Alumni contributions not cutting it

    The ongoing recession has hit UCSD’s pocketbook in two ways, the first being reduced funding from a state budget deeply in the red, and the second from reduced donations from private sources. To offset this, UCSD Development (also known as the fund-raising office) has been trying to attract alumni donations back to the school.

    By every indication, UCSD has quite a bit of room to grow; despite its rankings as a prestigious university from any number of sources, UCSD has quite an ugly number for its rank in alumni giving: 188th in national doctoral universities out of some 250. For some reason, people who graduate from UCSD have not seemed to find the inclination to give anything back to their school.

    A number of reasons have been given for this discrepancy — the first and most oft-heard is the fact that the school is very young, and did not even graduate the bulk of its alumni until about 15 years ago. This writer has stated before that this excuse in other arenas (namely, undergraduate culture) is not only misleading, but is dangerous because it encourages complacency with the status quo. Many alumni elsewhere do begin giving straight out of college.

    UCSD’s rates are not just low, they are nothing short of atrocious. They have gotten worse, not better, since 1998, when US News and World Report reported an 11 percent giving rate, as opposed to the current 9 percent rate (and this is not because of the recession — it was 8 percent in 2000). Not even UC Davis’s numbers hit the single digits.

    Some in UCSD Development believe that we will never hit figures around the 20 percent mark that other large public schools garner until we have a better football or basketball team. This may well be true, but one would hope that envy of schools with prominent sports programs will not blind school officials to what makes UCSD unique as a public school: its focus on academic excellence over athletics.

    Now, this is not to say that we’re entirely too far behind; UCLA rings in with all of 12 percent, Berkeley with 17 percent, and both have very prominent national sports programs. But the recent push (and subsequent demand for funding) for Division II athletics highlights the fact that there are many on campus who would enjoy a shift to national athletics, both for the prominence and the money.

    What this school has prided itself on in the past, however, was exactly its lack of athletics. The founding faculty was reluctant to authorize athletics at all after having seen the blood-thirsty culture and demands on academics a school with a national sports program has. And for many students, the lack of athletic scholarships at UCSD is still a point of pride.

    For that matter, what instills pride in most UCSD students about their school has little to do with rabid loyalty, the college system (unfortunately, because in the ’80s, they were a centerpiece of school emotion), or athletics. It has to do with the quality of their bioengineering program, the quality of the political science faculty or the fact that they belong to a first-rate academic institution. Or at least they have that feeling as wide-eyed freshmen.

    What should UCSD Development be focusing on, then, when they go after alumni? A few years ago, they had printed out cards that read “”proud to be UCSD,”” with the visages of such UCSD alumni as the founder of MP3.com and the actor who played the father on “”Fresh Prince of Bel Air.”” Now, it’s nice to know that there are (somewhat) prominent people who come out of UCSD, but the entire problem with this tactic is perhaps illustrated by John Valva, director of alumni relations: “”There’s only one thing alumni have in common, and that’s UCSD.””

    So the end result is that we have a one-size-fits-all approach to the unique culture that is UCSD (and the culture this writer is referring to is not the one of apathy): celebrity and sports. What we have is a university with fiercely independent academic departments that excel at what they do in research, and undergraduates who come to the school precisely because of these academics. The problem with pride is not in the lack of a sports program or the age of the school. Despite the fact we have an academic culture to be proud of, we do not engage undergraduates in it effectively. This is no doubt a function of the size of the university; after all, with class sizes as they are, it’s rather difficult for a professor to make it seem like the university has done a service for the average undergraduate, rather than the other way around.

    And it is precisely that feeling that a student owes something to the professors and their school and its future students because they got something intangible out of their experience here that is the necessary spark for both pride and generosity.

    This writer has had the fortunate experience of taking upper-division classes in one department with a dearth of majors and another with far too many. The culture that permeates a department with small class sizes is amazing in comparison — students banter with professors, spend free time with each other above and beyond academics, and actually care about learning the material rather than pulling the minimum amount of work for a decent grade. In short, pride in their academics and, consequently, the professors and the school.

    This, of course, cannot be repeated in the many departments where the 150-plus class sizes in upper-division courses are common. But what can be done is emphasizing to professors and departments who teach large lecture classes that their responsibilities have to scale with class size in order to reach and engage students.

    In short, it is the faculty’s responsibility to ensure that undergraduates at the university are getting grounded in some way, because as the guardians of academic excellence at this institution, they form the basis for the eccentric nerdiness that has permeated the campus and for its accessibility to undergraduates.

    To lose that in the final stages of UCSD’s growth and become like every other large public university, whose public image and undergraduates are governed by some baseless pride in athletics that does nothing like future doctors, engineers and statesmen can, is nothing to be proud of.

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