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Harvard Can't Have My Change

By David A. Fahrenthold

For those of you not familiar with it, let me briefly explain the Senior Gift. Harvard has $14 billion in the bank, enough money to rent God out for the weekend. I have a Pizza Ring coupon and a dresser drawer full of change. The Senior Gift is Harvard saying, "How much change you got?" So you can see why so many seniors are complaining: we've got almost nothing, but the world's richest university still wants some of it. The Senior Gift is like Mr. Universe trying to eat your grandmother's vitamins. It's like a food drive for Microsoft executives. It just doesn't make sense.

The best argument anyone can think of for the Senior Gift is "You should establish a habit of giving for your lifetime." It seems like the act of writing a check to Harvard is simple enough that I could just do it when I became old and rich, without any practice. But Harvard feels I might be an irresponsible, undirected old wealthy person, so I need conditioning. It also, incidentally, recommends that I spend five minutes a day playing pinochle, wearing gigantic sunglasses and talking about the Washington Senators, just so other habits of being elderly are familiar when the time comes.

Senior Gift organizers also say the money you donate can go toward scholarships. But Harvard already pays out all the financial aid money it wants to. Therefore every dollar you give to scholarships is a dollar that Harvard doesn't have to--it can be spent on something else. So I got to thinking about how Harvard might spend my gift, and how Harvard spends the extra money it already has. You only have to think of the Memorial Hall Tower (Motto: "Beauty is Its Own Excuse for Being Useless," or "Less Wasteful than a Platinum Sombrero") to know that Harvard's spending habits are a scary picture.

Case in point: the Harvard Dining Services newsletter, "Tidbits." This newsletter is very well designed and talks about new cooking and preparation techniques being used to improve my food. Nice breakfast reading, but useless: it essentially advertises food I have no choice but to eat. If I was considering offers from Tufts or MIT dining services, then maybe I would want to read about Harvard's new "Quick-Freezing" food preparation technology. But I'm not. If I don't like what they're serving in the Dunster Dining Hall, my only alternative is a six-pound bag of raisins my roommate's mother mailed him in October.

There's also something weird about the belief that telling me the story of my food's preparation will make me like it more. Things live and die, and then someone processes them into edible portions. This is a complete telling of the story, "Food." The basic plot hasn't changed for centuries. I shouldn't need to know any more details, any more history, in order to decide if my food tastes good or not. If I did, then with every paper I turned in at Harvard, I would submit a little newsletter about how the paper was written. Sample headlines could include, "Fahrenthold: New Sweatpant Technology Increases Comfort, Efficiency while Writing Paper," and "Crisis at Page Seven: 'This Coffee Has Bugs in It!'" By knowing the story behind the paper, my TF would know to up my grade.

An even more egregious example was a packet I received earlier this year about Harvard's library system. "Jump back! It's Harvard's library system!" this packet said in 847 glossy pages. I heard that prototype versions were even fancier: they projected a hologram of President Neil L. Rudenstine beating the president of Yale over the head with Moby Dick and declaring, "Kick the crap out of learning!" Did we really need this? Was there anyone at Harvard unaware that its libraries existed? Harvard's hope must have been that some kid in Stoughton would say, "Well, Hallelujah! I can stop writing all my papers using only the Encyclopedia Britannica and Little House on the Prairie!"

"Tidbits" and the library packet advertise services that are both obvious and inescapable for every Harvard student. You have to wonder what's next. A singing telegram about the Foreign Language Requirement? A brick through my window from the registrar's office? A basket of cookies with the message, "Laundry is fun in the Dunster basement?" Give money to the University now, and in ten years you'll come back for Harvard-Yale and see a plane pulling a banner flying overhead. "Harvard University free toilet paper: When you go, you'll know." Yep, you helped pay for that.

As for me, I've already made my Senior Gift pledge. I promise not to take my thousands of dollars in student loan debt and move to Mexico.

At least not right away.

David A. Fahrenthold '00 is a history concentrator in Dunster House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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