Alumni question merit of donating

A $100 million anonymous gift to the School of Music and recent editorials by Ben Stein LAW ’69 questioning the value of alumni contributions have prompted mixed reactions from administrators and alumni on the role of financial gifts to Yale.

While some alumni said the University’s $15.2 billion endowment should be adequate to cover operating expenses and additional large-scale funding from alumni is unnecessary, administrators said gifts of any size are vital for sustaining student programs at the University. Yale receives more than $20 million per year in unrestricted alumni gifts, which can be used at officials’ discretion to keep overall costs down, Vice President for Development Inge Reichenbach said.

Stein, a lawyer and economist, recently wrote two columns in The New York Times that ignited debate over alumni donations. In his first piece, published Oct. 23, he questioned the need to donate to Yale when other causes and organizations need the money more. On Nov. 6, Stein wrote a second column in which he reevaluated his original argument and proposed reasons why alumni might give to their alma mater.

Yale President Richard Levin said his views are more in line with the latter column. Even small alumni donations are helpful, Levin said, as individual gifts cumulatively support fellowships, financial aid and other discretionary projects.

“For a private institution, it is our lifeblood,” Levin said. “We wouldn’t be able to do half of what we do without the support of our alumni. The amount that’s given by people in small quantities adds up when you have tens of thousands of people participating.”

The School of Music donation — the largest single one-time gift to the school — will eliminate tuition for its students. The University has received a number of other anonymous gifts in the past, including one given by a donor who endowed five professorships and named them for Yale scholars, Reichenbach said. Donors cite various reasons for choosing to remain anonymous, Reichenbach said, but many say they do not want publicity or have children attending Yale, and would prefer to wait until they graduate.

Alumni gifts that support financial aid for summer programs and graduate student professional development make potentially “life-altering” experiences possible through a relatively modest sum, Reichenbach said.

“I cannot say strongly enough how important gifts are, regardless of their size,” Reichenbach said. “When you look at what smaller gifts can accomplish specifically, you can see how big an impact they can have.”

Approximately one third of the University’s operating budget comes from the endowment, a proportion that has increased significantly since the 1980s, when the endowment was smaller, Provost Andrew Hamilton said. The Yale Corporation approves a spending rule for the endowment, he said, to ensure the institution’s long-term viability amid market fluctuations.

“To me, that prudent spending rule ensures long-term stability for the institution and somewhat insulates the University from the ups and downs of financial markets,” Hamilton said.

But some alumni, especially those who have pursued careers in public service, have echoed the message of Stein’s first column, as they said they have been reluctant to give to Yale knowing that their money could have a greater impact on other institutions.

Emily Sachs ’83, financial officer for a nonprofit organization in New York, said that while she has given to Yale in the past, she does not believe her philanthropy is meaningful for the University.

“When I look back at what paltry few bucks I have given and what they can do for the University, they can do more elsewhere,” she said.

Sachs said she would be more likely to give larger sums to Yale if the University kept her better informed about where donated proceeds and funds are specifically used.

But Mally Cox-Chapman ’73, a philanthropy adviser, said alumni donate out of a debt of gratitude to institutions that had a significant impact on their lives.

Jennifer Hansell ’86, the executive director of the North East Community Center in Millerton, N.Y., said she has had mixed feelings about donating to her alma mater, especially since she took over as the head of an organization dependent on donations.

“I’ve always debated in my mind [whether] I should give to Yale or not,” she said. “But I feel now that my money is better given to other places. Yale is never going to care that much about the pennies I give.”

Hansell said that though she maintains this general attitude about alumni giving, she does give to specific Yale groups she cares about, such as Dwight Hall and the Maya Lin Women’s Fund. She said she would rather give her money to shelters for battered women or to community centers than to Ivy League institutions.

“I give my money to small local organizations instead,” she said. “Places like Harvard and Yale can live forever on their endowments. That’s probably not totally true, but it certainly feels that way.”

Nevertheless, Hansell said she can understand why alumni who give donations of any size to Yale would choose to do so.

“People give for a lot of reasons, and not all of them are rational,” she said. “Gratitude for something received is huge, wanting to be part of something larger or one with people they love or respect.”

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