Curtis: Prize caps not prizeworthy

For probably the only time in my life, I find myself in the shoes of a Wall Street banker who has just found out that he won’t get a bonus this year. As a student majoring in Classics, a specialized field with limited opportunities for funding, I’ve come to rely on the money the department awards annually to support work related to my discipline. And, as was recently announced, such prizes will now be capped at $1,000.

I find the decision a disappointing fix to Yale’s larger budgetary problems for reasons beyond its implications for me. While financial aid programs certainly deserve support, the prize funds are not the place the University should look to make up the shortfall brought on by the economic downturn. Shifting money from prizes that benefit very few people to financial aid rewards that benefit many may be more palatable than slicing library and security budgets, but it goes against the purpose of the original donations. The department prizes are intentionally merit-based; they encourage students to pursue academic interests and reward them for excelling in their respective fields. To reallocate these funds based on need does not just breach the University’s fiduciary duty to its donors, it misses the point of the prizes altogether.

Citing one anonymous benefactor who in retrospect would have preferred establishing a scholarship to a prize, Yale has wrongly assumed that all prize donors feel similarly. The transfer of their money from merit-based to need-based rewards, however, raises important questions of the donors’ intent. I emphatically urge Yale to reconsider its options before putting this policy into effect. If not, I can only hope the Attorney General’s office will come to the conclusion, as I have, that the cap lacks a legal basis.

Administrators have argued that some prizes have become unreasonably large, spurred on by what Provost Salovey has called “the miracle of compounded investment returns.” And some of them have. When Samuel A. Galpin, class of 1870, endowed a Latin prize in 1901, the total reward was $50. Its purchasing power in 2010 would be roughly $1,300, but endowment returns have allowed it to grow to many times more than that. In addition, the role of the University has changed greatly since 1901. What was once a loose confederacy of insular departments has morphed over time into a fully-fledged corporate body that collectively allocates its resources. The question, then, is whether giving away thousands of dollars as prizes each year is a worthwhile use of university funds, especially with the budget as tight as it is now.

I think it is. While donors like Galpin may not have expected their prizes to generate windfalls, the fact that they do is not some sort of problem requiring resolution. Especially for majors in esoteric departments where having academic expertise rarely translates into a marketable skill set, the large prizes provide an opportunity to gain real life experience. Unless one intends to pursue academia upon graduation, majoring in an uncommon subject greatly limits job prospects. While $1,000 is still worth competing for, the larger sums now allotted to the prizes allow Classics majors to finance independent endeavors. Just as the Yale College Dean’s Office finances research in the sciences, these prizes enable students with niche interests to broaden their experience.

Winning the Galpin Prize after my sophomore year has allowed me to take two unpaid summer internships, internships that were especially hard to come by since the “Languages” section of my resume reads only “Latin and ancient Greek.” I’m not alone — many in specialty fields rely on the prize income to pursue opportunities they would not otherwise be able to take. For us, the cap has very real consequences. Worse, for many more, it greatly diminishes the incentive to major in specialty fields.

During times of budget shortfall, the University is forced to make tough decisions. I understand that, and I also know that the financial aid program needs funding from somewhere. But right now the endowment managers are looking in the wrong place.

David Curtis is a junior in Silliman College.