Out of Little Acorns
For most of this century, seniors have been bidding farewell to the College by putting cash gifts in its coffers. Alumni bear a significant portion of Harvard's funding burden: donations help keep up facilities, pay salaries, and guarantee need-blind admissions decisions. Their studies almost complete, seniors become alumni-in-training. "First you get them in the habit," says veteran fundraiser Ernest Monrad '51, "and hopefully, out of little acorns big trees will grow."
The appeal for donations coincides with perhaps the most awkward financial moment of our lives. Gargantuan bills for tuition, room, and board are still to be paid, not to mention loans that will dog many of us for years. Still, as fundraisers are quick to point out, the actual cost of a Harvard education is roughly twice the tuition charge. Its enormous endowment notwithstanding, Harvard (and Radcliffe, which also benefits from the senior gift) is always money-hungry.
I am lucky enough to be able to afford a donation, and I'll gladly give it.
Besides, according to co-chairs Margaret Harding '93 and Sameer A. Chishty '93, the class gift campaign emphasizes the ethic of giving. This year's $30,000 goal, says Harding, "is less important than participation.... We want 70 percent of the class to participate."
The ends of the senior class gift are indisputably noble. The means, on the other hand, are sometimes troubling— even offensive. The heart of the trouble seems to lie in an internal contradiction.
Chishty, Harding, and Jennifer Beynart, their contact at the Harvard College Fund, portray the class gift as a natural extension of the educational process. "The whole thing is meant to be positive," says Beynart. "If someone says 'no,' fine The whole purpose of the senior gift is to educate seniors about why Harvard needs money.... We would prefer ten bucks from someone who understood the purpose of the gift, rather than half a million from a person who didn't."
But like all fundraising programs, the class gift campaign uses propaganda and pressure tactics to pry open the wallets of reluctant seniors. Asked how the campaign methods resemble his own, Monrad says, "It's the same idea. You want somebody to do what Louis Auchincloss called an unnatural act, divest themselves of their money." Harding, who with Chishty planned a series of ad messages to run in the Crimson, says she loathes negative advertising. But the central message of their "positive" campaign ("If you care about Harvard, you will give to the senior gift") has a negative twist: "If you don't give, you don't care about Harvard."
As if the ads weren't enough to make one wary, consider the arm of the campaign concerned with "special" or "leadership" gifts. Through a series of gossip sessions in which seniors speculate on the wealth of their classmates, class gift coordinators drew up a select list of 130. These seniors were removed from House lists and solicited separately by a committee of class agents (each of whom would give a minimum of $250).
Although Beynart maintains that the class gift is not a traditional fundraising effort, she defends this approach. "You're not a good fundraiser if you don't maximize what you can raise," she says. "It would be stupid to approach someone in your class who had a House named for him and ask for thirty bucks. He would be insulted."
That may be true for some seniors, but at least one says she found it repugnant to be targeted for a special gift. She didn't like people speculating about how much money she had. "That's none of their business," she says. "It made me feel cheap because I had to explain why I didn't have that money."
Some seniors object to a cash gift that appears to be little more than a drop in a huge budget bucket. Since the gift is symbolic, some ask, why not leave instead some tangible mark of our existence—a room of a library, for example? But the development office prefers cash. And cash it is.
Harvard has an obligation, no doubt, to support its students with as much alumni funding as it can muster. But we are, still, the students. When I asked Beynart why younger students were spared by the fundraising machine, she answered, "I'm working on that.... It is an incredibly labor-intensive project. We don't have the manpower to get underclassmen, so we hit 'em when they're seniors." Naively, I had expected some kind of concession that the line must be drawn somewhere—that for at least three years undergraduates should be left to enjoy unpressured the advantages Harvard fundraisers work so hard to secure for them. Wrong.
