March 16, 2010

The Problem with the Senior Class Campaign

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A common experience among friends in the senior class has recently been the source of a great deal of irritation. It is time, at the risk of sounding ungrateful, to air this collective grievance.

We have begun to receive anonymous phone calls from other seniors. Unlike chatroulette.com, and other non-coercive, voluntary associations with random strangers, we do not really have the choice of entering into this anonymous relationship, because the voice on the line sounds so friendly. The purpose of the conversation, however, quickly becomes clear; the Senior Class Campaign is looking for money.

Giving money, we are told, is meant not only to benefit the University and “future Cornellians,” but it also is supposed to benefit us, the students giving, by introducing us to the “importance of philanthropy,” as the website puts it, and by fulfilling our nostalgic connection to our future alma mater.

These goals, though a little murky and unspecific, sound fairly noble. Everyone likes charity. Most people enjoy school spirit. The problem, however, is that the Senior Class Campaign makes some fairly insidious and offensive assumptions about its target market.

It should go without saying that Cornell’s increasingly high price tag means that a great number of seniors are on a heavy dose of financial aid and loans. By asking us for more money, on principle, the campaign is implying it doesn’t really think we need all of the funds we are receiving. Students often have to fight to keep their financial aid. If they are told, as they are by the campaign, that they can afford to give some of that aid back to the University, then why are they receiving it? This is highlighted by the further absurdity that we can “bursar” the cost, a mechanism designed for convenience. Like many students, my financial aid pays part of my bursar bill. To willingly give that aid to another “hypothetical” student is just nonsense.

The campaign’s response to this fairly simple criticism is, as it stands on their website, a “Top 10” list of reasons why we should give. Ignoring the reasons that don’t even pretend to have more than a marketing flair, like “It’s Easy!” and, my personal favorite, “Cornellians Love Competition,” every other plea cannot stand up to the fairly banal response; “Yes, but don’t I already give you thousands a year?” The idea of going above and beyond this amount with an extra five dollars tries to coerce us into an affiliation with a school that, while it gives us so much, does so at a cost, which we dutifully pay. Playing with our nostalgia in this way is simply disingenuous.

I am not arguing, however, that in reality we “don’t have the money” and that giving to the campaign is actually an economic hardship. I am rather suggesting that this kind of project offends my sense of dignity because it seems like a marketing tool designed to use our nostalgia in order to mystify the difference between philanthropy and consumership.

Universities, especially private ones, have long had a hard time deciding whether they are fundamentally businesses or something else. It is widely accepted that the purpose of a university is somehow higher than the goal of a business, as businesses serve profits, it is assumed, while universities serve higher ends: the liberal conception of the citizen, the responsible individual, the capable future worker, etc. It is with this higher sense of value and purpose that the Senior Class Campaign can use the language of “gratitude” to make it sound as though Cornell is an individual to whom we somehow “owe” for what it has given us. This “gratitude” idea tries to transpose our personal gratitude to our professors, deans and fellow students, onto some larger “Cornell,” and makes “Cornell” out to be a person that we can be thankful to.

Would I, for rhetorical purposes, say I am grateful to Cornell and the opportunities it has given me? Absolutely. Does this mean I should show my rhetorical gratitude with five dollars? That seems a little ridiculous.

Furthermore, the idea that Cornell’s purposes are somehow higher than a business is a tricky path. We live in a time were many corporations have started to think about goals beyond simply profit, or at least, immediate profit, by investing in sustainability, workers’ rights and ethical trade practices. Not all do, and whether a given business is meeting an ethical rubric or simply trying to boost profit margins is often hotly contested. But the point is that making money and serving people cannot be seen as mutually exclusive. Unlike other businesses, Cornell and other universities become allowed to pretend they have a moral upper hand, and this is the shifty ground on which we are asked to donate money while we are still paying tuition.

If Cornell’s Senior Class Campaign is asking students for money, other businesses might as well do the same by making noble-sounding statements about “legacies” and “traditions.” Starbucks might as well ask its workers to donate so they can support another worker.

Some other companies manage this issue by allowing employees to purchase stock. The Senior Class Campaign, on the other hand, simply sticks its hand out and acts as if it is your duty to simply fork over the change. We should know better.

Maurice Chammah is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be contacted at mac249@cornell.edu. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

Original Author: Maurice Chammah