How Alumni Donations Narrow the Mind

Opinion by Adam Johnson
Feb. 20, 2013, 10:38 p.m.

Last year, Stanford raised over one billion dollars in donations from roughly 80,000 donors, many of whom are alumni of the University. That, needless to say, is a considerable sum of money – it should prove invaluable in funding faculty positions, research, financial aid and construction.

At first glance, it appears as if these alumni donations can only be of benefit to the University and its students. But I wonder if the nature of alumni donations, and Stanford’s increasing reliance on them to fund its institutional goals, is inherently in conflict with an institution of higher learning founded to promote, among other values, the “cultivation and enlargement of the mind.”

To help explore this dilemma, it is beneficial to look at what factors may predict alumni donations. According to the research literature on this topic, donations are correlated with a few factors: the alumnus remaining in close contact with the University (either through physical location or proximity to major alumni networks), the alumnus having a positive experience while a student, and the alumnus possessing the financial assets to afford a gift to his alma mater.

While Stanford undergraduates are diverse in background and interests, many of them roughly fit into one of two categories: those well inside the establishment and those more on its borders. The former disapproves of general education requirements (GERs) because they interfere with his major, he sees little reason to question various aspects of his and his peers’ college experience, and he pursues summer internships or other prestigious work in a linear process that culminates in a well-paid job offer.

The latter disapproves of GERs because they can be gamed, he expresses concern regarding various administrative policies and practices, and his post-Stanford trajectory is ambiguous.

While I do not think any student fits perfectly into either characterization, we should ask ourselves which student Stanford, given its substantial reliance on alumni donations, would prefer. The answer is obvious; the establishment student almost always ends up with a high-salaried job in, if not the Bay Area, another major metropolitan area with a strong alumni base. He ostensibly benefits from his high socioeconomic status and Stanford’s role in getting him there, and thus he has little reason to question either. The more of these students Stanford churns out, the more donations will flow back in.

How can Stanford produce these students? For one, it can emphasize science, technology, engineering and medicine (STEM) fields over the arts and humanities; the former provides students with the skills that society throws money at and removes opportunities for students to critically reflect on the relationship between what is financially valued and what is actually valuable.

While I enjoy my engineering classes, we have rarely examined the role that technology plays in influencing humanity and the earth. Perhaps if we did more of that, my cohorts would be less likely to work for, say, Apple or Shell. They would also be less likely to make money.

Suddenly, Stanford’s decision to modify the three-quarter Introduction to the Humanities (IHUM) sequence into a one-quarter course that can be satisfied with a STEM-focused class makes perfect sense. Decreasing the number of required humanities classes not only allows more students to major in STEM fields but also diminishes the importance of a liberal education.

To churn out wealthy alumni, Stanford can also house a career-counseling system biased towards high-salary jobs. Enter the CDC’s tiered-services practice. For paying anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000 a year to become one of three “partner” levels, companies can gain increasing access to students. A table at a typical career fair, too, has a cost upwards of $1,000.

Almost invariably, the companies that participate are large firms in finance, consulting, or tech. By charging a high premium to access Stanford students, the CDC thus reduces the opportunity for “non-traditional” and/or lower-paying employers to enter the fold. While I doubt this is an active plot to funnel students into certain careers (the CDC is able to bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars a year by charging for access), the administration’s compliance in letting these practices continue is telling.

And let us not forget Stanford’s incentive to ensure that its students are happy and thus likely to give back. At first, this doesn’t appear wrong; what’s the matter with fostering a happy environment? But we must remember that happiness can often be superficial and is not synonymous with expansion of the mind; as one learns more about the world, one generally becomes more critical of the injustices it presents.

Enter the Stanford bubble, which ensures that students spend a majority of their time being provided for in a perfectly manicured environment that offers little room for creative self-expression. This artificial environment relegates earnest intellectual and artistic discourse to the margins.

I have not even mentioned the fact that many alumni gifts are tied to certain projects or faculty positions; the wealthiest donors, then, can exercise a considerable degree of influence. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – Stanford’s wealthiest donors often come from the tech world and help fund STEM departments, thereby creating even more wealthy alumni likely to give back to the STEM departments that once housed them. Over time, this will shift the University away from the liberal education model upon which it was founded. Some say it already has.

I do not mean to imply that administrators explicitly ask themselves how they can modify the University-undergraduate interface to increase donations. But with alumni gifts comprising more than a fifth of university revenue, it is only natural to ask how these donations, and the solicitation of them, conflict with the purposes of higher education.

By lessening liberal education requirements, by being content with a career counseling service that favors firms who can afford to offer high salaries, by holding undergraduates’ hands to make sure we are happy at least on the surface and by allowing gifts to be tied to the donors’ wishes, Stanford propagates a system that serves to narrow the mind, not cultivate it. Sure, the money will keep rolling in, but at what cost?

What are your thoughts on alumni donations? Email Adam at [email protected].

Adam is a senior from Illinois. He is majoring in Biomechanical Engineering, although his intellectual interests span dozens of departments. This is his second year writing for the Daily (you may remember him from his work last year on the Editorial Board). Outside of writing, Adam enjoys acting, skiing, making music, and thrift-store shopping.

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