‘Some Alumni Cling to Nostalgia’: How a Protest Impacted Giving


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In the beneficiary relationship between the college and its donors, the emotional ties that alumni maintain with the larger community cannot be overlooked, as they shape the flow of donations to the college’s office of advancement. This was particularly evident in the fallout from the protests against Charles Murray that roiled campus last year, which may have contributed to a decline in donations last year.

“Our donors pay attention to what happens here. There is no question about that. This instance on March 2 of last year was certainly no exception,” said Alanna Shanley ’99, Middlebury’s executive director of giving.

“At this point, we only have anecdotal evidence about what has happened, and I think time will tell how this plays out in the future. We did see a drop-in participation last year. Is it because of what happened on March 2, or is it because of other factors? Probably a little bit of both. But it’s hard for us to pull that apart.”

According to members of advancement’s “phonathon” team, a student-manned initiative aimed at soliciting small donations via telephone, operations were affected in the immediate aftermath of the protests. The initiative was temporarily paused and after its recommencement, conversations with prospective donors became dominated by requests for information, and sharing of opinions about, the protest.

One phonathon operator, who requested anonymity to discuss internal matters, went on to note that caller opinions were generally split between the necessity of protecting Middlebury’s identity as a “place for many minds” and the need to protect student protesters. From their perspective, people in the former camp tended to be older, but perspectives were largely diverse. In the end, the phonathon program only achieved half of its $300,000 goal.

These concerns proved to be recurrent as the advancement office continued to reach out to alums.

“We spent a lot of time answering questions about what went on. Because of the way the story was picked up in the media, the incident of students protesting within Wilson and the attack on professor Stanger were collapsed,” said Meghan Williamson ’77, vice president for development.

“And so, people thought it was this mob going out from Wilson attacking professor Stanger, and that’s not what happened. So, a lot of my conversations were just to help people understand what did happen. Because the story, as you know, just took off. And it depended on what news outlet you were reading, and some people actually just had a lot of misinformation.”

In addition to clearing away the dust that surrounded the controversy, efforts were made to pacify discontent within the alumni community, which expressed a wide gamut of opinions on the protests. Although no gifts were actually retracted, some potential donors maintained that they would have to “wait and see” about their next gift based on developments on campus.

Bill Burger, the college’s spokesman, said in an interview that the advancement team has been instrumental in maintaining links to donors with particularly serious reservations and allaying their concerns. Although alums from the last five years were generally more sympathetic when the discipline process started, he said, responses and concerns from the wide spectrum of alums were all eventually addressed. It remains to be seen what kind of long term impact may result from this period in the college’s history.

“There’s not one opinion that alumni are expressing on any of the issues that are going on campus,” Shanley said. “The kinds of commentary and feedback that we’re getting are as diverse as I expect you’re seeing among the student body. . . . So I wouldn’t want there to ever be any perception that alumni are universal in the way they’re thinking about this,” she said.

“They just are at a different place in their lives. So they’re peering in, trying to make sense of the situation and relate it to their own experiences, as anybody would,” Shanley said. “Some alumni are absolutely embracing of all change. And some alumni cling to nostalgia.”

For Middlebury, the advancement office forms one of the necessary links between the college and its vast network of alumni. For many alumni, the advancement officers are some of the most consistent links to the college, offering everything from opportunities to donate to financial aid to illuminating information to alumni who were shaken after the protests. Yet despite the advancement office’s central role in the prospects of the college, its activities are largely unknown amongst current students.

In short, the advancement team connects potential donors in the Middlebury community: friends, parents and alumni of Middlebury’s undergraduate and graduate programs. These connections are fostered through the office’s dual strategy of engagement and fundraising. The former involves the organization of major events, such as reunion, homecoming, the alumni leadership conference, faculty lectures and speaking engagements for President Laurie L. Patton. For the fundraising side, print, email and one-on-one meetings are used to raise interest and identify prospective donors, all of which is supported by an extensive network of volunteers.

The annual gifts that the college receives are either spent in the year that they are received, or in the subsequent fiscal year if the resource is not required for the current fiscal year. Gifts are either freely used for any initiative within the Middlebury community, or directed toward specific causes, such as athletics or financial aid, by request of the donor.

The impact of donations in the implementation of financial aid is particularly notable. Endowed funds cover 25 percent of the budget for financial aid for Middlebury undergraduates. Combined with additional funds garnered from expendable annual gifts, these resources make up, on average, 6 percent of the entire operating budget of the college. In other words, it is partly due to endowed and expendable gifts that approximately 44 percent of students at Middlebury are able to receive financial aid.

President Patton and the board of trustees have frequently reaffirmed their goal of not only maintaining this threshold in the face of ballooning tuition cost, but also extending financial aid to 50 percent of the college community, a goal that would require 350 million dollars or about 70 million dollars every year over a five-year period.

In order to help reach this and other financial standards, donation campaigns occur yearly. Outside of these consistent campaigns, the college occasionally undertakes major pledge campaigns whose combined donations can reach the tens of million dollars. These large campaigns begin with a planning phase, followed by a “quiet phase” of requests made to wealthier donors that normally last for two years. After that, a more public phase opens donation requests to the larger pool of potential donors for four to six years.

The most recent of these major campaigns began in 2007, with the goal of raising $500 million. Though the campaign was extended to account for the 2008 financial crisis, by the time it ended in 2015, it had surpassed its goal by $35 million.

Elizabeth Zhou contributed reporting.