Occidental alumni donations unaffected by student activism despite nationwide trend of disengagement


Occidental appears to be insulated from a nationwide trend at liberal arts schools in which older, more conservative alumni are withdrawing their funding to their alma maters, as reported by Inside Higher Ed and the New York Times. This disengagement at schools such as Claremont Mckenna College and Amherst College is in response to student activism that these alumni consider excessively focused on race and identity. Institutional Advancement data as well as administrators and alumni interviewed show that Occidental has yet to be significantly affected.

Charlie Cardillo, the vice president for Institutional Advancement, provided data on recent philanthropic history from Fiscal Year 2008 (FY08) to FY16. The data shows that during a year of significant student activism (FY16), total cash receipts increased from $18,225,576 (FY15) to $25,572,821 (FY16).

Total Receipts to Occidental College Since Fiscal Year '08
(Graph by Cal Barr)

As the Occidental Annual Report for 2015-2016 indicates, the total cash receipts value is a composite of donations from alumni, bequests, corporations, foundations, faculty, staff, administrators, friends, parents, students and trusts.

The Oxy Annual Fund measures alumni giving more specifically. The data show that annual fund donations dropped from $4,566,973 (FY15) to $4,342,014 (FY16). However, this reduction follows a downward trend that began in FY14, a year before the Oxy United for Black Liberation movement. Prior to the movement, Annual Fund giving fell from $4,676,236 (FY14) to $4,566,973 (FY15), a decrease of $109,263.

Occidental Annual Fund Receipts Since Fiscal Year '08
(Graph by Cal Barr)

The most recent philanthropic data available does not include the 9/11 memorial incident, which will be reflected in the FY17 figures compiled after June 2017.

Yet, Cardillo cautioned against isolating one moment to measure philanthropic health. He listed economic and political climate, competition for philanthropy, campus activity and fundraising practices as some of the factors that affect these figures.

While alumni disapproval is difficult to infer from the data available, the administration has heard directly from concerned alumni.

“When our alumni inquire about student activism, their questions or concerns usually come from a place of curiosity and tremendous care for the institution,” Interim Director of the Oxy Annual Fund Elizabeth Hersh said via email. “While the topic does come up in emails, Telefund calls and visits with alumni, the immediate response is not to withhold donations.”

In response to concerns, Hersh explained that her office’s role was to listen, hold conversations with and inform alumni.

Marty Sharkey, the associate vice president for marketing and communications, explained that Occidental has a history of alumni using donations to signal disapproval. He pointed to when the college lost donations when it cut ties with the Presbyterian Church in 1910. However, Sharkey went on to say that the college’s history also informs the administration’s response to concerned alumni.

“Across the College, offices that do talk to alumni often remind them that Oxy has a long history of activism,” Sharkey said via email. “As just one example, President Obama made his first political speech as part of an anti-apartheid demonstration here as a student in 1981. While the issues of the day may change, activism has been a factor at Oxy for a long, long time.”

According to Warrington “Warry” MacElroy ’60, he and his wife began donating to the college in 1989, and have contributed at the level of the President’s Circle Annual Giving Gift Society or higher every year since. Mr. MacElroy recalled that annual gifts of $1,000 or more qualified alumni for this annual gift society in 1989. Today, that number has risen to $10,000 – $24,999.

“We give because we know what a positive difference it makes in the lives of today’s youth, who are our future,” Mr. MacElroy said via email. “We know the value of an Oxy, liberal arts education and the difference it can make in the lives of those who graduate. We have seen the results firsthand through our own lives and our granddaughter’s, who graduated in 2010.”

While MacElroy has mixed emotions regarding the Oxy United for Black Liberation movement, he was upset by the 9/11 memorial incident. However, MacElroy said student activism would not stop him from giving.

“No matter what happens, this too shall pass,” MacElroy said via email.The financial needs of the college will always be there and Oxy’s graduates must continue to retain the excellence for which Oxy is so well-known. That requires committed, dedicated and continuing support from me and everyone else who gives back to Oxy for all they received while they were students.”

Judy Lam ’87 worked with with other alumni to start the Asian and Pacific (API) Islander (API) Scholarship and now serves on the scholarship’s executive board. While she is personally invested in the life of the college, many of the alumni she knows have been withdrawing.

“I have heard many alums, I’ve seen them post online, I’ve seen them tell me: ‘I’m not going to give to the school’ because they’re not happy with the fact that the protests are so out of control,” Lam said. “[The protests make it] seem like there’s no respect for dialogue, no respect for people with a different view.”

Despite harboring reservations over recent student protests, Lam made it clear that she still supports her alma mater. She emphasized that Occidental needs more people to give in times of crisis, as every solution that student protesters demand requires money to be implemented.

“I feel the school and its value and its mission are bigger than one protest, or ten protests, or fifty protests,” Lam said. “I think the mission of the school remains true to the reason why I am grateful for my education. I started a scholarship along with others in order to help students, and so, whether you agree with the administration or you agree with its policies — I take a longer view.”

Similarly, Dan Crowley ’13, who recently began donating to support Occidental’s college ranking, said that though the 9/11 memorial incident was upsetting it would not dissuade him from giving.

“Oxy is an institution and should be thought about on a scale of decades and centuries, not crisis to crisis,” Crowley said via email. “I’m not going to punish all of us (in terms of the rankings) and future students (in terms of scholarships) for what a small group of students [is] doing now.”

When Mary Jane Laird Parks ’82 was a student, she participated in anti-apartheid protests. She was also disheartened by the 9/11 memorial incident, but appreciates that student activism is still alive.

“I hope that [student activism] will always be a part of students’ lives on campus,” Parks said via email. “Students miss out if they don’t actively participate in a cause that is important to them. I would always support Oxy for being a place of student activism even for issues that I am not particularly in agreement.”

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