Volume XXXVI, Issue 1, October 4, 2013
You could tell a few different narratives about what makes Amherst the elite institution it is today. We can look back to our history, to 1821, when founding president Zephaniah Swift Moore made the incredibly rational judgment call to move Williams College in the middle of the night to a less rural location. Perhaps, more logically, you believe that it’s something about the combination of students, faculty, and (refrain from groaning) the administration that has sustained itself over the years that has led us to earn our place among the ranks of elite colleges. It could be the programming or Frost or even Frost Café.
But nearly any story you tell about Amherst’s position in the country’s educational hierarchy will turn on a common linchpin: We have a lot of money. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s 2013 Almanac of Higher Education, we rank third in terms of endowment among private liberal arts colleges, with nearly $1.6 billion in our coffers. To put this in perspective, money magnets Harvard and Yale control $30.4 and $19.3 billion, respectively—even on a per-student basis, their endowments are nearly twice ours. We do, however, dwarf some of our peers in the Five College Consortium: Mount Holyoke has a $582.6-million-dollar endowment; Hampshire, nearly one-twentieth of that, at $28.9 million.
It’s important to note that, while a college’s endowment is a significant determinant of its spending power, the operating budget that determines the allocation of resources for any given year also derives funding from tuition revenues and gifts. And this semester we witnessed the culmination of the most spectacular period of gift-giving the College has ever been party to—we raised over $500 million in less than 5 years. That’s a phrasing commonly used to describe this kind of fundraising—“we did it!” But who’s doing the donating? A quarter of the “Lives of Consequence” money came from two anonymous alumni, setting donation records for the College and for liberal arts colleges in general.
But some alumni, students, and professors have balked at the campaign’s audacious and self-aggrandizing tone. The “Lives of Consequence” campaign was undergirded by the patronizing notion that Amherst alumni lead a particular kind of life by virtue of their having attended a certain college. (Have you lived a life of consequence if a $100 million donation is outside your means?) What’s more, the fundraising was also brought to a close with a weekend of decadence, replete with continent-themed food stations and a pop-funk band. If you’re like me, then you have wondered why an institution of learning must so embrace its reliance on the acquisition of benevolent capital.
Without a doubt, this reliance has serious implications for the realities of Amherst’s existence. For one, this institution’s interest in sports is wrapped up in alumni money: $12.5 million went into the Pratt Field renovation, half of which came earmarked for that purpose from a single donor. Considering the state of the new science center (non-existent) and the dilapidation of the socials, the administration might have dedicated such money to a project with a greater impact on the entirety of the community.
But this visible consequence of our reliance on donations is itself the consequence of something larger, something we tend to take for granted. Our monetary connection with our alumni is what compels Amherst to become a repository of memories. Amherst has a commitment not only to those who inhabit it now, but also to the generations of students that have been shaped by it. When we criticize the “Lives of Consequence” extravaganza, we’re only noticing one end of the reciprocal investment cycle this commitment entails: We invest in Amherst, Amherst in us, and so forth.
While this place is undoubtedly an institution dedicated to learning, that learning is inextricably tied to the investments that are made further along in the cycle of giving. Infrastructure, scholarships, endowed chairs, and mentoring all depend on the generosity of alumni. But the cycle doesn’t end there: The College, in return for and expectation of this generosity, makes its own investment in the realm of the alumni, reunions, sports, and events.
I don’t think this is a wholly lamentable state of affairs. When we put in our time at Amherst as students, we plant bits and pieces of ourselves in the fertile ground the school provides, expecting the fruits of our labor to provide for our own respective futures as well as the future of the College. The plots that students develop today comprise academics, yes, but they feature sports and community service and campus publications. Amherst’s support for these ancillary activities today is merely a reflection of past students’ dedication and, yes, money. In sponsoring events like the celebration two weeks ago, we give alumni the chance to experience the impact they’ve made on a place so dear to them.
While it’s true that our reliance on fundraising can lead to questionable outcomes such as the Pratt Field renovation and the “Lives of Consequence” celebration, these outcomes are just parts of the process of education as we know it. It wouldn’t be possible to attend the Amherst we know today without its cultivation of our efforts and our memories. So what if Amherst can be an extravagant nostalgia machine? It’s a machine that gives power to our motto, Terras Irradient, by fueling the institution with the money it needs to make good on that commitment to enlightening and improving the world.
I, for one, found it inspiring to be in the presence of alumni, all at varying stages in their lives. At the start of a new semester, it has served as an impetus to sow my seeds deep, so that I can come back to this place in five, ten, twenty years, and feel that my work here contributed to something greater than me. I can only hope that then, in the distant future, it’ll be easier to digest the “world” cuisine and the Robin-Thicke-playing cover band.