Columns

Papendorp ’17: Money talks at Commencement

By
Staff Columnist
Friday, November 18, 2016

Though May might seem like a long time from now, in just a few months, friends and family of graduating students will arrive at Brown to celebrate Commencement. For some families who don’t have the disposable income to spend on plane tickets, this will be their first time even seeing Brown’s campus. Working as an usher at last year’s Commencement ceremony, I noticed something strange. For most families, seating was first-come, first-served. Guests began arriving at the Main Green — where the main University ceremony takes place around 1 p.m. — as early as 8 a.m. to reserve prime seats.

But some families, whose names were on a special list, were ushered into the fenced-off section in the middle of the Main Green that was otherwise reserved for students and participants in the ceremony.

I was curious about why these families had specially reserved seats while most parents had to sit all day and swelter, so I contacted University Event and Conference Services. In an email, a member of the office told me that this section was for “families and guests of the president, ceremony participants (such as the senior orators) as well as seating for certain volunteers and dignitaries.” Maybe I’m cynical, or maybe I was just dazzled by the high concentration of designer clothing I saw in the reserved section, but it doesn’t take much critical thinking to infer that these “guests of the president” might happen to be big donors. The central role of Reunion and Commencement weekend in fundraising, as well as President Christina Paxson’s P’19 responsibility for cultivating donor relationships and maximizing donations during these events, makes this all the more likely.

To be sure, donors are vital to Brown’s success and allow Brown to expand many important but expensive programs like need-based financial aid. And to incentivize donation, it might be necessary to offer special privileges to donors. But watching wealthy parents breeze into their reserved seats at 12:45 p.m. while most families had been saving seats all day made me uneasy. As Daniel Meyer ’17 pointed out in his column, “Lamp/Bear sucks” (Sept. 16), we’re not always aware of the influence that incredibly rich people can have on Brown.

Some privileges that donors receive are readily apparent and don’t really come at any cost to students. One example is the naming of buildings on campus: At the end of the day, it doesn’t really make a difference to me whether I eat my morning oatmeal in the Sharpe Refectory or the ExxonMobil Foundation Dining Center. But as the 2014 Gawker expose of Ivy League admissions showed, the danger is when special treatment of donors takes place behind closed doors and at the expense of families who cannot or do not donate. Having a special section for big donors at community events is not only tasteless, but also unethical, and it cheapens the experience for the rest of us.

Seating at Commencement might seem like a petty issue. But when my relatives arrive on campus in May, I don’t want them to feel lesser than the families of influential donors. We’ve all worked hard to graduate from Brown, so at Commencement, we should celebrate our equality and community as Brown students. That includes the way our families are treated.

There are other negative implications of the unfair reserved seating. A highlight of the Commencement festivities is the procession when graduates pass through the Van Wickle Gates and walk down College Street to the First Baptist Meeting House. But if parents are reserving seats on the Main Green, they can’t watch the procession. So while parents who are guests of the president are free to cheer for their children at the procession and then comfortably sidle into the reserved seating, most families are stuck on the Main Green defending those hard-won seats.

And even if you do think that donors should be allowed to essentially buy a better seat at Commencement, the University should be more upfront about it. All of the online material about Commencement diligently disguises the existence of special privileges. For example, the frequently asked questions page of Brown’s Commencement website reads, “Seating is on a first-come, first-served basis. The reserved sections of open seats in the center are for the seniors, graduate and medical students.” Similarly, the downloadable “Understanding Commencement” presentation for undergraduates states that the “center section is reserved for students,” and “seating is first-come, first-served on the Main Green.” Even the “Accessibility Accommodations” page tells handicapped guests: “Please keep in mind, all seating is on a first-come, first-served basis.” I observed firsthand that none of these statements are strictly true. As a matter of accountability and integrity, Brown owes it to its students and parents to be honest about the privileges that donors receive.

I’m not so naive as to think that money doesn’t grease the wheels — both at Brown and in the world at large. But it’s disappointing to me that wealth is so present even at the Commencement ceremony, which should be a celebration of our equality and accomplishments as Brown students, not like a nightclub with an exclusive section. Commencement can already be a significant financial hardship for low-income students and families. At Commencement — as always — Brown should work on reducing classism instead of singling out donors for special treatment. I can think of so many groups that deserve special seating more than donors: those who are handicapped, parents of first-generation and low-income college students or friends and family of Resumed Undergraduate Education students. And if you’re one of the few families lucky (or wealthy!) enough to be invited to Commencement as a “guest of the president,” I would urge you to feel uncomfortable accepting this privilege.

Carin Papendorp ’17 can be reached at carin_papendorp@brown.edu.

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