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Yale, India, and the failure of the `global university’

Wednesday 4 May 2005, by GANDHI*Ajay

Yale, through its historical amnesia about its roots in colonialism and slavery, its unethical investment policies and demeaning work culture, abrogates the responsibility it claims to bear as a global university.

FROM JANUARY 2 to 8, 2005, Yale University president Richard Levin visited India. This unprecedented visit by the head of an elite American university signalled, in his words, that India was finally "emerging as a global economic and political power." In between meetings with the Indian Prime Minister and the chiefs of powerful Indian companies such as Infosys and Reliance Industries, Dr. Levin lectured on Yale’s vision of "university citizenship." With missionary zeal, he propounded a notion of the "global university" standing for "transcendent principles" and embodying a "noble mission." In so doing, he was continuing a tradition stretching back to Yale’s inception, whereby lofty rhetoric has disguised powerful self-interest.

Dr. Levin’s university is named after Elihu Yale, a fervid Anglican who served in the British East India Company between 1670 and 1699 and was governor of Fort St. George at Madras from 1687 to 1692. After his reign, American Puritans in Connecticut seeking patronage for a college appealed to Yale’s history of support for missionary activities in the East Indies and Americas. The colonial administrator was responsive, initially sending books on Anglican subjects. In 1718, Yale finally donated textiles and arms towards the construction of the university’s first building, forever stamping it with his name.

In India, Dr. Levin noted Yale University’s commitment to educating "distinguished leaders" and its focus on the "transparency and accountability of public and private institutions." Curiously, he failed to mention Elihu Yale’s own record of leadership and accountability while in Madras.

As governor of Fort St. George, Yale purchased territory for private purposes with East India Company funds, including a fort at Tevnapatam (present-day Cuddalore). He imposed steep taxation towards the upkeep of the colonial garrison and town. His punitive measures against Indians who defaulted included threats of property confiscation and forced exile. This spurred various Indian revolts, which were ruthlessly quelled by Company soldiers. Yale was also notorious for arresting and trying Indians on his own private authority, including the hanging of a stable boy who had absconded with a Company horse.

More audaciously, Yale amassed a private fortune through secret contracts with Madras merchants, against the East India Company’s directives. This imperial plunder, which enabled his patronage of the American university, occurred through his monopolisation of traders and castes in the textiles and jewel trade. By 1692, Elihu Yale’s repeated flouting of East India Company regulations, and growing embarrassment at his illegal profiteering resulted in his being relieved of the post of governor.

Though Elihu Yale’s legacy in India was notably absent from Dr. Levin’s pronouncements in India, he did mention another historical link between the university and India. In 1892, Sumantro Vishnu Karmarkar from Ahmednagar graduated from Yale. The university president proudly upheld as one of its "distinguished alumni" from India. Although this was intended to be symbolic of Yale’s global diversity, Dr. Levin sidelined the university’s historical complicity with the exploitation and exclusion of minorities. For example, Yale’s first endowed professorship, first library fund, and first student scholarship came from slave owners and slavery proponents. Indeed, pro-slavery leaders were among Yale’s earliest professors and administrators in the 18th century. In 1831 such forces suppressed the construction of a Negro College at Yale for educating African-Americans. From the 1930s to the 1960s, the Yale administration honoured this dubious history by naming nine of its colleges after slavery proponents and owners.

Yale University’s history, bound up with violence against both Indians and African-Americans, is forcefully symbolised in a portrait that hangs in a campus boardroom. This picture from the early 18th century shows Elihu Yale adorned in colonial splendour, with a black slave kneeling in the foreground, silver collar and long metal chain hanging from his neck. In India, Dr. Levin claimed that Yale embodied the best of a "global university," with a mandate to educate the "citizens of the world." Yet the university’s refusal to acknowledge how its history is bound up with colonial profiteering and violent slavery makes this lofty rhetoric hollow and disingenuous.

At other events in India, Dr. Levin discussed the "progressive, forward-looking" proponents of global patent regimes. He was referring to the vigorous debate in India over the Government’s conformity to the World Trade Organisation’s intellectual property rights regulations. Opponents of this framework have argued that Indian farmers and consumers will have to pay increased prices for seeds and brand-name drugs bought from multinational companies instead of being indigenously produced. Indeed, farmers in States such as Andhra Pradesh have already experienced significant hardship due to the encroachment of western agri-business companies on to the seed market, displacing Indian companies and burdening farmers with onerous debt.

