The petty meanness is bitterly recalled, but the kindness is repaid

Fundraisers reap what university staff sow. Adrian Furnham explains why one alma mater will not receive a single penny from him

May 14, 2009

I am a graduate of four universities located in three countries. And don't I know it! Over the past decade or more, universities have woken up to exploring the goodwill and economic power of their alumni. The great American universities have long understood this and are as a result incredibly well endowed. But others are getting in on the act, partly out of necessity.

I receive glossy magazines and invitations to jolly events. I have nattered with ambassadors over canapes in the embassy. I have attended lavish gaudies. I have enjoyed posh tea parties in places not open to the public. I have been educated at wine-tasting events and met vice-chancellors. All intended, no doubt, to make us feel all the more proud of our associations with the university in question.

All four universities have their own approach to keeping me sweet and emptying my wallet. Two have had current students ring me. Another sends carefully crafted biographies of grateful students. All four have regular magazines, and all are online. They all show how successful, cutting-edge and progressive they are - but how they could be even more so if I were to dip into my savings on their behalf.

But whereas I will give, and have very happily given, money to two, I am ambivalent about the third and quite certain I will never, ever give a penny to the fourth. Why? Was it because I got 2:2s for various essays? Or found some of the lecturing staff distant, inadequate or unprepared? In fact, until the birth of my son we had plans to leave all our estate to one institution. Enough, even these days, for an endowed chair, so they still will get a nice little surprise. On the other hand, I have resisted for years and years every sophisticated attempt by another place, perhaps the most famous of the lot.

Many lecturers don't like teaching. While students may have learning difficulties, they have teaching difficulties. But it was the behaviour of universities' administrative and support staff more than anything that affected my decisions about making donations.

At the university to which I feel most indebted, I was treated sympathetically and efficiently. I was made to feel special; a grown-up, a member of the institution. I recall dealing with the administrators, the health centre, the technicians, the legal clinic as well as the dons. This was long before students were seen as customers. I ran out of money, asked for some part-time work and got it.

At the other place, the administrators were discourteous, angry and inefficient. Maybe they were badly paid or felt overworked. They did "office hours" with a vengeance. They were prepared to see you only when it suited them. They kept you waiting, clearly deliberately. And they made you feel as if you were interrupting their real jobs. I recall coming in with a large cheque to pay my overseas fees and getting the cold shoulder even then. I was a nuisance.

But it was the petty meanness of this university that will always remain with me. Despite paying very high foreign student fees, I had to beg for envelopes. I remember all the trauma over the photocopying ... having to plead to do ten pages. I was there to be milked: another DPhil, another dollar.

I wonder if universities have learnt their lessons. Badly paid, badly managed and resentful administrative staff punish their masters by punishing their students. They know the earning power and position of the students will probably outpace their own life-position, and this may increase their envy.

But just as there is often a tremendous mismatch between prospectuses' glossy photographs of the (only) semi-attractive buildings and the Stalinist Sixties architecture that surrounds them, so the mismatch between being a scholar while being treated like a customer and a nuisance becomes manifest.

But there is another problem. Now all students pay, not just the rich foreign ones. And they leave with a big debt. Many don't feel so special, so grateful. They paid and received, so why give more later? It is now an economic transaction, and this will have long-term consequences for fundraisers.

The best way to ensure that current students will turn into generous donors of the future is to treat them well when they are there. This does not mean dumbing down, lowering standards or making things easy. But it does mean not being petty, discourteous or worse, seeing students as easily fleeceable paying customers. If you want customer/scholar loyalty, start by treating them as adults from the day they arrive. They may even reciprocate.

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