“Have you left your mark yet?” ask cards left in dining halls by the Yale Alumni Fund. “Join the ranks of thousands of Yalies who came before you,” they entreat current seniors, “by giving back to the Yale Alumni Fund.” It’s clear why many students feel compelled to make donations before graduating: The chance to spend four years here is an incredible opportunity for which many of us feel very grateful, and one way to express that gratitude is through donating money. What these cards don’t acknowledge is that making a charitable donation to Yale — which they frame as the way to leave your mark — is far more feasible for those who won’t be driven by debt to pay cash back to Yale over the next several years. Our gratitude to this place and our commitment to its values call on us to do more than donate. They should drive us to expect more of this place, and to work to realize that expectation.
One small way to do that, for those of us who have and make the choice to donate to Yale, is to direct those donations toward financial aid. Directing our donations acknowledges that while we share with this university’s leaders a desire to see Yale flourish, they may not always share our priorities for how best to tap its resources towards that goal. One of those priorities is a reduction in the $4,400 student contribution students on financial aid are expected to raise from September to May each year. Last year, in response to a student campaign spearheaded by the Undergraduate Organizing Committee, Yale’s leaders reversed their early opposition and eliminated the required family contribution for families making under $45,000 a year. But the student contribution has gone unreformed. Instead of committing to continue making progress, Yale administrators have defended the status quo on the student contribution as a policy of “co-investment” designed to strengthen students’ investment in their education. As long as students on financial aid are called on to invest in their education through waged labor, and other students are called on to invest in their education through taking leadership roles in extracurricular life, Yale’s policies are perpetuating the kind of division its community is supposed to transcend. Continuing the progress begun last year means cutting the required student contribution. Yale students named such reform as a top priority in a YCC survey, and 2,000 of us have signed a petition pledging support for the UOC’s platform for reform.
How a $15 billion institution like Yale spends its money is a question not of possibility but of priorities. When its leaders gather, as they will later this month, to draw up a budget, they are making moral choices. And they are doing it on our behalf. The Alumni Fund’s literature asks both too much and too little of students. Too much, in that by choosing cash as the measure of commitment, it obscures those students working now not to make a charitable donation to Yale but to pay off tuition or pay down debt. Too little, in that by suggesting that providing more resources to Yale is enough to leave a mark, it obscures our responsibility to take part in determining how those resources are used to pursue the mission of the University.
Directing the target of any donations we may choose to make is a minimal choice which, if enough seniors were to make it in concert, could send an important signal about the values of our class and the values we want to see realized by this university. There are other choices students from all class years can make over the next few weeks. We can pledge support for the platform. We can voice our vision to President Levin. And we can gather to send a clear signal to Yale’s leaders that fostering vibrant university life is no less about ensuring equality of opportunity on campus than about refurbishing our physical infrastructure.
It was President Levin himself who once said, “To truly understand our values, we must test what it means to live by them.” That is the challenge we should pose to ourselves, to Yale and to each other. That choice — to leave a mark on Yale by engaging the debate over its future — is what makes the difference between facing Yale as consumers and facing Yale as citizens.
Josh Eidelson is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.