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Gift, Darfur Compete for Senior Support

By Elisabeth S. Theodore, Crimson Staff Writer

Forget penny-pinching classmates: this year’s student fundraisers for Senior Gift had to battle a counter-campaign, a counter-counter–campaign, a flurry of media coverage, and a major Corporation announcement.

In February, student activists turned the spotlight away from the Yard and toward conflict in Sudan. Calling their campaign Senior Gift Plus, they asked classmates to withhold donations to the annual fundraising drive until Harvard sold its shares in PetroChina, a Beijing-based oil firm with ties to the Sudanese government. In an unusual move, the Harvard Corporation agreed in April to divest.

Despite a surge of donations in April, Senior Gift raised the least money since 1998 and attracted the lowest participation figure since 2001. As of last week 941 seniors­—60 percent of the Class of 2005—had donated a total of $31,108 to the campaign.

Brandon M. Terry ’05, the former president of the Black Men’s Forum and one of the leaders of Senior Gift Plus, said the divestment made it impossible to tell what impact the movement had on the campaign’s numbers.

The participation rate stood at 23 percent in mid-April, but organizers made a push during the last week of House Competition, which ended April 24. Kaitlin P. Gallo ’05, a Senior Gift co-chair, said she thinks the low initial figures stemmed from procrastination rather than the Senior Gift Plus campaign.

“I think that initially people may have had some questions” about whether to withhold donations, she said. “In the end people made the decision based on the merits of Senior Gift.”

Terry and former Undergraduate Council President Matthew W. Mahan ’05 formed the campaign after learning that Harvard had doubled its shares in PetroChina during the final quarter of 2004, even in the face of widespread anger over the investment. By February, over 80 professors and 600 students had signed on online petition calling on Harvard to divest from the company.

Terry said the initial response to their campaign, which originally called for students to withhold all donations, was “both positive and negative.” After conversations with students including Victor A. Amoo ’05 and Jane Kim ’05, Senior Gift Plus organizers decided that instead of discouraging donations, they would encourage them—but to a separate escrow fund that would be directed to Senior Gift when Harvard divested, and would otherwise go to the Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights.

The move was designed, Terry said, to “show people that we’re really serious and not just trying to be cheap”—to head off the criticism of Senior Gift Plus he and others were expecting. “The counterattack was really, ‘oh you guys basically just want to save money, and be on a moral high horse or grandstand.’”

While alternative gift campaigns have existed in past years, Gallo and her co-chair Stephanie N. Kendall ’05 said Senior Gift Plus was unique in its implementation.

“This was definitely the most organized effort of its kind that anyone can remember at the Harvard College Fund,” Kendall said.

The campaign sparked heated debates on campus e-mail lists, with Senior Gift Plus supporters going head to head with the House representatives for Senior Gift. In an op-ed in The Crimson, three student leaders of Senior Gift called it a “unifying and undauntedly positive” experience for seniors.

The Senior Gift Plus campaign, the students wrote, “not only creates a bad choice but is also mean spirited.”

A group of seniors even launched a parody website, Senior Gift Plus Plus, mocking the campaign and suggesting that Mahan and Terry had hijacked Senior Gift.

“It’s important to mention that Senior Gift Plus was really an effort to help the situation in Darfur, more than to hurt Senior Gift,” Kendall said. “It was unfortunate that they had to choose this method.”

While Terry said that Harvard’s investment in Sudan, not Senior Gift Plus, was divisive, the movement served its purpose even if it sparked some incensed exchanges between the two sides.

“People got all wrapped up in Senior Gift versus Senior Gift Plus because that looks cute in newspapers and makes for good dinner time conversation,” he said. “The real triumph of Senior Gift Plus is that it forced the entire campus to talk about Darfur for months, where we had refused to before—with all the columns and protests outside, we could ignore that.”

Gallo, though, said that much of the campaign’s draw stemmed from its lack of requirements for most members. “Part of the reason people signed on to Senior Gift Plus is it’s an easy way to not give money,” she said.

But Terry said it was effective for being so provocative, and that quieter methods of activism had simply been ineffective.

“One of the great things about our whole movement was that it started out with the divestment petitions and the columns and the conversations. Those were rejected,” Terry said. “We did Senior Gift Plus. The entire campus flips out. It’s picked up by Air America and German TV, just everywhere, right. Harvard is just thrown for a loop. They make the decision to divest faster than they probably would have.”

—Staff writer Elisabeth S. Theodore can be reached at theodore@fas.harvard.edu.

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