Should I Give to Wellesley?

Once or twice a year, Wellesley College, my alma mater, asks me for money—usually via a polite note and once through a “student telethon” phone call. For the past forty years or so, most of the time I have responded with a check.

That check isn’t very large, though, mainly because I didn’t like Wellesley when I went there. And I don’t see a lot that’s great about it now, even though its campus culture is far different.

Should I give anything at all? That’s the question I’m trying to answer—perhaps my thoughts will help other alumnae (and alumni) think through their own college loyalties.

To be fair, my early dislike of Wellesley says more about me than about the school. I was too young for college, really—only 16 years old when I arrived there in a taxi from Logan Airport. A public high school graduate from a suburb of St. Louis, I was socially self-effacing, unfashionable, and awkward. I was also rebellious politically and thus was immediately at odds with Wellesley’s “finishing school” quality in those years of the 1960s (just preceding Hillary Clinton’s arrival).

The school’s mantra was “gracious living.” We had tea on Wednesday afternoons and sherry on Tuesday nights. We met men through “mixers” with nearby colleges, and one of the famed activities in the freshman body movement course was learning how to get into and out of a sports car. There was no career counseling to speak of—just a “placement office.” When I sought job advice in my senior year, I was told to get a Master of Arts in Teaching from Harvard (“You’re sure to get married in a few years, and you can always teach”).

I was a misfit then and a misfit now, as both Wellesley and I have changed. Over the years I gained much greater respect for capitalism and for the free-market policies that seemed irrelevant when I worked for civil rights and a nuclear test ban treaty. Just as Wellesley’s finishing-school image made it hard for me to accept the school then, its more recent switch to trendy left-wing thinking disturbs me now.

Like most alumnae, I do not keep up with what my alma mater is doing as much I should. But I do have a source of information—the fat, colorful alumnae magazine called Wellesley.

A recent edition is full of feel-good stories that echo today’s academic fads (with an occasional nod to the older alumnae). It’s all about ethnicity, politics, and cultural sensitivity. Some examples:

  • A faculty member, on sabbatical, explores whether having more racial and gender diversity on the judicial bench would increase the “sense of trust” in the judicial system.
  • “I was driven by a deep and offensive misunderstanding of what hop-hop is,” says one faculty member. “I’m very interested in students learning that cultural studies is a real discipline, that there’s theory behind it,” says another.
  • The freshman featured in “No Ordinary Southern Girl” comes from Arkansas but was born in Jordan; she attends the Greek Orthodox church and speaks Arabic. (By the way, the term “freshman” is out, apparently a sexist term; this student is a “first-year.”)
  • The magazine proudly points out that the incoming class is 38 percent minority (more than half of the minority group is Asian-American/Pacific Islander).

True, Mary Lefkowitz, a prominent emeritus professor of classics, has an essay in the magazine about how she became a classicist. But the magazine says nothing about her struggle against another professor’s teaching unsubstantiated myths of Afro-centric origins of Western civilization. In her book History Lesson, Lefkowitz quoted a Wellesley dean as saying, “He has his view of ancient history and you have yours.”

Because the school carefully funnels information to its alumnae, the only controversy I have ever heard about from Wellesley was over whether the 2003 Julia Roberts movie Mona Lisa Smile should have been filmed on campus. Some alumnae (even older than I) took exception to the film’s 1950s image of Wellesley as a reactionary way-station for young women awaiting marriage. In a message to alumnae, Wellesley’s president, Diana Chapman Walsh, acknowledged that some might object to the “distorted and demeaning portrayal of our alma mater” (Jan. 9, 2004). (In my view, the movie was demeaning because it ridiculed anyone who didn’t have a post-1970s view of feminism, but it also captured aspects of Wellesley that were still around when I got there.)

I learned about the bigger controversy over Mona Lisa Smile only via Google: African-American women on campus were not allowed to play parts as extras in the movie, presumably because there were so few African-American girls on campus in 1953.

It is true that there were few African-Americans on campus in 1953, but President Walsh was embarrassed enough by the rejection of African-Americans as extras that she wrote an op-ed in the Boston Globe. She said that due to the student protests, “all of us became increasingly discomforted by the painful reality that members of our community were being excluded on the basis of skin color from participating in a reenactment of our past” (October 9, 2002).

Apologizing to students for representing the campus as it was and apologizing to older alumnae for misrepresenting the campus as it was—I sense that officials are gingerly walking on eggs trying to be everything to everyone and, above all, not look like a college for the privileged, in spite of the $49,848 yearly price tag.  

My other reason for not supporting the school financially is that I paid Wellesley for what I received. That is, I paid tuition, room, and board. Although I grew up in unpretentious surroundings (my father was an Episcopal minister), a modest family trust fund contained enough money to send my sister and me to college.

Don’t get me wrong. I did learn some things at Wellesley. I’m grateful to some excellent teachers and I made a few strong and long-lasting friendships. But does that mean I have a debt to Wellesley? After all, I learned more after graduation than I did before it, and I made friendships through my jobs, too.

I was on an assignment for Business Week when I met my husband. But I don’t receive phone calls from interns at Business Week asking me for a donation on the grounds that I “owe” Business Week.  Come to think of it, the magazine paid me quite handsomely when I was an editor there. Perhaps I do owe Business Week something, now that it has fallen on hard times.

One point in Wellesley’s favor, by the way: its president hasn’t signed the “Presidents’ Climate Change Agreement,” an expensive will-o’-the-wisp effort to “take a stand” on global warming. And English majors are still required to study Shakespeare. Are those good enough reasons for me to support Wellesley with my money? Probably not.  

Perhaps some other alumnae are asking the same questions as I am. My latest mailing from Wellesley reports that the alumnae giving rate has dropped ten percent over the past nine years: “Wellesley’s alumnae participation rates in Annual Giving impacts our rankings in national magazines,” says the flyer, referring to the Bible of rankings, U.S. News & World Report.

I wonder why this drop has occurred. Is it due to a decline in a feeling of obligation to one’s alma mater? Are Wellesley women earning less than they used to? Ah, perhaps they’re not marrying as well.

Or maybe alumnae like me are waking up to the fact that they shouldn’t automatically feel obligated to a place that they didn’t care for—or don’t like now—and they, too, are holding back.