Isn’t asking for alumni donations, well, just weird?

Richard Budd mulls the logic of giving money to your alma mater

April 25, 2016
A keyboard with a 'donate' key
Source: iStock

A few months ago I had a phone call from a young medical student at the Oxbridge college I was affiliated to when I did my master’s degree. We started having a nice chat, she asked me what I was up to now, and what kinds of things I’d been involved in through the college during my time there. Social events and casual football, in the main, I said, because I was mostly working myself ragged on my studies. And then came the shift, as she said, “Well, I was wondering if you’d be in a position to make a donation, however small, to help the college support things like the sports teams and so on.” That wasn’t verbatim, but you get the gist. She was clearly trained to look for a way in – it was very smooth. The short answer was no, I wasn’t in a position to donate, but the longer question was, well, why should I?

I’ll try and reason this through. If we pay for our degrees, the money we hand over is to cover the teaching, buildings, library facilities and so on. If I study hard and then have a successful career, it may be partly due to what I learned, but more due to further effort and experience gained beyond that degree. Why is the university due any additional payment? If I joined a gym, got ripped and then found a partner on the basis of that (let’s ignore the shallowness in this instance, analogies are never perfect) would I go back to the gym and present them with a monetary token of my appreciation? I doubt it. So why are alumni donations somehow OK? Or are they not? One of the few places I’ve read about this is in a canonical book on higher education by the late American academic, Bill Readings. He argued that these donations are a mental sleight of hand, where you convince yourself that you’re donating to an entity that serves society, even though you’ve also had to pay for your degree.

I didn’t pay to do my undergraduate degree, paid for my master’s, and was then on a scholarship for my PhD. Am I duty bound, in some way, to pay again? Who do I pay – is one level more deserving than the others? Where I was subsidised, it was taxpayer’s cash. I pay my taxes, and hopefully my degrees have made me a better teacher, a better researcher, a better citizen. Why should I pay more? I didn’t pay a bonus to the NHS when they wired my elbow back together last year, because it’s (still, just) a taxpayer-supported system. We all pay, and the people who need help get it. Higher education here used to be the same.

I’ve studied at three different universities – the first one that wasn’t even a university yet. I wasn’t aware of any alumni donations in the mid-1990s when I did that degree, and they’ve never contacted me to ask for anything. They never contact me at all, as it happens – perhaps because I was there before email really took off. I’ve just been browsing their website, though, and I can’t find anywhere to donate money. I then started my postgrad journey 10 years later at somewhere that’s been a university for 800 years, and finished off at one that’s just over a century old. The ancient one is by far the worst offender in calling for cash. It started at graduation. Half of it was in Latin, surrounded by pomp and circumstance in ancient magnificence, with a plea at the end of the eminent speaker’s stirring words: “Don’t forget us when you’re successful, remember to give back in return for what we’ve done for you”. It’s been relentless since them, particularly by email. “We just want to keep in touch, here’s what’s going on, network with other Oxbridgians in your area…and donate here.” I’m sure they don’t really care how I am. I wish they’d leave out the warm, fuzzy subterfuge and cut to the chase.

There’s a (UK) history lesson in all of this. If we go back to universities before the Enlightenment, they were essentially training theologians, medics, and lawyers. They were extensions of the church, by and large, and churches have a long tradition of collecting funds to support their charitable work. (I’m not going to crack that topic open, it’s neither the time nor the place.) Back in the day, people would bequeath cash, trust funds and land, to their alma mater. Some Oxbridge colleges are wealthier than others, largely depending on how old they are. I don’t know if this is an urban myth, but the story goes that you can walk from Oxford to Cambridge – about 90 miles – without stepping off land owned by the colleges of the two universities. Whether those alumni were buying absolution, avoiding inheritance tax or if it was genuine philanthropy, I don’t know, but it was somehow in keeping with the spirit of the thing. Excuse the pun.

If we fast forward to the 20th century, then there were no tuition fees and the state supported the whole kit and caboodle. UK universities had – and still have, bar two – charitable – non-profit – status. The idea was that academics can research/study important things, while graduates prop up society/the Empire, run the law courts, heal people, turn the wheels of commerce, and so on. Post-Second World War, the numbers of people studying rose because more people were completing secondary education and there was a rising demand for degree holders. The state paid because education was seen as a public good, a social benefit, and that made sense (it still does). This argument held until the late 1990s when fees began to be introduced. Student numbers around then skyrocketed – encouraged by governments who saw the mass production of graduates (false, as it happens) as a way of creating economic growth, and those governments are now less willing to pay for it. It’s an investment in your future, they say. But why should we pay something back, or is it their investment in us, that we paid for? I’m confused.