Inside the ivied walls, there's an ostensible effort to create a community of equals. What matters is intellect, enthusiasm, and commitment to the ideals of a liberal arts education. But just beneath the surface lies an all-but-explicit recognition that compromises may be required to keep the coffers full. We all know that money makes the world go round; but the class gift helps make that a defining element of our Harvard experience.
On the face of it this is a student-controlled project, run by the two co-chairs under the auspices of the popularly elected class committee. "It's the student volunteers," Beynart says, "who put the blood, sweat, and tears into this effort." Having taken an hour out of her busy schedule to discuss the senior gift, Beynart ended our conversation by urging me to emphasize the work done by students and avoid mentioning her and her colleagues wherever possible.
But Harvard development officers, not the students, are the principal architects of the class gift campaign. Shortly after their election last October, Beynart contacted Mukesh Prasad '93 and Maitri Chowdhury '93, the first marshals of the class. The three of them appointed the co-chairs, who followed a development office agenda to get the campaign in motion. Though students do most of the legwork, Chowdhury acknowledges that "it's pretty much all run by the development office."
# # # Even the most cynical of my friends, who have always understood that Harvard is as much about fundraising as it is about lectures and labs, were surprised that class gift agents exploit friendships in the name of fundraising. Agents are allowed to choose classmates to solicit, and most tend to hit on their friends. One senior who was asked to serve as an agent says he was told that someone from his social group was needed because "we try to cover all the cliques." In some scenarios a friend asking for money might be easier to turn down than a stranger. Gift officials try to avoid
that situation by training agents to emphasize the personal element. "They are told that they should say, 'Listen, this is why the senior gift is important to me,'" Beynart explains. A sample pledge form even suggests stock pleasantries: "Thanks, Skip! Our class appreciates your gift. Good luck on the thesis! —
My initial reaction to the senior gift was probably fairly typical: "Why can't it wait a few months?" Apparently that's ingenuous. "It's much better to catch them while they're still on campus," Beynart told me. "Let them ask questions. Let them call me. You can't educate in phone-a-thons the way you can while the class is still here."
Still, an introduction to the complexities of Harvard finances shouldn't require the heavy machinery of a fundraising campaign. The development folks could just as well marshal the same hundred-plus volunteers and send them along with some such message as, "Hey, [friend's name]. If you could spare five minutes, I'd like to tell you a few things about Harvard that the University feels we should know before we graduate. Don't worry, I won't ask for money. It's just that this is the best time to really communicate with you, before Commencement."
Another problem with the development office's educational strategy is the material that's disseminated. A fine line separates fact from propaganda, and this stuff does little credit to the Veritas seal affixed to it. A flow chart explaining the use of the senior gift is broken into three categories: "Financial Aid and Scholarships (your roommate, 65 percent of your class, future students), Faculty Salaries (Marjorie Garber, Gregory Nagy, Spike Lee), and Operating Expenses (hot showers, shuttlebus, cornflakes)."
The chart implies that each category commands an equal portion of the budget. In fact "operating expenses," at 42 percent, outweighs the others. And though showers, campus transportation, and cereal have their charms, libraries, departmental expenses, facilities, and faculty recruitment may have an even stronger claim on seniors' gift dollars. True, they can choose to restrict their gifts for use in undergraduate education, but the distinction is somewhat arbitrary, since Harvard money is Flarvard money. A $35 gift applied to financial aid doesn't necessarily mean that $35 more will be spent; it means that $35 less will have to come from other sources of income.
In any nonprofit situation, or any business where profit is not the primary motive, there's a delicate balance between the institution and the business apparatus designed to support it. Do Harvard's fundraisers sometimes forget that they exist to support the University, its ideals of truth and equity, and not the other way around? I wonder.
Of course there is some validity to the doomsday scenario of an end to need-blind admissions if alumni donations falter. But at what point do the unremitting efforts to gather funds begin to violate the principles on which the Harvard community is built?
Joshua W. Shenk '93-'94, of Dunster House and Cincinnati, is former executive editor of the Crimson.
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