Ben Stein had a piece in The New York Times on November 7th discussing why alumni should give to colleges and universities with large endowments. Well, that’s not quite true — he was talking about a specific case, Yale, where he went to law school.

His November 7th essay was actually a follow-up to a column that he wrote several weeks earlier. As he paraphrased on November 7th, he posited on October 23rd,

Yale has such a wildly successful endowment and makes so very much money from it that the sums dwarf what it is possible for us as alumni to give, unless we are fantastically rich. Our contributions to Yale are trivial compared with its investment return, while the same donations could be so much more meaningful to smaller. nonprofit groups- like ones that help veterans or lost dogs and cats. I also pointed out how much the Yale endowment director, David F. Swensen, is paid, and wondered if that was right.

Well, he apparently got a ton of e-mails, letters, and calls about that stance, and the November 7th column was a bit of a back-pedal job. However, his revised view is one I find interesting — and certainly one that I subscribe to: Yale deserves his support not so much for logical reasons, but for the humanity of the place. He says, “I’ll keep giving to Yale, and with a full heart, for the memory of Henry Varnum Poor and the many other kind souls of New Haven. Not everything is about reason.”

He explained,

[My giving] has to do with a man named Henry Varnum Poor, the scion of an old New England family. He was either associate dean or assistant dean of the law school when I was there, covering subjects like financial aid and admissions. He was a dapper, bald-headed fellow with steel-rimmed glasses that evoked New England rectitude, and he wore supercool J. Press checked sport jackets. He sent me the treasured letter of admission in the spring of 1966 that told me I had been accepted.

When I entered Yale that fall, I was totally stunned by what I found. Yale was not the “country club” that my brother-in-law, a Harvard Law graduate, had led me to expect. It was rigorous, mean-spirited and cold. I hated it. I got severe anxiety. I was wildly mistreated for anxiety symptoms at the Yale infirmary and got severe drug reactions. Then I got colitis and lost about 30 pounds in about six weeks. I was a wreck. I went to Dean Poor and told him that I wanted to drop out. He fixed me with his Yankee blue eyes through those austere glasses and said something like this: “We have a commitment to you. We want you to graduate. By all means take a year or two off, and when you want to come back, anytime at all, we’ll take you back. And we’ll help you with your expenses with loans and grants.”

I was deeply impressed. In fact, I did take a year off and worked as an economist at the Commerce Department in Washington. I soon realized that working was a mug’s game compared with even rigorous law study, so I wrote to Dean Poor. He did welcome me back with loans and grants and enthusiasm. And when I came back, the law school had been sixties-fied. It was a far kinder, gentler place, with room for me as the hippie, Black Panther fund-raiser, antiwar demonstrator, faculty-baiter and tormentor I soon became.

Despite all that, Dean Poor kept my loans and grants coming. Despite the fact that I, my own little self, drove off campus one of our star professors of antitrust, no one in the administration stopped me from being valedictorian (by election, not at all by grades). They were good to me. They were a family to me. They let me take a film class from Stanley Kauffmann, the great film critic, that changed my life and set my trajectory for eventual Hollywood landing. They went far, far beyond what I could have expected. I shed bitter tears when I left the Sterling Law Buildings.

So here’s my point, if I may: It is probably not an economically rational act for me to give my few shekels to mighty, multibillionaire Yale. It would be far more rational for me to keep them myself or to give them to smaller charities. But not all decisions are rational. Yale went far beyond the rational to offer me a place back when I dropped out. Yale went far beyond the rational to be as generous with financial aid as it was. It did not have to let a rebel rouser (to borrow a Duane Eddy phrase) like me have free run of the school. But it did, and I was a happy young man because of it. I owe Yale for what it did, and what it let me do.

And for those looking for a Williams connection, there is one. Ben Stein is the son of Herbert Stein, Williams ’35, who headed up President Nixon’s Council of Economic Advisors.

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