LEWIS: Class and the class gift

Once a year, Yale officially engages the College community in a conversation about money: when it campaigns for the Senior Class Gift.

I had high hopes for this year’s conversation, given how President Salovey has inaugurated class sensitivity as a major theme of his presidency. As a FroCo, I was at the freshman assembly in August where he named socioeconomic status as “one of the last taboos among Yale students.” He exhorted us to be sensitive to our peers when we have “uncomfortable conversations” about money and to remember that these conversations “represent opportunities for true understanding and true friendship with classmates whose families are far different from your own.” He also recently emailed the transcript of this speech to the entire Yale community.

As the clock runs out on the Senior Class Gift, “uncomfortable conversations” will be happening aplenty. I’d like to think they’ll be open and sensitive, opportunities for true understanding and friendship, but I’m skeptical. The beer tasting Branford held was great, and the co-chairs I’ve spoken with have been perfectly tactful, but the published advertisements I’ve seen for the Class Gift have led me almost to despair. Our public conversation has at times been crude.

Yesterday my Facebook newsfeed filled with posts by friends and campaign volunteers urging seniors to donate. Many quoted from an op-ed in the News about “cultivating gratitude,” usually with this excerpt: “I challenge any senior to argue that Yale has not done him or her at least $5 worth of good.” I concede that challenge. In fact, I would argue that Yale has done me at least $200,000 worth of good; If I had ever thought I was getting $5 worth, I would have withdrawn. But Yale has already billed me for that: Every senior has paid in full, one way or another. Though the cost may have been forgettable for some, others are still reminded of it by their campus jobs or student loans. Before we preach gratitude in such company, let’s remember how much has already been sacrificed.

The Senior Class Gift’s official campaign materials have been similarly blind to class. Its website describes the Nathan Hale Associates program, which claims to recognize precisely those donors whose “leadership serves to inspire the efforts of all at Yale to provide the very best opportunities in higher education.” Who are these paragons of beneficence? Any senior who gives $100 to the gift. I, for one, am not inspired by anyone’s access to wealth. Especially not in college, when that access is unlikely earned.

If you aren’t yet convinced that Yale is celebrating socioeconomic privilege, you must not know how these “Leadership Donors” are rewarded: with a private reception at Chanel’s New York headquarters, co-hosted by its CEO and that of Gilt Groupe. Some tactless text on a webpage is forgivable — who knows who had to write it. But an exclusive party for these leaders, hosted by an institution and alumni who have made it their business to sell status symbols, is unforgettable.

It is a wonderful and unique thing about Yale that almost every senior donates to the gift, even those here on financial aid. That’s solid evidence that the University, the campaign and its volunteers are getting a whole lot right. I gave despite my reservations. But very intentionally I gave less than $100, and it left me feeling slimy anyway. I want a gift campaign that I can love. At its best, I imagine it could be purely forward-looking: an affirmation of our shared hope for Yale and our intent to maintain a relationship with the University. I’m heartened to see that the campaign has said the same, in other materials. But that’s doublespeak as long as it willfully celebrates class advantage, and as long as its volunteers suggest that we still owe a token of our gratitude. We’ve already given much more than tokens. The gift is instead a chance to demonstrate a new commitment, to generosity.

As President Salovey said, we have a class problem. Campus culture can be slow to change, but fundraising policy need not. And in the meantime, for our part, we can remember to focus not on our history or debt, but on the gestures we could make to commit ourselves to the future.

Aaron Lewis is a senior in Branford College. Contact him at aaron.lewis@yale.edu .

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