In all the heated talk about reviving Britain’s battered old university system, one question is mysteriously left untouched: what is the secret of America’s alumni culture? As I write this, I’m sitting in the library of one of America’s top universities, Stanford in California. Over the last 30 years, Stanford has developed from a respectable choice for engineers on the West Coast to become the Ivy League’s most serious competitor. An important part of this success — and that of its competitors on the East Coast — is what appears to my European sensibility to be rooted in the American psyche: the desire to “give back” to an academic community that has made you happy or successful, or ideally both. It is a generosity that is neither entirely free of egoism nor entirely egoistic. To escape this is not only unacceptable, but unthinkable. A banker who doesn’t donate a percentage of his income to his alma mater doesn’t exist socially — even if this only means that he can have a shiny number-plate on his Lexus to show off his generosity.
One of the most prominent buildings on the Stanford campus is the Frances A. Arrillaga Alumni Center. If any of the 80,000 members of the Alumni Association visit their alma mater, they can enjoy a fantastic range of free facilities. It may be somewhat unfair to compare this palace to the dismal-looking shops in British university towns where an alumna like me could buy pencils and mugs with the university’s logo on it for 10 per cent off. But by comparison, the emotional bond alumni in Britain have with their alma mater is thin. Why give some of your earned wealth, however insubstantial it may be, to something you’re no longer connected to, something that’s part of your past, not your future?
The cynical European interpretation is that in America wealthy benefactors try to control universities, sometimes in sinister ways. And while you do indeed hear stories of the rich guy buying his son’s way into a top-notch school, or the affluent couple suing academics when their children are given bad grades, this is much more part of the out-of-control litigiousness of Americans. (An academic friend of mine once admitted that he couldn’t send his female student an entirely innocent email about coursework after 7pm, for fear of being sued for harassment and professional misconduct.) Put grimly, the business of universities is all about power and money. Put blithely, there’s a huge potential in this interconnection of personal interest and the public good.
Fund-raising efforts among alumni are still limited to a tiny elite in Britain, and are utterly foreign across the Channel. But they could be an integral part of saving European institutions of learning and (as Americans would say) “personal growth” from becoming the Costa cafés of the academy: impersonal, bog-standard, overpriced lookalikes of the real deal, with a limited range of rigidly customised offerings.
Moving to an American system is controversial. For most Americans, “sending the kids to college” is part of their self-image as parents and citizens (even if that means starting to save money even before you have those children) on their way to fulfilling their individual idea of the great American dream. In Europe, such an education is seen as an entitlement — even at the cost of accepting lower standards of teaching and research. In my own case, my academic career in Britain was paid for by a combination of fees and state bursaries. At Stanford, however, I benefited from the generosity of alumni. The way we pay for our education reflects the state of our society. The inequality of wealth in the US is compensated for by the generosity of alumni and donors who have made these institutions so rich that they can widen access to the poor and the talented.
A few facts: Cambridge, the wealthiest university in Europe, is proud of an endowment that has now topped £4 billion thanks to an intensive fundraising campaign. But it is poorer than at least the top dozen US institutions, even after the financial crisis wiped out a quarter or more of most endowments. One in ten Americans contributes to their alma mater. In Britain, the figure is one per cent. In my native Germany, it would be close to zero.
Persuading European graduates to give something back, not just compulsorily as taxpayers but voluntarily as alumni, will require a profound shift not only in the arithmetic but in the attitudes. Here at Stanford — an alma mater in the true sense of “fostering mother” — I cannot help but think that the grateful generosity towards one’s community that is displayed here can only flourish in this country: a country that is founded on the pursuit of happiness, a promise the American dream is meant to fulfil.