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Your Alma Mater Is Listening. What Message Are You Sending?

By August 10, 2016

Alumni have always made critical contributions of both time and money to their alma maters. From donations large and small, to bequests in wills, to hours spent volunteering for their former schools, alumni help shape the future of the institutions that shaped them. But with recent protests at many schools around the nation—protests that often included efforts by some students, faculty, and administrators to compromise free speech and other civil liberties on campus—many alumni have begun to send a different message. It’s one that has colleges listening.

A recent profile in the The New York Times highlighted a steep drop in giving to various institutions, particularly elite liberal arts institutions, that has these colleges and universities on alert.

According to The Times, Yale College’s alumni fund reported that giving was flat this year. Student-led protests last fall over a thoughtfully worded email about Halloween costumes—which led to the resignation of the email’s author, former Yale faculty member Erika Christakis—cast the university in an unflattering light in the national media. FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff, who happened to be on campus at the time of the controversy, captured some of those protests on video:

Claremont McKenna College reported a decline in donor participation after a series of controversies there last year. Princeton University’s previously record high-donations saw a nearly 7 percent drop after students demanded removal of Woodrow Wilson’s name from campus.  

The Times profile also highlights an Amherst College alum who cut the school out of his will after he, and alums like him, expressed discontent over misguided “cultural and racial sensitivities.” Amherst saw a huge decline in giving:

[T]he amount of money given by alumni dropped 6.5 percent for the fiscal year that ended June 30, and participation in the alumni fund dropped 1.9 percentage points, to 50.6 percent, the lowest participation rate since 1975, when the college began admitting women, according to the college. The amount raised from big donors decreased significantly.

Heat Street’s recent profile on the fallout at Virginia Tech after the school disinvited author Jason Riley prompted this conclusion: “Canceling a controversial speaker may well cause more uproar than it prevents.”

The publication waded through piles of documents from the school, including a three-inch-thick stack of “emails from upset donors, alumni and parents of current or prospective students, as well as the university’s responses” to them:

Several alumni threatened to pull donations or cancel bequests to Virginia Tech in their wills. ‘Don’t ever ask me for money again,’ writes one 1992 graduate following the Jason Riley controversy. ‘I’m done.’

‘Seriously, I am packing away my VT apparel, canceling my plans to attend some football games this fall and no longer traveling to attend any VT Bowl Games,’ another ‘former Hokie’ wrote. ‘Future donations to the University? You’ve got to be kidding!’

Internal emails between faculty and administrators, obtained by Heat Street, show just how worried they are about upsetting alumni.

  • From Virginia Tech Alumni Association to university relations: “[W]e had a trip cancellation [from a 1965 graduate] over the Riley situation.”
  • Virginia Tech’s associate director of gift planning to university relations, over “emails from distressed givers”: “These are donors I have worked with for many years, and I am going to have to give them a personal call because of the depth of our relationships […] Can you provide any guidance for me?”

Bottom line: Alumni speak volumes with both their wallets and their words.

What message are you sending?


In addition to—or in lieu of— a gift to your school, consider a one-time or continuing gift to FIRE. Your contribution will go a long way toward fighting for the free speech rights and other civil liberties of all college students.

You can also use our handy form to pledge your commitment to the Chicago Statement on freedom of expression and ask that your school do the same.

Be sure to keep checking in with FIRE to stay in-the-know about the latest happenings at your alma mater.