Dr. Levin termed these concerns for Indian farmers and consumers "parochial," hardly surprising given that India’s conformity with patent regimes is in Yale’s interest. Since the 1980s, Yale has been aggressively commercialising research done within its science and engineering departments. As its president noted in India, the University has spun off 25 companies in the past decade based on biotechnology innovations, accumulating millions of dollars in profits.

The true implications of this corporate research model for the public interest were revealed in 2000-2001 when Yale came under scrutiny for its patent on the AIDS drug stavudine. This is marketed by Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS) as Zerit, a partnership that had brought the university more than $129 million. In late-2000, the Indian drug company Cipla and medical relief organisations requested a non-exclusive license from Yale and BMS to sell stavudine in South Africa in the light of an AIDS epidemic. Indian companies have become specialists in producing generic drugs for public health emergencies in the developing world, a primary argument for non-compliance with intellectual property rights regimes.

In 2001, Yale refused to release the licence, and it was only through sustained pressure from local unions and international relief organisations that the University was embarrassed into agreeing to legal non-interference. Clearly, Dr. Levin’s argument for India to adhere to intellectual property rights is intertwined with Yale potentially gaining lucrative profits from its patents being enforced in India’s consumer market.

Dr. Levin’s equivalence of corporate self-interest with a "progressive, forward-looking" ethos is confirmed in Yale’s broader investment policy. Its $12.7 billion endowment is partly managed through global hedge funds that are inaccessible to its stakeholders. This continues despite the fact that Yale’s investments have previously breached the administration’s own ethical guidelines, such as prior investments in apartheid-era South Africa.

Yale’s direct investments in South Asia include a Canadian oil and gas company, Niko Resources Ltd, which operates fields in Gujarat, the Bay of Bengal, and Bangladesh. In January 2005, a massive fire broke out in the Bangladeshi gas field of Tengratila - days after Niko commenced operations. Bangladeshi newspapers reported that the flames were as high as 500 feet and that between 10,000 and 20,000 people were evacuated. Government inquiries regarding environmental damage and compensation are going on, with suggestions that safety protocols were violated to undertake risky drilling.

GESO’s role

The primary means by which Yale’s unethical global investment has been uncovered is the campus organisation Graduate Employees and Students Organisation (GESO). Though Dr. Levin claimed in India that Yale’s mandate was to encourage the "full realisation of human potential," the University has consistently denied such possibility to its workers and teachers. For example, within the Ivy League its history of labour relations with its workers in the maintenance and clerical trades has been notable for rancour and tumult, resulting in numerous strikes over the years. GESO itself has been actively seeking recognition for over a decade as a representative of post-graduate teachers and researchers. Dr. Levin’s response has been to systematically deny that they are workers, demeaning their efforts by maintaining that such work is merely a form of "apprenticeship."

This once again masks with fancy language the exploitative labour hierarchies underpinning contemporary university research. In India, Dr. Levin touted that Yale "invests" in Indian students through limited scholarships, forgetting to mention that Yale profits enormously from these students’ labour. This is especially true in the sciences and engineering, where South Asian and other international students conduct the majority of research for increasingly profit-driven projects and joint university-industry initiatives.

Dr. Levin maintained in India that Yale was committed to a "wider world beyond the university walls, a world in which we bear enormous responsibility." Currently, Yale, through its historical amnesia about its roots in colonialism and slavery, its unethical investment policies and demeaning work culture, and its refusal to value the education that its graduate teachers impart, abrogates this responsibility. GESO’s drive for union recognition from the Yale administration directly addresses these concerns. Its members in the past have forced Yale to release its patents on the AIDS drug Zerit, uncovered its investment in Niko’s operations in Bangladesh, and detailed its links with slavery. GESO’s eventual recognition will codify its efforts to reconcile the gap between Dr. Levin’s lofty rhetoric on the "global university" and Yale’s embarrassing lack of accountability and accessibility, particularly to international students and scholars such as those from India.

(Ajay Gandhi is a Ph.D student in the Department of Anthropology at Yale University, and is a member of GESO.)

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