I am a graduating senior and I did not make a “Senior Gift” contribution to The Stanford Fund. Flocks of emails encouraged me to be humbled by the countless wondrous experiences I’ve had on “The Farm” and to “pay it forward” so that some budding brogrammer “much like myself” would be able to have the same wondrous experiences that I’ve had. I was not convinced – but I wouldn’t be left alone.
Because of my past involvement in student groups funded by TSF money and because I know people on the Senior Gift Committee, I was flagged by Stanford as “get on this kid’s case.” I started receiving personal emails. Then text message reminders. Senior Gift organizers pleaded for my mere participation: if 75 percent of the senior class donated, the Bing family would disgorge an additional $25,000 from its coffers. I still didn’t donate.
I wasn’t merely being peevish or cynical – though I did think about donating one cent as a final “gotcha” to the system. So why didn’t I give? Do I hold a grudge? Was it the satisfaction of dissent? Or are there legitimate reasons why I should withhold my donation? I started asking myself the very questions from those TSF emails: To whom should I be grateful for my Stanford experience and how should I express that gratitude?
To me, the constant reminders from the Senior Gift Committee felt like “gratitudinal injunctions.” Its carefully worded requests for money, for “participation,” seemed an attempt to manipulate my own precious and complicated narrative of gratitude.
Many of us attend Stanford on full or partial financial aid. I am one of these students. Naturally, I feel fortunate. I was afforded fertile opportunity, financed by donors with no idea who I was, who had no reason to believe that I was someone worth supporting. But I got into Stanford, and therefore I’m worth the quarter-million-dollar risk. Yes, we are all incredibly lucky. The Senior Gift Campaign capitalizes on such sentimental vulnerability: you’ve been given so much, so why not give back to someone just like you. We have the incredible opportunity to make someone else lucky as well! “Pay it forward.”
If only it were so simple. Of course, Stanford “needs” our money – small donations do make some difference. But what they want more than our money is our “participation.” Hence the additional donation of $25,000 if the 75 percent threshold is reached.
Stanford’s implication is clear: Even if I can’t give much, by not donating, I’m potentially “robbing” future students of financial support! I find this conditional “additional donation” irksome and borderline coercive. If you want to donate the money, Helen and Peter Bing, donate the money. Making funds contingent upon the will of others only artificially augments the power of (well-intended) hefty donors.
The way that the Senior Gift Campaign is organized says a lot about who really controls our university. The Bings, the Arrillagas (i.e. the ones with the “real” money) ultimately fund – alongside tuition, the endowment and the government – the majority of operations. By “participating” in a contribution campaign with little actual import to school operations, we are not funding major programs but implicitly acceding to whatever those in power wish for the school – whether their wishes come in the form of a multi-million dollar contemplative center or a new gym.
Moreover, as seniors we are encouraged to donate to our institution in blind solidarity. Contributing to The Stanford Fund seems less like an act of gratitude and more like a penance – a payment of debt. And lord knows we have enough of that already.
The problem then remains: How do we take control of our “narratives of gratitude” and keep them from being usurped by a life of mindless annual contributions?
These questions have ultimately forced me to address feelings of guilt I’ve had throughout my time here. No, not, “I don’t deserve to be here,” but rather, “No one deserves to be here.” I’m sure there are many of us that are discomfited being “chosen ones,” while so many of the “unchosen” are still worthy.
This year, City College of San Francisco has faced deep cuts in student programs and services, staff layoffs and faculty wage reductions. The college is now fighting to retain its unjustly revoked accreditation.
The students at CCSF are not “chosen ones” like us. But that doesn’t mean they should graduate burdened with even greater debt because their particular institution doesn’t happen to be so fancy.
Unlike a debt, gratefulness isn’t beholden to any particular institution – whether it be a person, school or state. Therefore, for my Senior Gift, I donated to the CCSF scholarship fund. Its students deserve it more than we do.
Tim Borgerson ’14
Contact Timothy Borgerson at [email protected]