Widgets Magazine


How Alumni Donations Narrow the Mind

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 adamj11@stanford.edu.

About Adam Johnson

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.
  • JB/75

    “Its object, to qualify its students for for personal success, and direct usefulness in life:”–Leland Stanford, quoted from the Founding Grant for the University, 1885.
    Maybe Jane should have helped husband with sentence placement. The quote above overwhelms its neighbor paragraphs in the FG with their EQUAL emphasis on “cultivation and enlargement of the mind” and “in behalf of humanity and civilization.”
    So, I contend the apposition of these seemingly opposite mission statements are indeed ying and yang.
    So let’s all ying and yang better and together.

  • Kinesin

    In your article, you focus on shedding light on the potential connection between alumni donations to Stanford and the (perceived?) shift of the university away from promoting the values of a “liberal arts” education in favor of more “techie” fields. However, I wish to point out that, while the correlation between increased alumni donations and the promotion of STEM fields may exist, the relation is unlikely to be causal. Firstly, the university does not force majors on students; any student can decide to major in a STEM field or not. There are no quotas on how many students may join a given major; the choice is entirely on the student. STEM students are free to take as many, or as few, humanities/social science courses (beyond GER requirements) as they want, and to create whatever balance they wish between a “practical” STEM education and a liberal arts one. Furthermore, when evaluating the demise of IHUM, it might be worth also taking into account the degree of fairness in making STEM students take IHUM in addition to several other humanities courses to satisfy GER and DB requirements, while having humanities students, for whom IHUM is obviously major-relevant, getting away with taking STATS 60, CS 105, and introsems to satisfy STEM requirements. Perhaps these new changes, in fact promoted by Professor Elam who is a humanities professor, bring about a greater degree of fairness in the required courses taken by STEM vs. humanities students, instead of, as you see it, jeopardizing Stanford’s dedication to the values of the liberal education. The replacement of IHUM with the new “Thinking Matters” courses certainly poses no risk to the opportunities available for students to pursue a liberal arts education. Although I do not wish to dispute the value students might find in pursuing liberal arts/humanities degrees, perhaps, in a world increasingly dependent on developments in science and engineering, it might be of interest to society and humanity to promote making our humanities majors scientifically/technologically/mathematically literate (which taking STATS 60 and introsems most certainly does not accomplish). Furthermore, you claim that “While I enjoy my engineering classes, we have rarely examined the role that technology plays in influencing humanity and the earth.” I would point out that an extensive array of such classes exist as part of the Science Technology and Society (STS) program, which no one is stopping you from taking. It seems perfectly reasonable to learn about engineering in engineering classes, and to examine the impact of technology on humanity and society in STS classes. Moreover, it might also be worth noting that humanities departments bring in negligible funding, if any at all, to the university. In fact, I would like to point out that purchases by labs in the sciences and engineering are charged a 60% overhead by Stanford, much of which provides funding for humanities departments to exist (and for other things like mowing lawns and paying for our beloved palm trees). If anything, such policies help the humanities not only survive, but thrive here at Stanford. The bottom line is that STEM departments are the driving force of this university, and any funding that they bring in, including through STEM alumni donations, can only benefit Stanford’s ability to offer the veritable smorgasbord of educational opportunities with which we have been spoiled with, among which is a true-blue, fuzzy-to-the-bone liberal arts education for those who want it. Fear not, the direction our university is going in could not be better.

  • Anon

    I wish you could have gone to the dinner with the trustees and asked them about this topic. I think they would probably disagree about your general views on the de-emphasis on humanities. Stanford has some of the best humanities departments in the world and is working hard to keep them that way.

  • reader

    Did you considering using the available data on contributions to Stanford and how they are distributed amongst departments? You can’t assert what the interests of alumni donors are when you cite absolutely no evidence as to how they are designating their gifts. A key point of yours is that the wealthiest donors are tech industry people who primarily support stem fields- but you can’t just say that and expect your reader to believe it! What about the generous support of the Bing family, who has given more to Stanford than anyone in the university’s history? Their support is almost entirely directed towards the arts and humanities. Also, there was a 150mil donation to the gsb to create a center to study alleviating poverty. So no, all the significant donors are not supporting stem fields. In fact, some of the biggest gifts in recent years have been for explicitly non-stem fields (bing concert hall, cantor arts renovations/expansions, center on poverty, new gsb building, etc).

  • Engineer

    As another commenter cited, you do not make a single reference to statistics regarding where funding is directed. Construct a more solid foundation for your argument before you make it.

    The emphasis on alumni donations to the university is misplaced. While there are a couple of instances of the drive for alumni donations having perverse effects on university life (a Stanford TAPS show was cancelled in fall because an alumni party with a live band was scheduled during their performance time right outside of their theatre), the major conflict of interest is usually manifest in policies regarding major corporations, especially those than fund research. I’d recommend that you read the March 2000 article “The Kept University” in the Atlantic (http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2000/03/the-kept-university/306629/). In fact, the conflicts there are no doubt very visible in your field of study, and they’ve only gotten worse since then.

    Stanford undergraduates simply don’t strive to take advantage of the incredible resources provided them, even in the humanities. There are always research groups looking for assistants. I have never been stumped on finding a book in campus libraries, not even some old Chinese text that I thought for sure I would have to seek elsewhere. Again, I emphasize, don’t do a disservice to the reputation of critical journalism on this campus by failing to research your points before you assert them.

  • Sam King

    If it’s wrong for alumni to earmark donations, does that mean that it’s better to donate to Stanford in general than to earmark a donation for the Haas Center?