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Give the Senior Gift (the Boot)

The Yearly Pan-Handling Program Benefits Few

By Ted G. Rose

A few days ago, a major international organization asked me for money--a sure sign that I am about to enter the real world. The solicitor was not some political action committee or prestigious foundation, however. To my mild surprise, it was none other than Mother Harvard herself, asking me for cash on what promised to be the first of many occasions.

We are introduced to Harvard's behemoth fundraising machine gently, through a Senior Gift committee composed of an overwhelming number of seniors charged with getting their friends to give to Harvard in the name of the Class.

In the letter I received the other day, the Senior Gift co-chairs informed me about the program, explaining that they were asking me and all of my fellow seniors to "give back to Harvard-Radcliffe." They said the Senior Gift is a monetary donation which is used for such noble causes as student financial aid. They said that the Senior Gift is "an integral part" of Harvard's operating budget, reminding me that "if you have taken advantage of any of Harvard's assets, then you have benefited from past Senior Gifts."

This appeal did not impress me. It confused me. I didn't dispute Harvard's incredible resources, but I thought these resources were what compelled me to pay such a staggering tuition.

Furthermore, it occurred to me that if my giving $35--the amount of the average donation per senior--is integral to Harvard's budget, then Harvard is much worse off than I had heard. Does Harvard really have to mooch off of its graduating seniors in order to provide its basic programs and services?

Saddled with this fear about the future of my soon-to-be alma mater, I consulted one of the Senior Gift organizers in my house. (They're not hard to find around campus; there are 31 organizers on the letterhead alone.) This fellow senior allayed my fears. Harvard will probably survive without my $35, she reassured me. In fact, as I learned later, Harvard could easily get by without the entire Senior Gift. Last year, the Class of 1993 displayed its class spirit by handing over a not-so-whopping $41,000 to Harvard. To put that number in perspective, that's less than the tuition, room, and board, for two students. And that was the most any class had ever given.

I knew there had to be another reason for the existence of the Senior Gift. Sure enough, the fellow senior I consulted offered me a much better explanation. "It gets you into the habit of giving to Harvard," she told me.

This argument made a lot of sense. While the Senior Gift clearly has a negligible effect on the University, it's hard to deny that alumni contributions as a whole must play a huge role. (After all, Harvard has to get names for its buildings.) And I understand that giving is not something that comes naturally to everyone; it does have to be learned. What better way to learn than through the Senior Gift, a concerted drive by members of the class to pump their friends for a token donation of cash.

But just as I prepared to write out a check to Harvard, I learned that not everybody is asked to make merely a symbolic donation. A few select students (i.e. students from wealthy families) are asked to pay more. In fact, the Senior Gift has a separate Special Gifts committee established just to woo these "special" students.

Now this really troubled me. If the goal of the exercise is to encourage the habit of giving, why ask different people to give different amounts? To encourage giving proportional to one's income, was the answer co-chair A. Jabbar Abdi '94 gave The Crimson in a recent interview.

But the amount we are expected to give, as graduating seniors, seems to have less to do with our income and more to do with our parents' income. In fact, while we're on the subject, how many seniors have that much independently-earned, disposable income to contribute anyway? Most of us receive some or all of our money from scholarships and parents, which many of us then supplement through part-time employment. Hardly the makings of true financial independence.

Yet Mother Harvard tells all of us that we have to contribute money right now in order to show that we care. What's more, our supposedly independent gift will be judged generous or not generous--"special" or not, as the committee euphemistically refers to it--on the basis of our parents' income, not ours.

The irony is that most of us give generously of our time, perhaps our only true possession at this stage of the game. Through these gifts, Mother Harvard benefits by its association with everything that we do. Harvard benefits when we teach in the Cambridge schools and it benefits when we host international mock government programs in Europe. Harvard benefits when we participate on one of its dozens of athletic teams and it benefits when we win prestigious scholarships. The list goes on and on. And no one should have any doubts that these benefits are worth more than $41,000.

After four years of participating in this type of generous giving, Harvard informs me and all my fellow seniors that we must be trained to start giving for real. Could it be that Harvard College, supposedly one of the best liberal arts colleges in the world, does not understand that giving can take many forms?

Instead of hitting us up for money, Harvard should be thanking us for what we have already contributed, which, it seems to me, the school attempts to do with an embarrassingly large number of celebrations that lead up to our graduation.

This ludicrous Senior Gift, then, is only a small part of the Senior year experience. But it is still inappropriate.

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