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Columns, Opinions

Pipatjarasgit ’21: Should Brown really be asking its current students for donations?

By
Staff Columnist
Thursday, April 1, 2021

As a senior graduating from Brown this May, I have been receiving emails since September of last year about the Senior Class Gift and Senior Class Gift Committee. It struck me as odd that although I had not yet walked out the Van Wickle Gates, I was already being asked for money. But the more I looked into the Brown Senior Class Gift, the more I became shocked at what I saw. 

The Office of Advancement describes the Senior Class Gift as “a student-led effort,” but this isn’t entirely true; it relies on the infrastructure of the Office of Advancement and a staff member who supports young alumni giving. The Senior Class Gift Committee helps to solicit donations for the Brown Annual Fund. But there is a barrier to entry for membership on the committee: Students wishing to join the committee must make a gift to the Brown Annual Fund “early in the year” as a prerequisite for membership, a requirement that reeks of exclusivity and privilege. Even if there is no minimum gift amount required, would a senior with limited financial means but enthusiasm for Brown philanthropy feel welcomed to make a humble or modest gift to join the committee, or would they feel deterred by what may appear to be a lofty criterion for inclusion?

According to the Brown Annual Fund Student Volunteers webpage, “Giving through the Senior Class Gift makes a statement that seniors value their Brown experience and want to support the next generation of Brown students.” But is valuing Brown conditioned on having the financial means to do so? What about volunteer service, working at Brown or serving as an alumni interviewer? I haven’t really heard about other ways such as these to show that I “support the next generation of Brown students.” 

According to the Senior Class Gift Committee Volunteer Roles and Responsibilities document, students can even buy their way into being an “Honorary Co-Chair,” which is described as follows: “Lend your name to the effort and show your support for the work of the committee by making a commitment of $1,000 or more to the Brown Annual Fund. Honorary Co-Chairs are not required to actively solicit classmates.” Considering that almost 20 percent of Brown students “come from the highest-earning 1 (percent) of American households,” this could definitely be alienating for a low-income or middle-class Brown student to hear. Despite appearing to not have any leadership responsibilities, unlike other members of the Senior Class Gift Committee, Honorary Co-Chairs are nonetheless entitled to attend the “exclusive networking lunch with alumni volunteer leaders” and receive “invitations to occasional conference calls with President Paxson.” It is no secret that money is ultimately the driving factor behind any nonprofit organization’s advancement and development efforts, but at Brown, is there a need to expose current students, who have yet to reap the financial benefits of a Brown education, to this type of aggressive constituent development? I graduated high school from a private school, and while parents were solicited for gifts to the school, the school never asked current students to donate.

Giving to Brown, whether a dollar a month or a $1,000 gift to become an Honorary Co-Chair of the Senior Class Gift Committee, is a highly personal decision, and I have nothing against current seniors or young alumni who wish to do so. I also trust that members of the Senior Class Gift Committee primarily joined these efforts because they love Brown, not because they wanted to attend the “exclusive networking lunch.” Being a student at Brown is a life-changing experience, and there are many reasons why graduating students and alumni want to donate. Rather, I am drawing attention to the appropriateness of how these initiatives are structured.

Even in a normal year with no pandemic, the University’s efforts to encourage participation in the Senior Class Gift feel highly misplaced. This year in particular, though, it has reached new heights. According to previous Herald reporting, the University had projected that its budget for the 2020-21 academic year would include a whopping 12 percent increase to the financial aid budget to “support families whose financial circumstances have changed.” From this, we can infer that a greater number of Brown students and families are struggling this year than in the past. Moreover, various student jobs such as those in dining, which might ordinarily provide students with disposable income that they could use to make a donation to the University, have been unavailable this academic year. Yet, Brown is still asking current seniors for money.

This has been a dreadful academic year for all, including seniors. In addition to significantly earlier deadlines to turn in their honors theses (in the case of honors candidates) and fewer in-person opportunities to enjoy their final semester due to pandemic-related restrictions, graduating students are searching for jobs during a sluggish economic recovery; the unemployment rate and number of unemployed individuals “remain well above their pre-pandemic levels in February 2020,” according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The emails I have received from the Office of Advancement highlight that the Annual Fund “allows the University to be nimble and helps support students during challenging times — like the one we’re facing now.” It seems rather insensitive to then request participation in the Annual Fund from individuals who are navigating these exact “challenging times.”

Beyond the financial difficulties of this year, students also have plenty of reasons to be ambivalent about donating to Brown — especially recently. President Christina Paxson P’19 failed to clearly acknowledge calls from students or the recommendation from the Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility in Investment Practices to divest from “companies identified as facilitating human rights abuses in Palestine” and instead disregarded ACCRIP’s recommendation, withholding it from a vote by the Corporation. The Office of Advancement remains opaque even after significant scandals during our time as undergraduates. And for months, the University sat on several millions of dollars of 2020 stimulus money without using or distributing it, all while still failing to sufficiently support its students who have been struggling due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Am I going to look past the many, many structural problems that the University has insufficiently addressed — and indirectly perpetuate these problems by just giving to the University? I am so grateful for all of my experiences at Brown, but this doesn’t mean that I don’t have misgivings about the institution. As I transition from Brown student to Brown alum, I have a lot that I need to figure out: how to pack up and move out, what I will do after graduation and where I will live; the COVID-19 pandemic makes none of this easier. What is certainly not on my list of things to do is donating to Brown.

Poom Andrew Pipatjarasgit ’21 can be reached at poom_pipatjarasgit@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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  1. Marc McReynolds says:

    “Should Brown really be asking its current students for donations?” Ask? Sure (what can I say? — they have me well-conditioned after all these years). Like any college, they want alums (or in this case soon-alums) to get into a giving habit. Considering how little of a drop Senior contributions are in the overall bucket, I really doubt the university cares what particular amount a Senior donates in order to be on the gift committee. Requiring volunteers to donate something/anything is perhaps to avoid the somewhat hypocritical circumstance of being asked for money by a solicitor who didn’t donate any of theirs? Just guessing as to their reasoning. Who knows?

    When I was there, I was unhappy with certain university policies (got to complain, in person, to Howard Swearer). Then as a stalwart alumni interviewer I was unhappy with various things regarding that program, after five years writing what was literally a resignation letter (curious, as I was only a volunteer/non-employee).
    It didn’t quite get sent, and decades later I’m still plugging away at interviewing, despite the programmatic flaws, and was even the coordinator of one of the larger local operations for five years.

    As when I was an undergrad, with a bit of patience I can speak directly with Paxon or a dean when I have a suggestion. It really doesn’t take any money in order to have access to Brown leadership. When Brown dangles hooks like “networking”, it’s presumably to accommodate the sentiments of people who think in such terms. Let someone toss a grand into the coffers, if it makes them feel better ; )

    What one learns over time is that all relationships are flawed. So pick the best ones available (I highly recommend “Brown”, screw-ups and all) and just work away at them. Very little gets done from the outside, versus positive changes aplenty over the years from people who decide to stay engaged. It certainly doesn’t have to involve money, if that rubs you the wrong way for whatever reasons. But given how you are someone who took the trouble to write what I eyeball to be around a thousand well-thought-out words on something about Brown which concerns you, I sincerely hope that sometime after the post-graduation dust settles you do continue to stay engaged.

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