Student prizes capped at $1k

When Arden Rogow-Bales ’10 entered the Classics Department’s annual Latin translation competition in the spring of his sophomore year, he thought he had a chance at winning — but he had no idea he would earn several thousand dollars for a few hours of Ovid.

The department had awarded Rogow-Bales the Samuel Henry Galpin Latin Prize, which Galpin’s son Samuel A. Galpin, class of 1870, established more than a century ago with a $1,000 donation. Because Galpin’s $1,000 has grown with Yale’s endowment, Rogow-Bales received considerably more than the $50 Latin prizewinners won at the turn of the century. It was an “embarrassingly large” amount, he said — so large that when Rogow-Bales arrived at the classics offices to receive his prize, he said, the secretary would not say the amount out loud. Instead, she showed it to him on a slip of paper. Rogow-Bales, who declined to state the exact amount of the Galpin prize, also tied for the Winthrop Prize in Latin as a junior, he said, winning half of an approximately $10,000 total prize.

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But when Rogow-Bales competes again next month for the Winthrop, the prize money he hopes to win may be just a fraction of his previous windfalls because of a new University policy that will cap most Yale prizes at $1,000.

Over Yale’s three-century history, donors have established hundreds of prizes to reward student work, from the best senior essay about New Haven to the winning oration in a speaking contest. As University administrators attempt to squeeze excess funds out of the endowment to close Yale’s budget shortfall, they hope to limit what they say have become unreasonably large prizes and spend the rest of the income from these endowments on financial aid for prizewinners. But some students and professors said they are concerned the new cap will violate donors’ intentions and take some of the awards away from deserving students.

Vice President and Secretary Linda Lorimer announced the new policy — which applies to the Graduate School and the professional schools, as well as to Yale College — in an e-mail last week to deans, department chairs and faculty involved in administering prizes. Oversized prizes that have mushroomed in tandem with the endowment are an inefficient use of funds, Lorimer said in the e-mail. (In an interview, Lorimer said the cap for prizes in the Graduate School and professional schools would be set at an undetermined amount higher than $1,000.)

“A scholarship is just a more appropriate use of a single prize fund than to give one student a huge windfall, just because a particular department happened to get a big gift which has grown,” Deputy Provost Charles Long said, adding that administrators have seen oversized prizes as a matter of serious concern for years.

SIFTING THROUGH PRIZES

The offices of the Provost and General Counsel will review the terms of every prize fund donation to see whether excess income can be siphoned off for scholarships, Lorimer said.

Many prizes, such as all eight of the prizes awarded by the History of Art Department, already fall under the $1,000 cap, History of Art chair Alexander Nemerov said. In other cases, the language of other prize donations may not allow the University to use the gifts for any other purpose than what was originally stipulated.

But the income on larger prizes — such as the English department’s Elmore A. Willets Prize for Fiction, which has awarded a total income of $15,000 a year recently — should go toward financial aid for the award recipients, administrators said.

This time around, administrators are carefully reviewing indentures — the legal agreements that accompany all donations — and may even ask donors or their heirs to determine if another use might be appropriate.

One donor established a prize 30 years ago but told development officials that if he had been able to give more money, he would have liked to establish a scholarship instead. Now that his prize has grown, Vice President for Development Inge Reichenbach said last month, students will receive financial aid in his name instead of prizes. (Reichenbach declined to name the donor or the prize.)

SCALING BACK

Though department chairs have long tried to wrangle other uses out of prize funds and other gifts that were donated with explicit instructions for use, Long said, the effort has intensified as Yale faces a budget shortfall.

Departments that award large sums try to be discreet about the thousands of dollars they give out, three department chairs said. The amounts do not appear on department Web sites, and many students do not realize how much they have won until they collect the prizes.

“I have occasionally run into a stunned-looking undergrad on Class Day,” said Provost Peter Salovey, formerly dean of Yale College.

To offset the size of the prizes, many departments already split the income from gifts into multiple prizes or use extra income to fund student research. The English Department’s Willets Prize for Fiction, for example, is already split among 10 recipients, with a first prize of $3,500 and a 10th prize of $250, said Leslie Brisman, who chairs the department’s prize committee.

Prizes in the Economics Department are also divided among several students, depending on how many prize-worthy senior essays are submitted, economics chair Benjamin Polak said. Some money also goes to fund research for senior essays, he added.

“I think most students would take the view that we want to make it possible to not only reward students but make it possible to do the work,” Polak said.

Salovey said more prizes may be split this year so departments can award more reasonable sums to a greater number of deserving students. Brisman said he expects to be able to award a top Willets prize of $1,000 and reduce the number of other winners.

‘RATHER STINGY’?

Though students and professors agreed that financial aid is a cause worth supporting, they questioned the decision to impose a blanket limit of $1,000 across all prizes whose terms allow it.

Brisman said he was shocked and disappointed by what he called the “emasculation” of prize endowments. English essay prizes given to freshmen and sophomores may have been overinflated, but the cuts to some upperclassmen prizes may break the terms of the original donations, he said — no matter how flexible the actual language is.

The Sholom and Marcia Herson Scholarship, which the English department awards to senior English majors who intend to pursue graduate degrees, is worth more than $10,000 total each year, he said.

“If that is reduced to $1,000, nobody can go to graduate school feeling that even a significant dent has been made in the expenses of graduate school,” Brisman said. “So I think there, the intentions of the prize-givers have been violated.”

Last year’s Herson winners, Eamon Murphy ’09 and Andrew Williamson ’09, said that while they support the goal of increasing financial aid, the Herson prize reduced the cost of their graduate study. Now studying at Cambridge University in England, Murphy said his $5,000 was essential for buying books over the summer. And Rogow-Bales said his classics prize money allowed him to avoid taking a job over the past two summers.

“Capping them all at $1,000 is rather stingy,” Murphy said. “Maybe they should have reined in the most extravagant prizes instead of applying some blanket rule.”

There will be some exceptions to the $1,000 cap, administrators said. Salovey said individual prizes may be pegged higher if departments can make a good case for raising the amount.

Meanwhile, the Snow, Sudler, Chittenden, Warren, and Hadley prizes, which are traditionally awarded during Commencement to a small cadre of seniors who have shown academic and personal excellence, may be adjusted but will be kept larger than $1,000, Lorimer said.

“I think the question is, what would be a meaningful prize that would delight the recipient and is probably what the donor had in mind?” Salovey said. “The donors were probably not thinking about the miracle of compounded investment returns.”

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