Protests have been going on since last year, like this protest during Wesleyan’s homecoming weekend.
When Wesleyan University first revealed its controversial shift away from a need-blind admissions policy last May — a longtime pledge to consider applicants without regard to financial need — the outcry among students was immediate and harsh.
There was the protest banner at commencement, the formation of a student-government task force, the peaceful occupation of a Board of Trustees meeting — standard fare on a Connecticut campus that is as much associated with liberal politics as it is with vibrant indie music and a sexually liberated curriculum.
But for alumni, more likely to register their discontent with the checkbook than the picket sign, the response has been a measured buildup. First, silence. Then, a rumble of murmurs in Facebook groups and private meet-ups. Now a flurry of petitions, letters and refusals to donate have surfaced, illustrating the strange ripples of campus activism as it translates from the students to the alumni in a small college community.
The first big petition arrived in October, days after a homecoming weekend marked by tension, protest and outright confrontation between students and administrators. Titled “Please Withhold Your Alumni Giving to Wesleyan,” the call was short but direct. Fellow alumni, it demanded, were not to support their alma mater financially until the prestigious liberal arts college restored need-blind admissions and addressed sexual violence on campus.
“If enough of us refuse to donate and offer a clear explanation of why we currently feel donating is unethical,” the authors promised, “we may be able to counteract Wesleyan’s abhorrent actions.”
The call to arms arrived just as Wesleyan was gearing up to go public with a $400-million capital campaign, partially aimed at financial aid.
The timing poses a curious dilemma. If the university relies on alumni support, then withholding donations is the way to exert one’s voice. But what if meager alumni support — coupled with a dwindling endowment and rising financial-aid costs — is the cause underscoring the budget cuts? By denying funds, might alumni be exacerbating the issue?
For Jeffrey Rovinelli, a member of the class of 2010 who co-authored the petition, the answer is clear.
“Would you give to a charity that does something awful in the hopes that maybe it will do something less awful later?” Rovinelli said. “Wesleyan is a non-profit like any other. I think it would be immoral to donate on the hopes that they improve.”
Rovinelli, who maintains that his stance was equally inspired by a recent lawsuit accusing Wesleyan of inaction in a rape case, says the petition grew out of frustrated conversations with fellow alumni in New York.
Nicholas Quah, a 2012 alumnus and graduate student at the University of Chicago, breached similar questions in an open letter titled “I’ll Donate When Wesleyan Earns My Donation.”
“Yes, I have a commitment to my alma mater,” Quah wrote. “But my commitment is not blind. I have a commitment to the ideals my alma mater once shared with me. Right now [...], I cannot support you.”
It is not just the policy shift itself that has complicated the delicate tightrope of alumni relations. Clear communication is also an issue, said Alexa Atamanchuk, a 2012 graduate who works for a consulting firm.
“If you think the administration doesn’t communicate with you now, wait until you graduate,” Atamanchuk said.
Some learned of the school’s financial state from the petitions themselves. Others, from a segment on the progressive news program Democracy Now!.
Josh Sher, a mortgage broker and 1991 graduate who expressed his frustration in a “Wespeak” column in Wesleyan’s student newspaper, concurred.
“Had [President Michael] Roth and the trustees gone to the alumni and said, ‘We are in a financial crisis, we might have to do this, please can you commit to giving more,’ I would have found a way to give more,” Sher said. “But now I’m less comfortable giving.” (Roth, who appears unwittingly in the Democracy Now! segment, has maintained that the information was readily available in a blog post, which vows to link tuition increases to inflation and emphasize a three-year degree option.)
“I respect those who signed the petition to retain need-blind, but I’ve been focused instead on trying to supply the largest sustainable amount of scholarships we can,” President Roth said in an email. “We simply do not have unlimited resources, and I’m unwilling to compromise the quality of the student experience to keep the need-blind label.”
Ethan MacKenzie, a current senior who manages the school’s alumni-calling group, the Red & Black Society, said the issue is posed to student callers so often that they’ve been given a sheet of talking points to use on the phone. But MacKenzie said he is frustrated with the attitudes of the alumni.
“The major issue we run into when we’re talking to alums on the phone is they’re very aware of the morally problematic side of [cutting need-blind], but they don’t always see the connection between that and the financial realities we’re facing,” MacKenzie said. “We really try to make alums realize that by not donating as an act of protest, it’s sort of a self-defeating act.”
Though less publicly vocal, some alumni agree.
“[Withholding donations] is extremely unfortunate and counterproductive,” said Ross Shenker, a freelance social media coordinator who graduated in 2011. “Fewer alumni gifts will not bring need-blind back. Less endowment spending, controlling the rise of tuition and scaling back need-blind temporarily will.”
Under need-blind, Shenker argued, Wesleyan has been offering less generous financial-aid packages to those it does admit than its peer institutions.
Acknowledging that recent alumni are not typically in a position to make major donations, MacKenzie maintained that participation rates are equally crucial data for college rankings and grant awards.
But the ensuing commotion isn’t exactly a boon for fundraising.
“Why would I donate to a school that is fundamentally changing from the one I applied to, attended, and helped contribute to who I am today?” questioned Rebecca Gundle, a program coordinator for a non-profit cultural-exchange organization in Portland. Ore.
Gundle, of the class of 2004, is one of 432 alumni and students who have signed a more recent petition on Change.org. The author, Lana Wilson, a documentary filmmaker who graduated in 2005, renders no judgment as to whether or not alumni should donate. But hundreds of supporters have added their own personal messages. Some speculate that they would not have attended Wesleyan without need-blind admissions. Others vow not to donate.
Together, they coalesce into a poignant patchwork of alumni perspectives.
Eleanor Terry, a teacher and college adviser at a public school in Brooklyn, N.Y., notes in her email signature that she has encouraged her students to visit Wesleyan for the past eight years.
“For the first time this year,” she writes, “I found myself changing the way I advised my students to use their four free CollegeBoard fee waivers, knowing that Wesleyan just became a little bit more out of their reach.”
Disclosure: The author, a current senior at Wesleyan University, has participated in debates and protests surrounding need-blind admissions.
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