You can support our engineering library auditorium…or you can turn the page

I was eating dinner the other night, and the phone rang. It was an undergraduate classmate noting that I had yet to contribute to our class’s annual giving. She’s a nice person. I also have warm feelings towards Princeton, which opened valuable opportunities and treated me well. So I gave seventy-five bucks.

I gave, not entirely happily. My electronic and snail mail boxes are stuffed with fundraising missives presented with an urgency more appropriate to Oxfam than for one of America’s very wealthiest nonprofit institutions—one that educates some of the most privileged young people in the world. (My favorite: “Great news! If you are making a concerted effort to not pay your $50 class dues, you are well on your way to success!”)

Last year, my own undergraduate class donated $5,101,985 to Princeton’s annual giving. It was a big reunion year. And I don’t begrudge anyone’s charitable giving. Still, this is out of proportion. As of June 30, 2010, Princeton’s endowment totaled $14.4 billion. That’s almost $3 million for every enrolled student. Princeton is a great university, a national treasure. It just doesn’t need the money.

I am especially sensitive to this. My wife and I support the New Hope Center, a great organization that cares for her brother and hundreds of other intellectually disabled adults in the Chicago southland. Most families who rely on New Hope are of modest means. Many caregivers are elderly widows, part of that pioneering generation that took care of their children for decades in the family home. This is a tough time for the disabled and their families, especially in Illinois which faces a budget crisis and ranks 48th in the nation by some measures of intellectual disability services. New Hope attracted almost $400,000 in contributions last year. It needs this money more than Princeton does.

I teach at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration. Most of our students are social workers, who take on very difficult challenges serving vulnerable people and communities. Our students need the money more than Princeton does, too.

I’ll continue to pay my class dues and to make token contributions to a university to which I am grateful. Yet in this very difficult time for so many people, Ivy League graduates should express our deepest gratitude by helping people, communities, and institutions that really need our help, not by focusing our giving on universities that are wonderful places, but that are sufficiently blessed not to require this kind of help.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

11 thoughts on “You can support our engineering library auditorium…or you can turn the page”

  1. I’m not an Ivy alum (I went to a pair of state schools – including the one that’s just up Route 27 a ways from Princeton), but I agree completely. I concentrate my giving on a local food bank and a shelter/drop-in center for LGBT kids who have been tossed out of the house by their parents. And assuming I outlive my partner, my estate will go to the shelter as well.

  2. I pretty much agree, with one caveat. I was lucky enough to get a fair amount of financial aid from Ye Olde Ivies. The analytical part of me knows that this is nothing but a form of price discrimination, but the rest of me still can’t help but view it as a debt of honor. So I repay it, with a bit of interest.

  3. Matthew Yglesias once referred to his alma mater, Harvard, as a hedge fund that runs an educational subsidiary for tax purposes.

  4. That’s what I think and do too (although my alma mater seems to be relatively poor, having an endowment of only about three-quarters of a million dollars per student).

    Which leads to a question for Professor O’Hare that occured to me while reading recently in the New Yorker about Alice Walton’s new Crystal Bridges art museum: Can you morally defend spending millions on high culture?

  5. Another example of the fundamental property of money.

    Money is like gravity, ever attracting more money, ultimately forming black holes that shine no light and create no new life…
    Doesn’t matter the culture. Doesn’t matter the economic system. Anything post-agricultural functions this way…
    That’s why every culture since then, has had its Goemon or its Robin Hood or its progressive taxation.

    Which leads to me to a profound side thought:

    The worst of all possible governments may will be plutocracy that has convinced its peons that it is a democracy.

  6. Koreyel,
    Nice epigram, but I’ll see you and raise you. “The worst of all possible governments may well be plutocracy that has convinced itself that it is a meritocratic democracy.”

  7. Enenezer, i’m pretty sure that the powerful of any culture convince themselves that their power is thoroughly deserved. The trick is to build a society where they’re right …

  8. koreyel says: The worst of all possible governments may will be plutocracy that has convinced its peons that it is a democracy.

