Last spring, nearly every member of Dartmouth's class of 2010 decided to donate to the senior class gift, a scholarship fund for members of the class of 2014. The record-breaking donation rate was 99.9 percent — only one student had chosen not to contribute.
The graduating seniors, as well as the rest of the Dartmouth community, could have focused on celebrating the donation rate, especially because it is a sharp increase over previous years. In 2004, only about ten percent of graduating seniors donated.
Instead, Dartmouth students demonized the one senior who did not want to contribute. The class of 1960 had agreed to donate another $100,000 to the gift fund if every single member of the class of 2010 contributed at least one dollar. The alum ended up making the $100,000 contribution despite the one holdout, but the terms of their offer helped incentivize individuals to lash out against the non-donating senior.
Last June, in an opinions column in the Dartmouth, one senior had a message for the non-donator: "You have symbolically shown the Class of 2014 that you do not consider their chance at happiness valuable." He accused the non-contributor of trying "to flat tire the collective spirit of over 1,000 people" in the senior class. "When you walk to receive your diploma at Commencement," he warned, "I will stand up and burn a single dollar for you, and cry a single tear."
One Dartmouth student blog was even harsher. The "Little Green Blog" somehow found, and decided to publish, the non-donating senior's name. The post, written under a pseudonym, included a photo of her.
The blogger also quoted the senior defending her decision. After the senior had explained why she hadn't been happy with her experience at Dartmouth, the blogger argued she should have chosen previously to "leave. There is no honor in being a parasite, sucking off money and time from people who are trying to better you when in reality you don't want to be there."
The rest of the post at times referred to her as a "space-cadet," a "Rip Van Winkle character" and a "fly" in the "ointment" of the senior gift collection. "You're not even worth the one measly dollar that you wouldn't give," concluded the author.
This senior was publicly shamed as a happiness-destroying, spirit-flattening, bug-like parasite, just for this one donation decision. Tom Scocca, writing for Slate, effectively pointed out the extremely disproportionate nature of the smears. The $100,000 at stake amounts to only 0.003 percent of Dartmouth's endowment, he pointed out.
Then again, the amount of money could be considered less important than the symbolic act of giving it. In an article on the Dartmouth donation pressure, the Chronicle of Higher Education referenced Rob Henry, an executive director at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, who argued that with senior gifts, "The goal is not to raise money, but to begin a pattern of behavior."
Similarly, the mission of the senior class gift at Dartmouth was advertised to be "to educate (the) Class about philanthropy, the importance of the Dartmouth College Fund and the needs of the College."
However, although "educating" about "philanthropy" was the first listed goal, the experience Dartmouth had with its senior class gift neither represents how philanthropy works nor how it should work.
At Dartmouth, student volunteers were given the names of their classmates who hadn't yet donated. According the Chronicle's report, the final drive to achieve a 100 percent donation rate "included knocking on the doors of those who had not yet donated," and "the student interns who ran the drive encouraged volunteers to ask about a student's personal reasons for not giving."
Lists of seniors who hadn't yet donated were "passed along to many people." One volunteer sent such a list to the rest of her sports team so that they could also participate in the hounding for donations.
According to Sylvia Racca, the Dartmouth administrator who oversaw the senior gift collection, "Student volunteers were kept up-to-date on who has given and who has not, since they need to solicit those who have not." Even though Dartmouth never intended to release the name of the student who did not donate, this procedure allowed for the leak to occur and still is responsible for the shaming and taunts that followed.
According to a Herald editorial this week ("Privacy in giving," Nov. 3), Brown has student fundraising volunteers sign confidentiality agreements during the senior gift collection. However, Dartmouth's volunteers were also "trained to respect confidentiality." Formal confidentiality agreements can help maintain privacy, but in the face of the extremely high incentive among collectors, how can we be sure that students won't act inappropriately, at Dartmouth or anywhere?
The solicitation process at Dartmouth was flawed because it disrespected donors by letting peer pressure effectively take away their option not to give. Instead, a college needs to persuade prospective donors positively by demonstrating that a donation will do more good there than anywhere else. If a college isn't committed to that cause, then it shows its lack own lack of confidence as a worthwhile donation destination.
William Tomasko '13 is a political science concentrator from Washington, D.C. He can be reached at
william_tomasko (at) brown.edu.