Within a few minutes of alighting from the train at New Haven’s Union Station, I was already having a conversation about the city’s high crime rate.  The taxi driver was gesturing vaguely with his arm towards the dodgy areas of town, before telling me I’d be fine where I’m living.  The Tenant Manual I found in my room has a detailed explanation of the various security services offered by Yale University: it has its own Police Department; 400 blue phones with red emergency buttons are ‘strategically located throughout the campus’; and at night, you can request a police escort to walk or drive you home.

Founded in 1637 as a Puritan colony, New Haven grew into a port city and later developed a strong industry producing coaches, carraiges, watches, tools, and firearms [1].  But its industrial base began to decline in the early 20th century, hit by the Great Depression and the fact that automobiles became trendier than horse-drawn carraiges.  It’s now the fourth-poorest city in the US, despite its location in the richest state, Connecticut, home of a disproportionate amount of millionaires [2].

Yale University is now the city’s largest employer.  But even with an endowment worth $16.7 billion [3], it won’t pay a living wage to its employees [4].  And it doesn’t pay property tax.  Private universities in the US get tax exemptions – effectively a state subsidy.  As Professor Bill Domhoff argues [5], it would be understandable if these subsidies benefitted local youngsters who’d be able to use their education to better their struggling communities.  But the people attending Yale tend to be well-off students from across the US and abroad.  So the New Haven public purse is subsidising my education, while a quarter of its residents live in poverty [6].

It was quite surreal being guided round the facilities on offer within the faux-Oxbridge walls of Davenport College, where I live.  We may not be able to afford a living wage for our cleaners, but thankfully the purse can stretch to a printing press, bookbinding studio, digital media and arts centre, pottery studio, 72-seat auditorium, and a common room housing not one, but two grand pianos.

Is enlightenment really that expensive?

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