The Case for Senior Gift

Senior Gift supports financial aid and college improvements. To attack this effort as a means to address divestment of the Harvard endowment is misguided and wrong. The money raised by Senior Gift does not contribute to the endowment, and the Harvard College Fund does not determine investment policy. Those who try to set these two honorable causes against each other have done so to the detriment of both.

Senior Gift is a positive, student-led effort that educates classmates about giving to the College and encourages a small contribution to a collective class gift. The Gift doesn’t go towards stone benches, iron gates, or planting trees in the Yard. We all agree that Harvard has enough of such things. Instead, one’s gift is donated (depending upon the individual’s request) to either financial aid or college life improvements. This year, about 150 members of the Class of 2005 have volunteered to talk to their friends and Housemates about these causes.

While the point has been made that the Senior Gift is small compared to the millions of dollars that are donated every year to financial aid scholarships, this does not mean that it is insubstantial. This year, Harvard announced one of the largest ever expansions of its financial aid program, drastically lessening the contribution of families that make $40,000 to $60,000 per year. Families with an income of less than $40,000 per year will now pay nothing to Harvard for their child’s education. Those who contribute to Senior Gift will join together with thousands of alumni to participate in funding this new initiative, and although we can’t fund the program ourselves, we can all agree it is much more significant than another stone bench.

Currently, Senior Gift volunteers are under siege by an organization that will withhold gifts until Harvard divests from PetroChina, a company that invests in Sudan. Recently, they’ve co-opted the Senior Gift name, confusing our classmates and distracting attention from the causes of financial aid, college improvements, and giving back to Harvard. It’s difficult to talk to busy seniors, and it’s always awkward to ask for money, but we’re now also being painted as supporting the Sudanese genocide. Rather than allow two important issues to be debated on their own merits, these classmates have decided to force seniors to make a choice between two good ideas: the divestment of Harvard’s endowment from PetroChina and the support of Senior Gift and financial aid for the college, which is money that will never be invested with the endowment.

Although the Senior Gift Plus campaign targets that which is wrong with Harvard, Senior Gift speaks to what is right. While all of us have concerns about the university, Senior Gift is a unifying way to say “thank you” to the college for whatever meant the most to us. Financial aid is a cause we can all support, but the reasons seniors choose to donate are individual. Some give in recognition of lasting friendships, some for exciting classes, and many because they simply believe in giving back to this community. But all join together in the same gift. It’s unifying and undauntedly positive. And for the cost of a movie ticket, you can be a part of this effort. We’re not asking for your first paycheck or your firstborn. (We hear that comes later.)

To force two separate and important issues to be argued against each other not only creates a bad choice but is also mean spirited. Why target a positive, senior-led effort as a way of sending a message to the University or its pocketbook? Why not refuse to buy food from the Greenhouse? There are more effective means of advocacy than simply signing your name and withholding money from the Senior Gift. Since the Senior Gift, the Harvard College Fund, and the Harvard Alumni Association have no jurisdiction over Harvard’s investment policy, we suggest that people who support divestment contact those with influence over Harvard’s finances.

University President Lawrence H. Summers is holding office hours on March 8, from 4 p.m to 5 p.m. Go there and speak with him. You can also write or e-mail the senior members of the Harvard Corporation. Senior Fellow James R. Houghton can be reached at houghtonjr@corning.com and the next most senior member, Hanna Gray, can be reached at hgray@uchicago.edu. Both can receive mail at the Office of the Governing Boards, Loeb House, 17 Quincy Street, Cambridge, MA 02138.

Students who wish to improve the University can do so by contributing to Senior Gift and by contacting those in charge of the endowment. But to attack the generous spirit of giving and the causes that define Senior Gift is an affront to future generations of Harvard students, who will want to know why their predecessors took a stand against their own classmates, financial aid, and a better Harvard.

Stephanie N. Kendall ’05 is a government concentrator in Kirkland House. Michael B. Firestone ’05 is a history concentrator in Leverett House. Jessica E. Vascellaro ’05, executive editor of The Crimson in 2004, is a history concentrator in Currier House. They are co-chair and participation chairs of Senior Gift, respectively.