In the midst of the Internet’s crisis over “The Dress” (for the record, I still see it as white and gold), the Sarah Lawrence community had its own social media crisis to contend with: Barbara Walters’ $15 million donation towards the brand new student center that President Karen Lawrence has been so adamant about.
One might think that this is not something to complain about—darn, $15 million is a nice chunk of change. But, in typical SLC fashion, there is always something wrong with everything. Students took to Facebook almost immediately after the e-mail announcement to denounce the allocation of the money, reasoning that it is silly to put $15 million towards the construction of a brand new building on campus when their are so many other things on campus that require financial attention.
For example, many quoted issues like the lack of attention given to handicap accessibility on campus, the abysmally poor heating in the new dorms, and the school’s ever-increasing debt—and for good reason. These are all probably much more fiscally responsible routes for the school to take.
Jake Rickman ‘16, who is studying abroad at Oxford this semester, was one of the first to critique the school’s usage of the money: “I am concerned about the long-term efficacy of such a donation, especially as it relates to the more structural issues of our college’s financial situation” he said. Specifically, that our debt rating is at a BBB- right now, and a $15 million donation could do a lot to help alleviate that situation.
But, what most students do not understand is how huge donations work. It is not up to the school to decide what to do with the money—it is up to the donator. So, even if the school wanted to (which we are pretty sure it does not), it could not reallocate the funds to, say, buy the kids in Garrison some space heaters. Furthermore, $15 million does not even cover half of the projected $35 million that it will cost the school to build the student center.
While many lament the aches and pains of their dorm lives, most are in agreement that SLC could use a community center. Ricksman added, “I look forward to the future classes of SLC having a community center in which they can hang out and get to know each other. I do think SLC is in dire need of such a place.”
There were a few posts where students wrote things that were specifically antagonistic towards Barbara Walters herself. Oliver Kinkel ‘17 was pretty vocal on Facebook for his distaste for the student body’s reaction on the date of the formal announcement: “It’s not that I think a student center is our highest priority, I don’t. I just don’t think it’s productive or appropriate to complain about a donation. Barbara Walters isn’t obligated to donate at all, let alone to a specific fund that the students feel is most beneficial,” he explained. He went on to add, “Students should be outspoken about how the school organizes its money, not what celebrity alums choose to donate it towards.”
When big names donate money, it helps convince more alumni to also donate. If the school receives more donations from alumni, it could become eligible for more federal funding (you know the smoking ban that everyone is so vehemently against? SLC will receive money from the government for going smoke-free so good luck trying to get that overthrown). Compounded, these sources of money could potentially solve a lot of the school’s problems a few years down the line.
Do not get us wrong: we are so, so grateful for Walters’ commitment to improving the community at Sarah Lawrence, and the financial gift that she has given us. The student center is going to be amazing! Regardless, given the state of the school’s dorms, the unwillingness of the administration to increase the wages of operation workers, and the state of the school’s debt, spending money to build a fancy new building feels inappropriate, even if it is a ploy to attract more donations. You can put lipstick on a pig, but it is still a pig—and the new student center feels a lot like lipstick.
by Wade Wallerstein ‘17