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Coerced Encouraged Student Giving

The NYTimes has picked up on an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about senior class giving campaigns:

At Cornell, pressure to contribute to the senior gift was applied through the sorority system, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, which reported on the issue in its latest edition.

Erica Weitzner, a Cornell graduate who is now in medical school, said she received two or three phone calls and a few e-mails from sorority sisters saying they knew she had not donated. "I understand the theory behind the Cornell campaign is they want their seniors to donate, but pushing this hard makes it seem like it's no longer really a donation but more like part of tuition," she said.

Encouraging graduating seniors to support the alma mater is nothing new of course, but the article makes it out to be some sort of new, new thing. When I graduated all seniors who had given a gift were prominently featured in periodic Daily Sun ads. And well, it doesn't take a Cornell degree to engage in some elementary deduction.

What seems to be new is the level of peer pressure that some student organizations (sororities, sports teams, etc.) employed to increase contributions. Such actions are of course a bit over the top, but are probably nothing more than an isolated case or two. (Dartmouth's experience, with one student's highly public refusal to give, seems a bit more peculiar.)

The real question is this: at what point is a university responsible for some over-zealous student efforts to support their alma mater? Was the incessant pestering of certain students by their peers without tact? Sure. But it's not like we're talking about binge drinking here.

That said, Erica Weitzner's argument is completely wrong. A senior class gift is in no way like tuition, because, 1) it's a voluntary act, and 2) students can designate worthwhile causes on campus to which they would like to donate their money. It's completely at their discretion.

I earmarked my senior class gift to the Cornell Tradition; not exactly handing Skorton and Fuchs a blank check. After four years on campus, I find it hard to believe a student wouldn't have a pet department on campus that they find worthy of their Thursday night beer money, be it the Public Service Center, the Plantations, an athletic team, or their Greek House's scholarship fund (or bar tab, as the case may be).

The bigger issue, of course, is that many students don't realize that their tuition only covers a fraction of the cost of their education. Fancy research labs, exhaustive libraries, and extensive educational outreach initiatives don't come cheap and they're funded in part by the generosity of alumni like me and those who came before me.

So you're very welcome, Erica Weitzner. I'll see you at the next Ivy Society reception, right?

N.B. Coincidentally, the original CHE article was written by a Cornell alumna -- Rachel Louise Ensign '10. One can't help but wonder if she supported Ezra's vision last year.

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on October 27, 2010 (#)

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