With students and faculty raising concerns about the role of major Yale donor Stephen Schwarzman ’69 in President Donald Trump’s administration, Senior Class Gift participation falling to the lowest rate on record and the creation of an alternative gift, University administrators have urged the student body and the broader Yale community to take a more balanced, appreciative perspective toward donors.
In an interview with the News last week, Vice President for Alumni Affairs and Development Joan O’Neill noted that alumni sometimes hear student criticism of donors rather than hearing about donors’ generosity.
“At times, the voice that alumni will hear is one of disdain for donors — that money is somehow a bad thing — rather than the fact that our alumni have felt that their Yale experience was so important that they wanted to give back, to pay it forward, to repay the opportunity that they had,” O’Neill said.
O’Neill also stressed the importance of how alumni view student attitudes toward donors, especially in the context of the University’s recent controversial decision to rename Calhoun College. O’Neill believes students could help “re-engage” alumni who have potentially felt alienated by the Calhoun decision. According to O’Neill, insofar as students can show alumni donors that “in essence, they’re the same kind of students” as the alumni were — similarly committed to learning and leading — they should express this affinity, knowing “that it is the generations of previous alumni that made Yale the kind of place that everyone wants it to be.”
But James Luce ’66, who recently wrote a letter to the News decrying University President Peter Salovey’s earlier defense of Schwarzman, was not as sure that students’ attitudes would have a large impact on whether alumni give back to Yale.
Luce told the News that he thought the criticism of donors would have a marginally negative impact on University fundraising, due to the fact that big donors “significantly involve their egos in the decision process,” and might feel hurt by student pushback. However, he said he expected both big donors and less wealthy alumni to donate to the University at similar rates to donors of the past, regardless of student attitudes.
Still, Bernard Stanford ’17 said he thought there was a “severe gratitude deficit” among Yale students toward donors.
“I remember being a little aghast at seeing one student refer flippantly to the endower of her named scholarship as a ‘rich white guy’ only concerned with his ‘rich white name,’” Stanford said. “Students also seem to feel that wonderful donation-funded programs like financial aid and the cultural houses are things Yalies are entitled to, rather than things that have been given to them. There’s just not this recognition that every dollar donated and spent here was a dollar somebody had to earn and consciously decide to give away.”
Making a similar emphasis in his letter to the News last Friday, Salovey wrote that while media coverage might focus on seniors who did not contribute to the class gift, the “real story” concerns students and alumni who support Yale every year.
O’Neill was similarly cautious about the alternative senior gift. On the one hand, she praised how the alternative gift emphasized the ways Yalies can give back, but, on the other, she would “hate for students to think that they are doing it in spite of Yale.”
“It would seem unfortunate if students assume that what they got at Yale they can take for granted and assume that ‘I’m entitled to that and now I’m going to do something else,’” O’Neill said. “Yale has invested in them.”
In a statement, however, the student leaders of the alternative senior class gift — Sarah Rose ’17, Naomi Roselaar ’17, Dane Underwood ’17 and Emily Patton ’17 — emphasized that the gift was not intended to rebuke the University or its donors.
“Some people choose to donate to Yale because they want to give back to their communities and provide for their future members,” the leaders wrote. “We only wish to provide a spotlight on the larger community that we are also a part of and give back to them and provide for their future members as well.”
While O’Neill also pointed out that many of the beneficiaries of the alternative senior gift fund, like the HAVEN Free Clinic, are in fact already supported by Yale, the senior leaders of the alternative gift fund argued that there is a difference between giving to their fund rather than the University. The funds raised through the alternative senior class gift will go to charities such as New Haven’s Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, the Planned Parenthood of Southern New England, Junta for Progressive Action, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The annual Senior Class Gift was established in 1997.