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Each year, literally hundreds of members of the graduating class volunteer for the job of soliciting senior gift funds, the contributions from each senior which mark their transition to alums. The sheer size of the giving committee is impressive; in addition to class co-captains and a steering board, each house has a class agent who in turn supervises an army of house representatives who together contact each member of the Class of 1997 to ask for his or her gift. It is not surprising that this committee of seniors is so large: at a time when many of us are feeling truly thankful about so many facets of our Harvard experience, it seems the least we can do is to make a few phone calls to encourage more members of our class to give a little bit back to the College.
However, when I was approached about being a house representative, something did not feel right. After four years working a term-time job to help fund my time at Harvard, I was a little resentful of the claim that each of us should feel lucky because we receive an enormous tuition subsidy from the College. At the same time, with the limited money I have available to give to institutions I respect, it seems almost ridiculous to give back to an institution that makes more off its endowment each year than many of us will make in a lifetime when I could be giving to struggling charities or service organizations--or even my Internet-challenged high school--which have also had a great impact on my life.
Still, when I received the information in my mailbox detailing the extraordinary number of programs that my contribution would support--and that most of my contribution would go to providing financial aid for students for years to come--I felt a pang of guilt for refusing to help out. Then, about a week ago, when each of us received a "personalized" letter from Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles that emphasized the importance of current and lifelong giving, I almost felt that I was betraying my own grandfather by saying no.
I was just about to rethink my original reaction when about this time there was a groundswell of opinion among a group of seniors (and underclass students filled with impressive forethought) who raised these very questions about the senior gift. As a result of their quick action, last week an alternative senior gift fund (ASGF) committee was formed to solicit funds for an escrow account whose donation to Harvard will be contingent on, according to the ASGF spokespeople, Harvard fulfilling its "decades-old commitment to achieving greater gender and ethnic equity in the Faculty." Indeed, while the University commissioned reports in both 1971 and 1989 recommending target levels of women and minority faculty members, the number are still disgracefully low.
The message is rather simple: you've done a lot for us, Harvard, but to make the experience of students to come as good as it can be, our support will continue to be contingent on you making progress in the areas where progress is so desperately needed. Of course, money in escrow is still money raised. No doubt, the range of progressive causes espoused by the alternative senior gift committee--from curriculum reform to fair labor practices--will give some students, who would otherwise not have contributed, the incentive to write a check. Once tenure standards are met, this money would go to the administration, having earned interest in the meantime while also attracting new donors. In this view, the alternative senior gift might ironically be seen as better in the eyes of the administration.
We are not denying that we want to give back to Harvard. It is unsettling for many of us who have worked for change on campus over the course of out time here to make a purely unrestricted gift to the College in good conscience after having dealt firsthand with many slow-to-change policies over the years. We are not asking for miracles--it is certainly not too much to ask to have the composition and talents of the Faculty reflect the composition and needs of the student body--but we hope that by not simply giving blindly into the pot, we can leave the legacy of a better Harvard experience for the students to come.
Corinne E. Funk's column appears on alternate Mondays.
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