It is hard not to be impressed by the philanthropic contributions of alumni to the universities they have attended, particularly in America. Most universities routinely raise millions of dollars from former students, who contribute towards setting up new ventures, establishing resource centers or labs, endowing professorships or scholarships and so on. In addition, the various alumni associations remain in close contact with the parent university, being involved in just about everything from football and basketball games to campaigns and expansion efforts. In contrast, the involvement or philanthropic contributions of alumni to academic institutions in India remain relatively miniscule. There certainly are a number of bureaucratic or legislative reasons for that, as is typical in India. But I think there might be something more (at least for me).
I started thinking about it after I received an email recently from the center for alumni affairs from my old undergrad institution. It was a typical email written in the typical style of an Indian bureaucrat. It started by calling the present vice chancellor of the university a “great visionary”, and then claimed how wonderful an education and research institute the university was, and then pointing me towards an effort to get the alumni more involved with their contributions towards the university.
There’s nothing wrong in that. Except that, upon a little reflection, I don’t think I would particularly want to do anything for my undergraduate college. In stark contrast, if I do reach a stage in my life when I can make a philanthropic contribution or contribute otherwise to my old high school, or to my graduate school or any other institution I’ve been associated with, I am very likely to do so. But why is that?
I have fond memories of college. I didn’t love every moment of it, but it certainly was a fun time during some very important years in my life. While growing as a person, I made some good friends, found a few good faculty mentors, and managed to acquire some knowledge in the process. But, as I think about it now, those were things I would have had in any university. Those friends or the handful of faculty who influenced me remain important, but while I associate them with my time in the university, I don’t associate the university itself with them. Somehow, as I thought about this email I received, I started to realize why.
Let me explain. Those college years are very important to most people. They are right in those formative years, where knowledge is acquired, horizons and perspectives broadened and important life and career choices are made. Students have just emerged from high school, and are now young adults with the government given right to drive, drink or vote in the next general election, using their own discretion. They are full of energy and purpose, looking for encouragement and direction. At least that was how I looked at it.
But unfortunately, at least in my old institution (which was typical of most government/state institutes in India, which are the “top” universities in the country) provided everything but that. Instead of a world of knowledge and ideas, I went to a world of rules and bureaucracy, full of petty minds and narrow thoughts. The general attitude of a large section of the staff and faculty was largely unhelpful, and one of extreme hierarchy and authority. To get the smallest of jobs done, one would have to beg, flatter and plead repeatedly over weeks or months sometimes. Instead of giving the students the freedom to attend the classes they wanted to, there was a strict, mandatory attendance policy (of 90% of the classes each year). This was irrespective of whether the student learnt anything in class or not. Failure to attend class (even if you aced the tests) would mean having to repeat the course. That of course had nothing to do with class participation, since many faculty hated students who dared to question. Many courses were extremely uninteresting, and were taught by incompetent lecturers incapable of thinking beyond the textbook (or with lecture notes that hadn’t been updated for 20 years). What’s more, some faculty remained particularly narrow minded, and the rules would put some military schools to shame. These rules would range from attempted “dress codes” through faculty taking offense at students chatting outside their classes in the hallway, to “bans” on cell phones or rules discouraging people of opposite sex from any sort of interaction (yup, in college), or denying use of university computers or the internet. At the end of the college years, students would have to run from pillar to post to get their academic transcripts (sometimes pleading with the staff to issue them one), and would be required to get this ridiculous document called a “character certificate” (which is still required when applying for graduate school or government jobs in India. The purpose it serves remains a mystery). At the end of four years of college, the student receive everything but a broad, liberal education, in spite of being amongst the brightest and most self motivated students in the country. While most students would miss their college friends and life, I think only a few would actually miss their college itself. There may even be a slight feeling of bitterness against the college as they leave.
Cut to ten or twenty years later. Many students who have passed out are now extremely successful. Some have managed to reach fairly enviable levels of affluence. At this stage they are quite ready to make some philanthropic contributions. But even if they do want to support students in their old institutions, they know that they will have to go through that wall of bureaucrats or faculty who will continue to treat students like little children, throwing about their rules and ideas. The very thought of interacting with those old staff or professors who made their lives miserable years ago is distasteful (at least for me). I wouldn’t want to, say, contribute to a research center knowing that it would be under the control of these people. So, while it may seem a little petty on my part, those are my thoughts. I just wouldn’t want to be associated with them in any way, and many of these reasons remain intangible.
But perhaps I’m completely mistaken, and this reason, this subconscious holding-back, isn’t really a common factor at all. Any thoughts?