Senior class theft

Healthy skepticism necessary when considering Senior Class Gift.

By Andrew Alexander

As soon as you become a fourth-year, the letters start arriving.

“You’ve already paid $200,000 for your college education,” they seem to say. “Isn’t it time you gave the University of Chicago some more money?”

“Well, no,” you think. “It’s time I start paying off my student loan debt.”

But the letters persist, as do the e-mails, and they’re filled with offers of free food, and you begin to think that the U of C wants you to give money to the Senior Class Gift even more badly than it wanted you to understand Plato’s Republic.

Of course, it’s not like a university whose endowment is nearly $5 billion in a bad year really needs your spare change. Rather, the intent is to get students into the habit of tithing, so that in 30 years when they’ve made a fortune selling subprime mortgages, they’ll have no problem thinking that the single best way to use their $300 million is to give it to the U of C.

The result of this type of behavior is that the four richest schools in the U.S.—Harvard, Stanford, Yale, and Princeton—hold nearly 20 percent of the total university wealth. But according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, they educate less than one-third of a percent of American college students.

The more money a school like the U of C has, the more money it can put toward fundraising and toward hiring money managers who will make the endowment grow 10 times faster than inflation. Meanwhile, poorer colleges have to put more of their money toward banal activities like teaching and research. They can’t afford to pay their fund managers $35 million a year, which is how much several of Harvard’s top bankers were making several years ago–, and so their endowments limp along, growing but growing slowly, and the disparity increases.

Everyone has different goals when they donate to charity. But surely helping only our educational elite—the poor college students forced to subsist on ramen and Snickers bars—is not the best way to improve society. Surely there are other charities that are just as worthy: the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, the American Civil Liberties Union.

But the development office doesn’t entice us with free bagels if we give money to those organizations.

And a massive budget is not the only thing the U of C’s fundraising apparatus benefits from. The University has an army of indentured servants––first-years at the Telefund office––who call up alumni and use their best pouty voices to guilt graduates into forking over their credit card numbers.

“The University of Chicago has done so much for you! And what have you ever done for it?”

“I paid my tuition.”

Their fundraising efforts have all the sleaze of a Madison Avenue marketing campaign, complete with a narrow-minded zeal that anyone with even the rudiments of a U of C education should be able to see through.

But that’s probably the way it should be. Imagine the alternative: “Hi! I’m calling from the University of Chicago, and we’d like you to donate some money to us. But first, please run the cost-benefit analysis to determine what size donation will be most efficient and will maximize your bettering-the-world goals. Trained economists are standing by if you need assistance.”

Very U of C perhaps, but also very ineffective. I like the U of C, and I’d like it to remain a great university. Nothing but the most aggressive fundraising will keep it that way.

On the other hand, I think it’s equally clear that the University of Chicago is not the only worthy organization in the world. So I’ll be writing a check for $20.09. But it’ll be made out to Doctors Without Borders, and in the “memo” section, I’ll write, “In honor of the University of Chicago Class of 2009.”

Andrew Alexander is a fourth-year in the College majoring in chemistry. He is an Associate Viewpoints Editor.