Q&A: Peter Salovey

A student center for all students

The president talks about the new Schwarzman Center.

The Yale Alumni Magazine regularly holds a conversation with Yale president Peter Salovey ’86PhD to provide a forum in which alumni can learn his views. (Interviews are conducted both in person and by e-mail and condensed for print.)

Mark Ostow

Mark Ostow

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Y: The Schwarzman Center is an extremely significant gift for Yale, at $150 million. But the news was confusing when it first came out. The university’s announcement spoke of a center “dedicated to cultural programming and student life,” but the New York Times article that same afternoon stressed the idea of a major performing arts center.

S: The university’s announcement reflects Steve Schwarzman’s [’69] and my shared vision that the Schwarzman Center will become the campus hub for all of Yale’s students. We expect that there will be many performing arts events in a number of the venues in the center, but this is a center for student life. And by “students” I mean all of Yale’s students—undergraduates, graduate students, and professional school students. It’s a gathering place. A place to eat. A place to relax and talk with friends. A place with all kinds of meetings and some very exciting events. A place that will complement, not replace, the activities and sense of community in the residential colleges and professional schools. The idea is that there will be activities throughout every day that draw students from around the campus. Nearly anything that contributes to a Yale education outside of the classroom, lab, clinic, or studio can happen at the Schwarzman Center.

Y: What kinds of spaces will it have?

S: The main floor of Commons—that vast space—will be enhanced. We will continue to use it for lunches and big events like reunions and the Yale Medal dinner, but we look forward to using it regularly for performances, dances, and events that might range from hack-athons to cooking competitions in the style of Iron Chef. One hundred and fourteen years of grime will be removed, and we expect to introduce state-of-theart technology and much improved kitchen facilities. We will consciously honor the grandeur and beauty of that main floor, as a place that stirs the soul. There is an equally cavernous space underneath the main floor, and that basement will largely be developed into beautiful activity space and maybe even a pub for all Yale students. And then, for the upper floor, there might be a small performing space for, say, an improv group; a space for debate; a space to watch a film; spaces to interact via technology with guest speakers or students at a university halfway around the world. An important point is that we are in the earliest stages of planning—we’ve not yet hired an architect—and we are going to engage students and faculty in the fall to solicit their ideas to make the Schwarzman Center an amazing success.

Y: What will happen to the memorial for Yale’s war dead?

S: It will be preserved and enhanced. I expect that the carvings and inscriptions will be restored as part of the overall renovation project.

Y: Do you have any comment on the critics who have asked whether Yale really needs this space?

S: Like any great university, Yale has a multiplicity of needs, but a single gift can only address one of them. I hope that during the time I’m president of this university, I will be able to work with many different donors who have both the vision and generosity of spirit of Steve Schwarzman. My bet is that once the Schwarzman Center has been in operation for a year, we will wonder how we ever did without it. I do think it has remarkable potential to unite the campus.

Y: What was the genesis of the idea?

S: For decades, there’s been an interest among students in building a student center or campus center. Last year, the Yale College Council, the Graduate Student Assembly, and the Graduate and Professional Student Senate wrote a joint report calling for an integrated, comprehensive, campus-wide student center that could break down barriers among those attending the different schools of Yale. It just so happened that that was a vision shared by Steve Schwarzman—along with a personal love of Commons, as a space of which he has very fond memories.

Y: When will the new facility open?

S: We expect that the planning and design will take 30 months and then the renovation and construction will take about the same amount of time. Remember this building is 114 years old, so it needs to be carefully restored as well as improved. We hope to celebrate its opening in the spring of 2020.

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