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What’s a Poor Alum to Do?

Dartmouth Giving.jpg

At his presentation on Tuesday, President Kim said that he knew numerous alumni who wanted to see how Dartmouth handled the financial crisis before they made further charitable gifts to the College. He is right. The alumni revolt of the last few years bespeaks the deep skepticism that many alums feel about how the College has been managed and where their contributions have gone.

The information that Dartblog has adduced in recent weeks confirms that over the past decades too much treasure has been allocated to the permanent staff at the cost of quality education for students. The burgeoning of salaries, health insurance, benefits, retirement payments, and vacations has been unconscionable.

But the issue is larger: how can alumni give money to Dartmouth when the College allows extravagances that alumni businessmen do not offer their own employees, and that alumni who work for others do not themselves receive? You can’t ask people who eat burgers to finance your filet mignon.

And beyond that, Dartmouth is not the only place to which alumni can give money. I have a choice: my dollars can go to fighting hunger, medical research, controlling disease, and many other worthy causes. Financing the College’s 17%-of-annual-salary pension contribution to an associate dean’s special assistant is not high on my personal list of eleemosynary priorities.

Charitable giving to Dartmouth is a complicated thing. At its best, alums give to say thanks to an institution that gave us so much; we give to express an undying love for a place that in many ways made us the people we are; and we give because in today’s students we see our younger selves, and we want to help them just as earlier generations of alums helped us.

However, all of these motivations are derailed when we find the College in a financial crisis because feeding at the trough has taken priority over the education of students. Recall that this decade’s explosion in spending occured simultaneously with the arrival of class oversubscriptions and the departure of too many top-flight faculty members.

Dartmouth needs to re-focus its efforts on providing a superlative education. Going forward, the allocation of each budget dollar should take place only after a penetrating inquiry as to whether a spending decision will improve students’ experience here. The College has taken its eye off the ball for too long, and alumni won’t open their wallets until we are sure that our money is directed quite exclusively towards Dartmouth’s highest and most noble purposes.

Note: It will take far more than cosmetic changes to bring back alums who have been deserting the College since the start of the Freedman administration, as the above graph illustrates. (These are official College figures from a letter that appeared in the the appendices to a legal brief in the current alumni/trustee litigation.) The only deviation from this trend began with the election of petition trustees in 2004 — when alumni began to hope that the voice of common sense would again be heard in the highest councils of the College. Were they right? As President Kim says, we are waiting to see.


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