Ask Not What Your School Can Do for You


By Ben Goldsmith, MPA’13, Correspondent

Editor’s Note: This column was written in response to the April 8 story by Alexi White entitled, We have more to contribute than money: Why I won’t be donating to the HKS Fund.

We HKS students want to change the world. We want more women students and faculty on campus. We want Sodexho to give us healthier food. We want more student input in redesigning the MPP core. We want it all. But we don’t want to pay for it.

I don’t mean taking out bigger loans, or raising tuition, or paying extra for a sandwich from the cafeteria. I mean giving $20 – what many of us spend on Saturday day night drinks – to demonstrate our support through the HKS Class Gift. This year, we need to give to HKS.

There’s a common story at HKS. A student has a problem: maybe with budget transparency, maybe with class offerings, maybe with diversity statistics. The student has a meeting, talks to staff and ends up frustrated. The student expresses a concern, but nothing happens. We tell these stories over and over to each other.

So when HKS asks us to give, we say “no.” What has HKS ever done for me? Why should I give? We withhold our money as a sign of protest. HKS has not listened to me and met my needs, so I will not support it.

Withholding out of protest is a nice idea, but it only works if you withhold something that someone else needs. If North Korea bans U.S. companies from its soil, do they care? If the T opens at 6 a.m. instead of 5 a.m., do we care? So should HKS care if we don’t give?

Only if it needs our support.

Institutions need money to run. Harvard Kennedy School, like any non-profit, depends on donors to round out its budget. According to its online fact sheet, HKS received $32.6 million in current-use gifts – money the school can spend immediately.  That’s just under a quarter of the $144.7 million in HKS operating revenues for 2012.

By comparison, after deducting financial aid, the school took in $39.6 million from students. When I say students, I’m not just talking about our friends in the Forum – we’re around 64 percent of the total student body. The rest is the Executive Education students (you know, the ones we “borrow” coffee from), who pay thousands of dollars for a week here.

Full-time students pay for a bit over 15 percent of the HKS operating budget, yet we get more from the school than anyone else.

Let’s put it another way. According to the HKS Alumni Relations and Resource Development office, Harvard Kennedy School receives an average of $40 million in donations each year, which helps pay for everything from financial aid to running the heat to one-off projects like building the Taubman student lounge.

Seventy percent of that $40 million – more than two out of every three dollars – comes from non-alumni: People who never ate lunch in the Forum, never heard a lecture in Starr and never got free coffee in Taubman.

Looking at these numbers brings home a reality: We students are not the center of the HKS universe. Despite what we think, we don’t pay for that much of the school – either as students or as alumni. Our education is subsidized by non-alumni donors, by Executive Education, and by other sources like research grants and the endowment.

We don’t provide the money, and we don’t provide the work. How many of us take the time to run for Student Government? Join a student government committee? Advise a Center? We make the academic and social life of campus hum, but when it comes to keeping the lights on, we stay away. We demand changes to the institution, but after two years (at most) we graduate, leaving the hard work of implementing our ideas for staff and faculty.

The truth is, once we accept admission, we need HKS more than it needs us.

Right now, we’re not giving the university many reasons to care about its students or its alumni. We don’t give our money or our time when we leave. HKS gets on fine without much support from us. Withholding support in protest changes nothing.

This leaves us only one way forward.

It’s time we show the school what it’s been missing.

It’s time to make the school need us.

Real institutional change takes more than one or two years. If we want faculty, staff and administrators to support our ideas, we need to help them carry the load. Show the school that alumni give back, and the school will need to listen intently to our ideas for improving the place.

Give to the Class Gift and become a part of changing this school for the better.

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