Opinion | Op-eds

‘Ask not what your university can do for you’

Hungry seniors—myself included—lined up at the Columbia Alumni Center, eager to ruin their appetites with alcohol and vanish desserts. But make no mistake, the champagne and cake pops did not come sans obligation. All who attended the Senior Fund’s “Champagne and Dessert Reception” were expected to do their part; to donate, either then and there or later at one's leisure—so long as it was done before graduation day.

Donating is expected of us as seniors, or so the Senior Fund would have us believe. Donations are being accepted online until the 30th of June. It's part of our transition from Columbia students to alumni. As we reflect on our Columbia experiences, we give back to the university that made it all possible—by opening our checkbooks, of course. Then, once we've graduated, we're encouraged by Dean James Valentini's “3, 2, 1” challenge to continue to give each year. We should give back to Columbia for three straight years after graduation, tell two friends to do the same, and then see our donations matched one-to-one. 3, 2, 1.

Like liquor and dessert on an empty stomach, Valentini's challenge remains unsubstantial. What exactly is the "challenge"? To be able to afford a donation? To convince two of your peers to join with you? There is no set fundraising goal to meet. The only real challenge seems to be Valentini's: to get young soon-to-graduates in the habit of donating to Columbia. It's the same goal as the Senior Fund. Class pride and giving back to the community are just euphemisms for what really matters: money, at a time when most graduating seniors have so little of it.

These two programs cannot help but come off as disingenuous. Any donation that current students can make are just be a drop in the bucket of the University’s massive endowment. Indeed, both the Senior Fund and the “3, 2, 1” challenge are focused on getting as many students as possible to participate, and not on the size of the gift given. This isn’t done to foster community among new alumni—it’s conditioning. Senior Fund Chair Maria Sulimirski, CC ‘13, has openly described the program as an “induction into giving.” Once we fill our bank accounts, we are expected to show the University our gratitude and encourage the next generation of graduating seniors to do the same. That’s exactly what Charles Santoro, CC ’82, is doing. He’s generously pledged to donate “$5,000 to the College Fund when the Senior Fund has 250 donors, another $20,000 at 500 donors and another $75,000 at 750 donors.” And how did the Senior Fund react to a such powerful incentive? It went aggressively fishing for donations, soliciting seniors for gifts as low as $1 and even offering to make donations in your name if you were unwilling to pay. 

A pair of Senior Fund representatives even came to my room and “encouraged” me to give then and there— a common tactic referred to as “dorm-storming”. If you should refuse, the fund keeps your name on a list and will continue to badger you until you give. The hard sell approach has proven effective, and seniors are a captive audience. In 2004 the Columbia College Senior Fund achieved 75% participation, even as their tactics were being accused of being morally bankrupt by students.

But do these participation rates and donation drives really say anything meaningful about the strength of the Columbia community? When did we decide that we were going to measure school pride in increments of $20.13? Dean Valentini has defended these programs, saying that “It’s not the money, it’s not the amount, it’s the symbolism that we all owe something to the college—every last one of us.” But it’s plain to see that both the Senior Fund and the “3, 2, 1” challenge are about generating money and little else.

Alumni donations will always serve a role in providing financial aid for students and funding for other important programs. However, I question the University's attempts to browbeat the class of 2013 for donations before we’ve even graduated. Many of us are still looking for jobs, or are continuing on to graduate school. Many of us have substantial student loans to pay, or have parents who dug into their retirement savings to pay for our tuition. Even those of us who have jobs lined up still need to worry about paying rent and building personal savings. These obligations come first, and the University should respect that. The University should encourage students to achieve financial independence before it comes along with the collection plate.

If Columbia wants to forge the graduating class of 2013 into dedicated alumni it needs to understand this: We do want to give back to Columbia, but we want to give back on our on time, in our own way. We do not owe the college anything more than what we paid in tuition. The money that we give, if we choose to give money, is just that: a gift. But the best way to get the graduating class to support Columbia with such gifts is to support the seniors now as we head out into an unknown world, still uncertain of what the future holds.

Aggressively guilting seniors into giving may be effective in the short term, but by framing giving as a purely monetary obligation, the college alienates seniors like myself. There are plenty of ways for us to give back to the University through service, rather than our bank accounts. Help strengthen our alumni network and let us soon-to-be-graduates act as mentors for current and incoming students. Then, in 10 or 15 years, when we’ve experienced the impact of a Columbia education, we’ll all be more likely to remember the school fondly and give back. Surely a program that actually builds community would bring alumni closer together than just asking us to write yearly checks.

There is no shortcut to building community, and that, Dean Valentini, is a real challenge.

The author graduated from Columbia College with a degree in in physics and economics-math in May. He was the editor in chief of the Cub Pub.

To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.


Plain text

  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
Your username will not be displayed if checked
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Anonymous posted on

The University spends 4 dollars to every full tuition dollar student pays. So the student does "owe" the university for providing a branded education and a degree at below cost.

R. Waldo Emerson posted on

The author makes valid points, and it is demeaning for the University to host these affronts. The article should have been published in late May when it was first submitted.