Monday, May 02, 2016

Stinking history!

(I have sent this across to the editor)

Higher education has been afire with discussions—substantive and rhetorical—about the dark histories of the people after whom buildings and colleges have been named. Locally, at the University of Oregon, two buildings, Deady and Dunn Halls, have made us rethink the biographies of the namesakes. The older the university, the more the possibility of controversial history. For instance, recently, Georgetown University has been in the news for how it sold its 227 slaves in 1838 in order to pay off the debts and sustain the financially struggling college.

We humans have been struggling forever, it seems, to figure out how to respond and react to the origins of wealth that is then used for honorable causes, like education. By and large, we seem to have operated along the lines of a Latin phrase that is almost two thousand years old—“Pecunia non olet” which translates to “money does not stink.”

The “stink” of the money is, thus, not new by any means. It is just that we conveniently opted not to talk about it. The recent discussions about Georgetown and Deady and Dunn have, thankfully, brought to the forefront those difficult and inconvenient issues.

Many of us from India have often pointed to Yale University as an example of “Pecunia non olet.” In order to understand this, we need to know more about the namesake. Elihu Yale was a Bostonian by birth, but was mostly raised in London because his father found the New England Puritanism too stifling. Growing up in England, Yale signed up for the promising and pioneering multinational corporation of the seventeenth century—the East India Company.

In 1670, Yale was assigned to work in one of the most profitable operations—in Madras, which is in southern India. (This city, where my parents and sister live, was renamed Chennai in 1996.) It was in Madras that Yale even got married—to his friend’s widow—and it was in the same city that his three-year old son was buried after an untimely death.

Yale’s personal, professional, and political lives were all made in India after his relatively humble economic beginnings. As one author put it, “Yale had come to India with the entry-level title of a company "writer" and an annual salary of £10—about half a shilling a day at a time when an English cloth suit cost around 15 shillings.” Yale proved that he knew a thing or two about the art of making a deal and he quickly made himself rich and powerful, while helping make the East India Company rich and powerful. Thus, from a lowly “writer” Yale quickly rose to become the governor of Madras. His aggressive methods also led to his downfall—he was fired from the post in 1692 after which he returned to England.

The two decades-plus in Madras had made Elihu Yale a wealthy man. As he got older, and because he did not have children to whom he could have willed the inheritance, Yale’s fortunes were sought by many. One of the beneficiaries of his largesse was the Collegiate School in Connecticut that was later renamed to Yale College in 1718, as a way of honoring Yale’s contributions.

Because of the connections to Madras that provided Yale University with its name, some of us from that part of the world joke that we deserve legacy admissions with free tuition. After all, the East India Company was more than a mere trading corporation, and a monopoly at that. In a matter of years, the company became a mighty political force with its own military forces with which it ruled a vast territory in the Subcontinent.

The land became the British Raj after the monarch assumed direct control. India, which accounted for more than a quarter of the entire world’s economy when these mercantile operations began more than three hundred years ago, was reduced to a poster-child for poverty, starvation, and beggars by the time the British government reluctantly granted independence in August 1947 to the newly created countries of India and Pakistan.

Thus, whether it is Yale or Georgetown or the United Kingdom of today, the question is the same one from the Roman days: Does money have a smell?

Perhaps the best approaches in these troubling issues will begin with an honest recognition of the patron’s past, especially regarding the wealth they accumulated. History cannot be undone, of course. We can constructively move forward by learning from history, and by establishing procedures whereby philanthropy will be appropriately vetted for the money’s olfactory backstories.


Ramesh said...

I learnt of the history of Yale from your blog - you had covered this story many posts back. Yes, we cannot change history and I do not believe we should hold succeeding generations accountable , but we must learn from history and not repeat the same mistakes.

The trouble is what is acceptable at one point in time in history is not acceptable at another. Maybe succeeding generations may consider us barbaric and criminal for eating factory produced chicken !! A chicken farmer's endowment may be considered in the same way as Yale is.

Sriram Khé said...

"A chicken farmer's endowment may be considered in the same way as Yale is"
Yes, why not? And these are the kinds of examples that we need to think about even now. For some awful reason, increasingly we seem to give ultimate priority to earnings and incomes and we are quick to dismiss worries over how that money is made. This worship of money is bizarre!!!

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