More on the trouble with benefactors

Posted on FB last week in response to this Guardian piece.

It’s entirely appropriate that the RMF activists have had a strong response to Oriel’s decision, but I think the views expressed in this piece demonstrate the need for greater understanding of how institutions work, particularly how they are funded.

I remember when I expressed frustration to the convenor of my master’s course that the History Faculty did a disservice to students by accepting so many onto my course, with a very wide range of abilities (some not well-prepared for postgraduate study at all) and many of whom were up against greater odds because they were accepted without funding. The convenor told me a bit about the numbers, and showed me a spreadsheet: without the revenue from those unfunded students’ fees, the Faculty literally couldn’t afford to keep the lights on in the George Street building—much less funding other things students demanded as important components of a rigorous graduate program in history, like research travel grants.

There are involved historical reasons why the Faculties at Oxford are particularly poor, but this experience made me keenly aware of how many difficult (and ethically questionable) decisions faculty and administrators have to make to generate the revenue that allows their institutions to operate. For some elite institutions, even those far from Harvard and Princeton’s financial league, there are obvious places to reprioritize the budget, such as astronomical administrative salaries and, you know, “global” programs. For others, especially smaller ones, there is much more limited room for flexibility when student campaigns push for divestment from a particular industry or for the institution to take a particular decision that will alienate donors; institutions may reasonably conclude (as much as one might disagree with that decision) that prioritizing students’ needs is best done by taking money that allows them to continue offering student services, rather than taking a political stance that will lead to a loss of revenue. Still other institutions may make the troubling decision to admit students of less academic merit because their admittance might yield donations that will allow more students of great merit to receive financial aid that they need in order to study at that institution. It is possible to raise sound ethical objections to all these decisions, and I respect the opinions of those who in recent weeks have compellingly argued that the principle of the thing means that the money isn’t worth it. But I think it’s important to recognize that there is a real choice here, and that it isn’t so easy to turn down money that you can put to good educational use (or even money that you can put to shitty neocorporate use). Those of us who have ever been made to write a letter of thanks to someone who endowed a scholarship for us, as I have every year since beginning higher education, should be aware of this. Another time I learned this lesson is from the many good people who made thoughtful, reasoned objections to my principled decision not to donate to Princeton. They haven’t convinced me to change my mind, but they’ve got a point too.

It’s hard to say how I would vote if I were on Oriel’s governing body (and how extraordinary that Oxbridge colleges still retain a form of collective decision-making entirely lost at most institutions of HE today—there are some forms of small-c conservatism not wholly evil). Probably, sort of like my vote in the Democratic primary, it would have to do in part with a constellation of strategic and emotional reasons not necessarily based in a rational, philosophically-minded weighing of the pure ethical factors at play. I’m not a philosopher, and I don’t have a rigorous logical method for weighing what is Right in situations like these. I think the history of institutions demonstrates that what is Right can often get really muddled by other pragmatic considerations; my study in this respect has led me to prefer forms of politics, philosophy, and ordinary living that take this into account. As much as I deeply respect the convictions of those who live otherwise, I just can’t get on that page, as much as I may be sorry for it.

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