Is it perhaps a tradition that’s lasted from medieval times, or is it something else? Some of this is certainly about competition. Top universities nowadays are scrabbling to maintain their national and international status, and funding is hard to come by. Every penny counts, and the ones with the fattest wallets have the best facilities, do the most research, attract the best academics/students, create the most spin-off companies and patents, and thus stay ahead of the competition. Tapping up the alumni is a lucrative way of fuelling that engine. The oldest universities are already the wealthiest anyway, and they’re the ones whose graduates have a better chance of being successful – and are therefore more able to donate back. Some universities in the US allocate a portion of their annual intake to the children of alumni and/or donors, which is about as unmeritocratic as it gets, but it makes good business sense. There’s a distinction in here somewhere between philanthropy in donating to good causes such as important research and asking alumni to dip into their pockets periodically. Getting the new business school or a professorship named after you is a vanity project – something else entirely. The state should, I think, support universities to the point where they don’t need to look elsewhere. I just can’t get my head around the moral logic of the thing, whichever way you slice it – let’s face it, alumni donations are just weird.

Richard Budd is a lecturer in education studies at Liverpool Hope University. This article originally appeared on his blog, Stuff About Unis.

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Reader's comments (8)

The immediate answer is that you would have had to pay more for the experience and education you received if alumni hadn't been donating. The moral question becomes one of whether you would like to return the favour for future generations. Funding for public universities is more complex, involving an imperfect arbitration of competing needs - most particularly between publicly-funded health care and education. The latter tends to be lower on the priority list. Alumni (and other) donations provide a means of setting priorities more independently against those of the government of the day. In my experience as a department chair actively involved in advancement, alumni who donate are grateful for the experience and education that they received at what is one of the most formative stages of their lives, and they derive personal satisfaction at being able to support universities in their mission to educate future generations. I work primarily with engineering donors. Proportionally, engineers give well above their representation in graduating classes from my university, and they are particularly philanthropically inclined - and give widely to the university to support humanities and the arts, as well as STEM.
Very interesting piece, Richard. To add to James's comment above, I would add that it is in your/ alumni interest to donate back to their alma mater. Moral arguments aside, the value of your degree (and the university brand with which you are associated) is closely tied to the perceived strength and reputation of your alma mater now, not when you attended. It is in an alum's interest to maintain, if not strengthen, the reputation of their alma mater as the university's brand directly reflects on the alum's reputation (and career and social prospects). One of the easiest means of helping protect your alma mater's brand is to give them support through cash (less labour intensive than mentoring students or volunteering). Consequently, donating to one's old university often makes economic sense. Unlike the gym, no one cares what gym you belonged to three years ago if you are fit and strong now. However, many people will care where your degree is from, sometimes in spite of what it may (or may not have) taught you to do.
You usually have the option to direct your donation to a hardship or bursary fund specifically for those from poorer backgrounds. The value of so doing is now increased by the government's removal of grants for such young people. It is, however, something that is easier to achieve in later life (in my case) and the pressure on younger graduates is excessive.
Higher education and access to education is vital to social mobility and alumni donations support access scholarships and bursaries. Universities are tackling the world's most pressing challenges through education and research and alumni donations provide critical funding for research projects. Universities are training the leaders and experts of tomorrow and philanthropic support allows them to do this. I am honoured to be able to support higher education through a very modest monthly donation, and if my gym were doing similarly important work - and were in need of money to thrive I would donate to them as well. My question is if you are in a position to do so why wouldn't you donate?
Of course, if UK universities had football teams, like their US counterparts, everyone would support them. The boat race doesn't quite cut it. And athletic coaches often show more support for universities than Etonians do. Who cares for concussed minority students, as long as the noise and the hype and the bribery goes on? A bit like the REF, perchance.
I had a similar call from UCL; I reminded them how unhelpful and unsupportive they had been towards undergraduates generally during my time there and they've never been in touch since
I have also had similar calls from one of the Universities I attended. I told them to stop contacting me and I hope they do. Frankly, I don't rate the University at all in terms of giving student feedback (at least in my case) and think they should be compensating me. The other University I attended I rate highly but even then since I paid to do the course I feel I've paid my dues.
I am working as a support staff member of a university programme on social entrepreneurship receiving part of its operational funding from our alumni fund, I can strongly confirm the direct positive impact alumni donations have on the everyday university life. Our co-curriculum programme offers students, staff members and (also welcomes) members of the local community workshops and masterclasses on how to become a social entrepreneur. This a full academic year worth of content, with a dragon's den type event closing the programme where students and staff members only this time, will pitch to receive small grants to undertake research for the social enterprise project they will have developed throughout the year. All the individuals attending our programme are benefiting from receiving knowledge and some of them will be awarded a small grant to research and create a social impact venture where the positive outcomes go even beyond their university ! It is an incredible opportunity to create a community creating social good, make individuals from all backgrounds, whether students or professionals, better citizens and most importantly to create an impact in the real world in the long term. This is possible thanks to the support of alumni donations and I believe everyone should appreciate the positive outcomes of sharing our own resources, whether it's time, money, or knowledge. The world of Education is no place for individualist views and behaviours. It is a place of enlightenment with passion for learning and sharing. Finally, being a graduate of a university with an ongoing great reputation is a plus whereas the other way around does not give much self-pride.