Fundraising and Pride

Originally published in the Scotsman.

I’m endlessly fascinated by university funding, and last week an article in the Scotsman caught my attention – “SNP demands Scots universities get same sponsorship deal as English,” by Andrew Borthwick. The first part of the article described a funds-matching plan, where the government would contribute £1 for every £2 donated to universities by philanthropists and alumni. Sounds like a great idea, and naturally I agree that any such plan for England should be applied to Scotland as well (not to mention Wales and Northern Ireland).

However, in the second part of the article, Borthwick painted a rosy picture of the American system that missed some important details. He mentioned that “no-one seems to mind” the “cheerleader” style newsletters – but most people I know find them annoying and condescending. They’re uncomfortable reminders that five years on, most of us can barely afford to make rent and student loan payments, let alone donations to already-rich institutions.

Perhaps there’s a selection bias here, though. Most of my friends were more focused on their studies than the latest (American) football scores. None of us really had a lot of “spirit” – and spirit is exactly what must be cultivated to ensure the flow of cash.

I have no problem with the idea of voluntary alumni donations – but does Scotland really want to mirror the American “culture of giving?” It sounds very nice, but I imagine most Scots would cringe at the reality. A spokesperson from Universities Scotland rightly pointed out “big cultural differences between Scotland and the US.”

What are those differences? How might the American system play out in a Scottish context? I can only offer details of my own experience, but it might be an eye-opener for those who idealise American fund-raising tactics. It’s really very much like the movies we’ve all seen.

Imagine the passion that some people work up over their favourite (British) football team, complete with team rivalries and paraphernalia of every description. Add even more paraphernalia (I’ve seen everything from toothbrushes to golf club covers emblazoned with my university’s logo), cheerleaders, a marching band, mascots, school songs, enormous fundraising offices, and of course endless newsletters and social get-togethers. Set up a call centre and employ a few dozen students to phone alumni in the evenings and solicit donations (this was my job during my fourth year).

Then, turn the geographic space of the university into a landmark for that university’s “brand.” Statues of the mascot are very important, as are displays of university colours and logos, and local establishments with cheesy names that reference the university’s symbols.

The “Greek” system of fraternities and sororities helps build brand loyalty with its exclusive parties and strange rituals. Academic rigour builds credibility as a serious institution, but top students must never forget they are deviant for ignoring school spirit. To ensure alumni donations, a cult-like norm of dedication must be developed.

Special events can mask the reality that the university sees students only as potential future donors. On overpriced football weekends (and there must be overpriced football weekends), fill the campus to overflowing with grinning alumni in garish t-shirts. It’s a little bit like a vacuous, suburban version of the Edinburgh festival, without art or theatre or anything vaguely cultural. Its only redeeming quality (in my view) is that it pumps money into the university and generates scholarships (including athletic scholarships, to provide competitors for the fundraising events).

I daresay that enthusiastic alumni are exactly the kinds of Americans that most Scots find hopelessly irritating. It makes me wonder why people are so eager to re-create the system that breeds them.

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