A Greener Gift

At first, this op-ed was going to be a call to arms, asking our fellow seniors to boycott the senior gift drive. As members of Amherst’s divestment campaign, we planned to refrain from donating to Amherst College until the college has divested, a pledge that many other environmentally-conscious alumn have already taken. Amherst still has many investments tied to the fossil fuel industry, and we felt that it was important that our class does not give our dollars to the companies that are destroying our planet.

In late January, we discovered that we had been outmaneuvered. In an email sent to the entire senior class, the Senior Gift Committee explained in a few bullet points that our class’s donations would not be put toward the college’s endowment and that seniors could elect to put their donations towards “sustainability.” A comprehensive analysis of why we think these points are inconsequential is beyond the scope of this article, but suffice it to say that we all rolled our eyes when we saw yet another proclaimed “sustainability” fund put forth by the college. Regardless, we felt that the Senior Gift Committee had effectively taken the wind out of our sails before our campaign had even begun.

Let us be clear — the Senior Gift Drive is a symbolic effort. What the Senior Gift Committee, the Alumni Office and Biddy herself have all stressed is that what matters is not how much money seniors donate, but rather how many of them donate at all. One of our friends — who will remain nameless —  did her duty to the school by donating five cents. While the Senior Gift Drive may claim that our gifts are important to financial aid and the overall operation of the school, the emphasis on reaching 92 percent participation makes it clear that the school really just cares about having a good statistic to give to U.S. News & World Report.
If you run the math, as we are sure the administration has, the Senior Gift Committee will need to persuade all but thirty-some students to donate if they want to reach a 92 percent participation rate. It was no surprise, then, that the Senior Gift Committee was nervous about our campaign. If even a small fraction of environmentally-minded students chose not to donate, the Committee would have little chance of meeting their goal.

It was to that end that Biddy, in her speech at the Senior Gift Kickoff Event, seemed to address our campaign directly. The third of her three main reasons to donate to the Senior Gift was that our contributions would indirectly support the effort to fight climate change. This statement, which was a stretch to say the least, felt like a hollow and very targeted appeal for our money and also the .25 percent of the senior class that each of us represented. It also signaled that for the first time, Biddy was addressing us not as students but as future donors. As second semester seniors, our relationship with the college is about to transition. Whereas previously we have effectively been Amherst’s dependents, we are now about to become its supporters.

We fully acknowledge that Amherst is reliant upon alumni donations for its continuing operation. And we want to make it clear — we believe wholeheartedly in Amherst’s mission. We both have also benefitted tremendously from our Amherst education and experience. But at the same time, we want Amherst to do better when it comes to its sustainable investing. And to that end, we plan to leverage our position as supporters of this institution to catalyze broader change.
In the end, we believe that the most consequential way that Amherst can forward the cause of sustainability is to divest its endowment from fossil fuels. So while we are committed to supporting our alma mater, we also feel that by contributing to the Senior Gift, we would be demonstrating to Amherst that nothing needs to change. We have decided, instead, to donate our money to the Fossil Free Divest Fund. When the day comes that Amherst finally chooses to divest, the Divest Fund will release our donations to the College. Until that day, Amherst will have to do without our .25 percent.