most elite law schools like Yale’s, faculty members “have little interest in the actual judicial process and little ability to contribute to that process or even to the formation of their students as future law clerks and litigators.”

Perhaps it’s impossible to duplicate the Yale of the 1970s, which was a product of circumstances unlikely to recur. These included the student upheavals at Columbia and Cornell that sent scholars scurrying from those institutions to New Haven. Today, the dispersal of talent has meant that great scholars can be found all across the country. As Steven Brint has shown, public flagships and other public research universities now produce the most patents and high-impact scholarly articles and books.

So what should a richly endowed institution like Yale be, apart from a palace of privilege?

It should do much more to share its riches:

  • Stream all guest lectures and conferences online.
  • Place many more courses online.
  • Develop a truly robust degree-granting extension program.
  • Greatly expand opportunities for undergraduates and graduate students and junior faculty from underrepresented groups to spend summers at Yale

In October 2021, Yale launched a $7 billion capital campaign to “tackle the greatest challenges facing humankind.” All university fundraising campaigns are hyperbolic, but that catchphrase strikes me as particularly pompous and pretentious.

Why not instead do what Yale can in fact do:

  • Leverage its comparative advantage and once again double down on the arts and humanities.
  • Follow the example of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Emancipation and embrace a mission of public education, global outreach and programming dedicated to driving the development of theory and instructional and research resources in conjunction with scholars worldwide.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

Share Article

Read more by

Back to Top