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Sticking up for the big guy

There is a lot of anger about wealth among Duke students. We tend to scorn the practice of admitting students based on legacy and financial donations. Some of our poorest financial aid students can get rueful when rich peers make personal finance gaffes. Rich students can be oblivious and insensitive to others’ constraints, and often get irritated when their less well-off friends can’t keep up with the price of social life.

We also send our resentment up the food chain, most notably and egregiously to the donors who drop big bones to keep Duke humming along. At best, a hefty donation is greeted with a mixture of “That dude is rich” and “Too bad I’m not going to be here to enjoy it.” At worst, the donor—invariably sporting a dopey grin and clutching a paperweight in some Chronicle file photo—is the object of derision. Mostly, nobody cares.

But let’s pause for a moment to think about what it means to actually give something like $72 million to Duke, as Peter and Ginny Nicholas did last winter. You can say it’s small change for them, but it’s not. It’s a huge chunk of money that they could have passed along to their children and grandchildren, but instead gave to Duke. That’s sacrifice. You can say it’s about getting some building, school or institute named after them, but it’s mostly not. The crazies among you can say it’s a nefarious conspiracy designed to raise the bar on giving, but it’s most definitely not.

In truth, the Nicholases’ gift was a nearly pure manifestation of goodwill, love and respect for Duke. Much of the money will fund the next generation of research and teaching at the Nicholas School for the Environment. It was the 15th-largest charitable donation in the country in 2003. The Nicholases should be hailed as heroes and bestowed with all the adoration of Coach K and President Brodhead combined—and yet we, as students, stop short.

At some level, I believe this strange phenomenon is a result of our propensity to discriminate against the wealthy. Many of us fault the Nicholases and others like them for being rich, successful and able to spend it. We vaguely feel they have committed some wrong, when in fact, they have done nothing but right.

The Nicholases have not gotten the unblemished praise they deserve for their gift, and neither have the countless other donors who keep Duke afloat and thriving. Maybe we think they have so much that they don’t care about attention or kind words. Maybe we’re just jealous.

It seems that everything associated with donations gets an undeserved skeptical eye from our student populace. From the way the Development Office is perceived, you would think it was raising money for bonsai kitten farms. They and the University’s top administrators do a fantastic job with fundraising—which, far from being the seamy underbelly of a university, is one of the most noble aspects and should be respected as such.

University fundraising is nothing like political fundraising, where power and influence are traded commodities and genuine conviction is usually an afterthought. Such a cynical arrangement may exist to some extent at universities, but most of Duke’s donors are primarily motivated by their appreciation for the University.

Perks like President’s Box tickets for Duke football games, personal notes from big shots and the occasional naming opportunity are nice, but they do not come close to compensating for the value of the gifts. The real payoff is seeing Duke sustain its excellence and goodness as an institution.

So the next time a big gift is publicized in The Chronicle, let’s not react by questioning the donors’ motives, ridiculing their clothes or making asinine claims about their links to al Qaeda. Let’s give them a big, hearty “thank you” that honors their generosity with commensurate respect. As much as the little guy needs a lift up sometimes, the big guy doesn’t need to be dragged down through the mud.

To Peter and Ginny Nicholas, David Rubenstein and everyone else who gives to Duke: thanks, from the bottom of my heart.

Andrew Collins is a Trinity senior and former University Editor for The Chronicle. His column appears Tuesdays.

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