Thanks for Nothing: Here's What Happens When Students Turn on a Major Donor

In a recent post, I looked at how on-campus turmoil can be very bad for university fundraisers.

Under this scenario, donors chafe at what they consider to be school administrators' unwillingness to check political correctness run amok. The theory has legs. Carolyn A. Martin, Amherst's president, said she was "not surprised" that student protests had contributed to a 6.5 percent decline in alumni giving for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2016.

But what happens when donors themselves are the target of students' ire?

Such a scenario is unfolding at Yale, and while many university fundraisers may tell themselves “It can't happen to us,” I wouldn't be so optimistic. 

The source of the turmoil is the fact that President Trump named a Yale graduate, Blackstone founder and mega-donor Stephen Schwarzman, as an advisor in December. Schwarzman, who is worth nearly $12 billion, was tapped to chair Trump’s Strategic and Policy Forum, which consists of 16 executives from prominent firms like Walt Disney, JP Morgan, IBM and General Electric. 

This, of course, is the same Stephen Schwarzman that gave Yale $150 million to create a world-class, state-of-the-art campus center by renovating the historic Commons and Memorial Hall in 2015. The hall would be renamed the Schwarzman Center as a result. 

It's worth noting that not everybody was happy with the donation at the time. Washington Monthly came out against the gift while Yale undergraduate Nathan Kohrman penned a scathing summary of Schwarzman's "arrogant blundering through the American public sphere" in the Yale Daily News. (Kohrman reminds us, for example, that Schwarzman compared a 2010 bipartisan effort to close a private equity tax loophole to Hitler invading Poland.)

Which brings me back to Trump's appointment of Schwarzman.

"In the days since he announced his involvement in Trump’s administration," according to a December story in the Yale Daily News, "the renaming of the Commons has come under renewed scrutiny from members of the campus community." Suddenly, one of the school's wealthiest alumni—and the most generous—was a pariah overnight in some quarters.

Fast-forward three months later, when students voted with their pocketbooks. According to another Yale Daily News piece, Senior Class Gift participation fell to the lowest rate on record. Donations to the Senior Class Gift go to the Alumni Fund to secure, among other things, financial aid for incoming students, sustainability programs on campus, and Yale's library network.

What's more, some students banded together to create an alternative senior fund gift. Rather than give to Yale, these students earmarked donations toward charities “across the community,” including New Haven’s Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, the Planned Parenthood of Southern New England, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Needless to say, the imbroglio put administrators in a bind. Vice President for Alumni Affairs and Development Joan O'Neill seemed to take an almost paternalistic tone, saying, "At times, the voice that alumni will hear is one of disdain for donors—that money is somehow a bad thing—rather than the fact that our alumni have felt that their Yale experience was so important that they wanted to give back, to pay it forward, to repay the opportunity that they had."

It's also worth remembering the additional context surrounding this latest bit of turmoil. As previously noted, back in February, the school's trustees announced they will change the name of a residential college that honors alumnus and former Vice President John C. Calhoun, who was an ardent supporter of slavery.

Yale's challenge boils down to how two very different constituencies perceive each other. Idealistic students see Schwarzman and Calhoun as the problem, not the solution. Alumni—but not all, mind you—think students are being impetuous, short-sighted, and ungrateful. O'Neill alluded to this kind of disconnect, suggesting that students could help "re-engage" alumni who potentially feel alienated by the Calhoun decision.

The bottom line, however, is pretty simple. Will students' attitudes and behavior have a large impact on whether alumni give back to Yale?

Calling recent developments "marginally negative," alumnus James Luce, class of 1966, theorized that some donors will clam up because they “significantly involve their egos in their decision process." That said, he expected both big donors and "less wealthy" alumni to keep giving at current rates.

As for Schwarzman, one can only imagine that Yale's high command is praying that he won't take any of this too personally. Given his vast fortune, this is a donor who's in a position to give more in coming years—much more.