Whatever else you get out of the education, one thing you definitely learn in four years at Penn is that Amy Gutmann knows how to throw a party. As senior week began last night, the Penn president opened up her house (well, the backyard at least) to a Hollywood-themed bash for the soon-to-be-graduating seniors, replete with a red carpet, oversized Oscar statues and video monitors flashing images of assorted movie stars.
The star of this party, however, was unquestionably President Gutmann, who spent most of the time parked near the front of the yard as a steady stream of students approached her to make awkward small talk and get their pictures taken. A friend and I munched on hors d’oeuvres somewhat off to the side, debating the merits of being a university president. My friend thought it would be pretty cool to run an institution like Penn. I replied that I couldn’t imagine having to do all that glad-handing and money-scrounging.
As if on cue, Gutmann picked up a mic and began her toast to this year’s senior class. For the first minute, tops, she stuck to celebratory platitudes, asking us how it felt to be seniors (which was bizarre because that’s the line she uses to the juniors at Hey Day when they “officially” become seniors) and serenading us as “her favorite class ever.”
She then shifted gears to the real purpose of this little toast, which was—surprise, surprise—asking for money. She hailed the 1,300 or so members of the senior class who had so far given to Seniors for the Penn Fund and challenged us to break the donor record held by the Class of 2009 with a tone that suggested our status as her favorite class might be up for reconsideration if we didn’t.
Next, several seniors in their green Seniors for the Penn Fund T-shirts read statements about the importance of our contribution to the future of the university, the quality of the education, the availability of scholarships, etc., etc. By this point, though, just about everyone had stopped listening and returned to eating their hot dogs and talking amongst themselves.
But the solicitations weren’t over. A few minutes after the official presentation wrapped up, a woman (some administrator) came up to a group of us and, after politely inquiring into our plans for next year, asked if we had donated. We all nodded yes. I’m pretty sure none of us had. Satisfied nonetheless, she excused herself and moved onto the next group of potential donors.
By the end of the night, I vowed to myself that if another person asked me to give money before I graduate on Monday, I would never send a dollar in Penn’s direction. I suppose, though, that the “if” part of that statement is superfluous. After all, even before President Gutmann’s remarks, I’d been asked for money on the way into the party and earlier that day when I bought a ticket for the senior formal. I’ve also been receiving emails all semester on a near-weekly—and now even more frequent—basis from fellow seniors, imploring me to “Give Today!” Some of the appeals are absolutely priceless. “Nothing says class unity like contributing to Seniors for The Penn Fund,” reads one. Needless to say, I’m fairly certain I’ll find myself bombarded with more solicitations as soon as I step foot on campus today—or open my email.
I get that alumni contributions are part of the lifeblood of the modern university. But the constant pressure on often heavily-indebted students to donate and insinuations that not donating before you’ve even picked up your diploma makes you a less worthy graduate is more than a little unseemly. For a university that proudly proclaims its commitments to socioeconomic diversity and the liberal arts, it’s “give now!” campaign signals that richer students and those who have opted for high-paying jobs on Wall Street are more valued than poorer students and those who have pursued their passions into lower-wage professions.
I suppose that with time and a little more money in my bank account, I’ll get over my hang-up and donate to some worthy program at my alma mater. For now, I don’t need Penn to help “instill the idea of alumni support” in me. I can think of countless better ways to feel a sense of class unity this week.