    Something that I find incredibly ignorant and funny at the same time is the number of people in Asia and Africa that actually believe that the US is a democracy. Now that is some truly incredible propaganda victory for the filthy rich.

  9. I basically agree with the ideas here, but I do give non-token amounts to a particular program within my alma mater of which my wife and I have fond memories and which would likely cease to exist without alumni support. If the program does end, my donations will probably end too. At the very least they will be sharply reduced. There are better causes, but gifts aren’t only about the recipients being deserving. On the other hand, my concessions to sentiment probably shouldn’t be tax-deductible.

  10. “Can you morally defend spending millions on high culture?”
    Well that, just like the issue of spending money on the Ivies, is the issue, isn’t it? What is the point of life/my life/humanity/civilization?

    The hard-edged logic case is to say that the truth is most humans are no different from any other. They are born, the live, they die; and their individual lives affect the future as much or as little as the lives of an individual fly. What matters is what we can do BEYOND simply living and reproducing, which for some of us means the production of great art, for others the production of great science, for others the production of great engineering.
    Do you buy that logic? That’s really what this is about — do you care about what Ulric the random peasant was doing in France in 1250, or do you care about Chartre?

    I’d add two caveats to this hard-edged logic.
    The easy caveat is that some degree of helping those less fortunate makes sense simply on instrumental grounds — you may not think you will ever need the social security net, but can you be sure? And even if you don’t need it, whatever about your relatives and friends, fifty years from now? Likewise, having a social security net makes for a nicer society, one with less crime, less fear, less infectious disease, less political upheaval.

    The more difficult caveat is the issue of guilt, or perhaps not even that, the issue of empathy. Those who can, under all circumstances, steel their hearts agains suffering they see, are, frankly, inhuman in the most literal sense. On the other hand, it is vastly easier to feel such unconditional sympathy for animals and children than for adults; and I think the reason is because we are all to well aware that many (most?) adults are deeply flawed. In the aggregate sense, this is the issue of many African-Americans, now that they’re no longer discriminated against in law, feeling it’s just fine to treat gays badly; or likewise for Israelis against Arabs; or Serbians going on about how they’ve been wronged by Albanians since the thirteenth century. At the individual level, it is people deliberately making bad decisions, against plenty of advice from the outside world: “I’m going to have my baby/get high/watch TV rather than study. It’s my decision and I’m willing to live with the consequences.”

    What does one do about this? I don’t know. The Peter Singer argument is as realistic as the Jesus argument was 2000 years ago; ie irrelevant to most of humanity. There are plenty of wild claims (all, as far as I can tell, supported by absolutely nothing except the proselytizer’s convictions) regarding this, for example that by living close to the people (especially the unfortunate) around us, we’ll come to an appropriate balance of helping them to the “right amount” and feeling good internally. At the other extreme, one could argue that the 20th century western model — provide people with certain minimums on a non-discriminatory basis, and in a very bureaucratic fashion — I pay my tithe to the state, and the problem is handled, to some extent, without my having to be emotionally involved, has worked a whole lot better than any of its realistic alternatives.

    OK, so that’s a lot of material — but the essential point within it all is that I don’t think it’s at all ridiculous or hypocritical or any derogatory term, for a person to direct the bulk of their giving to artists, or the opera, or the Keck telescope, or to fund an expedition to look for dinosaur bones (or archeological remains) in the Gobi desert. To immediately scoff at this reveals, I think, a lack of engagement with the problem, a lack of REAL thought about the issues I have raised.

    (Now it is fair to argue about technical details. Should giving to the opera be tax deductible? How about giving to science? To a church?
    If you feel that education is important, not at the mass level but at the leading edge research level, is giving to Princeton better at achieving that goal than giving to UC Berkeley. But those are very different questions from the question I have addressed.)

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