Philanthropy: nostalgia, disgust, and objective value

cowgirlgunsign1For the past twenty years or so, I’ve been a semi-regular donor to my private undergraduate college.*  I write some pretty big checks in reunion years, and while I sometimes miss a year or two, I’ve given that institution between $1000-1,500 in the past four years.  On the other hand, the pleas from my graduate institution go right into the recycling bin, as does their monthly alumni magazine.  (Honestly:  what a waste of paper and fuel!)  When I get mail from this university, I am disgusted that this large, private research university (which benefits from all kinds of government contracts, including morally objectionable work for the Pentagon, etc.) dares to ask me (me!)for a share of my modest income.

But let’s think about which institution has done the most to help me earn that modest income:  clearly, it’s my graduate institution, which granted me the Ph.D. that made me eligible to work as a tenure-track historian in the first place.  Besides:  my undergraduate college charged me and my parents thousands of dollars a year for the honor of matriculating, whereas I went to grad school for free!  It’s true:  I had a T.A.ship and two years of dissertation support, so I not only didn’t have to pay or even borrow a dime, they paid me!  So why do I react with such disgust and resentment when my graduate institution asks me for money?  That seems pretty unfair, doesn’t it?  But the fact of the matter is that I was happy in college, and I was (mostly) unhappy in graduate school, at least in my first year there.

College for me was the perfect combination of liberty and indulgence, with only the responsibility to do well in school and make some money to pay for my books and other expenses and contribute a few thousand dollars a year to help pay for tuition, room, and board.  I made friends for life there and had experiences that still make us laugh in the remembrance.  Whereas in my first semester of grad school, the man with whom I was having a love affair turned out to have another girlfriend, which I discovered when he invited us both to the same event:  imagine my mortification.  In my second semester of grad school, an envious classmate (I had a fellowship, she was paying tuition) spread rumors about me.  And, oh yeah:  as a pedestrian, I was hit by a car!  Only one of these three misfortunes was even remotely connected to my graduate institution, and as the History department treated me fairly I can hardly complain about the department or university themselves.  But, still:  I was unhappy.  I spent most of the winter of 1991 in bed reading all of the novels of Jane Austen and Ernest Hemingway and wondering why I would burst into tears for no apparent reason.  Clearly, I was depressed, but being a naturally happy person I had no idea what was going on.

So, my graduate institution can’t really rely on my nostalgia for that time in my life now, can it?  And nostalgia seems to be a huge part of philanthropy in higher education.  Reflecting on my different emotional reactions to these standard requests for alumni support has made me think about separating my emotions from my philanthropic impulses.  That it’s taken me this long to figure it out is my fault.  However, I don’t think I’m alone in this privileging of support for my undergraduate institution–for example, my husband similarly favors his undergrad school, and although he had good times and made lifelong friends in medical school, to my knowledge he doesn’t support it at all.  Clearly, we need to reevaluate our philanthropic priorities.

Which educational institutions do you support, and why?  Have you had to overcome some disgust in order to write those checks?

*Let me just stipulate that private colleges and universities are hardly the neediest of philanthropies.  My household’s largest cash donations go to the Weld County Food Bank.

52 thoughts on “Philanthropy: nostalgia, disgust, and objective value

  1. I’ve never given money to either of my grad institutions. However, I’ve given to my all-female undergrad institution whenever I’ve had extra cash. Part of the reason I really want to support that school is because going to a single-sex institution was a fantastic experience for me, and I became a completely different person as a result. In grad school, I didn’t change as much. I learned a lot, but there wasn’t such an overhaul in my selfhood. I didn’t have unequivocally happy times at any of the institutions I attended, but I valued the education I received as an undergrad more because it helped me become a feminist.


  2. I was happy to come across this discussion, as it reflects many of my own ambivalences – I’d like to give something, but for a long time didn’t have much to give, so I didn’t. And when I did have a little more, I didn’t want to give it to places I associated with mixed experiences there. Maybe there’s a way around this: giving to an institution you haven’t yourself attended, but one where you know it would really make a difference?


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