Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The role of guilt in giving back

Graduates at Drury University in Springfield, Mo., on Saturday were treated to what was touted as a "final exam" and "test of your character" during commencement exercises. Each student was given a sealed envelope with an amount of cash ranging from $10-$1,000 each; the speaker urged the students to donate it all to Drury without peeking. The students then adjourned to an obscured area where they could make their decision without anyone knowing. The school had no way of knowing who gave. Supposedly, the school received back 85 percent of the gift, and the speaker (the donor behind the idea) will make up the difference.

OK.

This reminds me of a TV newsmagazine segment I saw years ago titled, "How Honest Are You?" The producers drove onto a crowded street with a big truck and threw bundles of money out to an eager crowd as they slowly crept along. Footage of the experiment made clear that it didn't appear to be an armored truck losing its cargo — a man in a suit was gleefully tossing out cash while multiple cameras conspicuously filmed the whole thing. I don't remember the rest, but do recall thinking, "this seems like a cheap stunt."

This graduation "test" is also a cheap stunt.

The idea isn't bad — doing your best when no one is watching is age-old wisdom, and sacrificing for the common good is the cornerstone of society.

But that isn't what this is. This is a rich man slipping money to students, most of whom are debt-ridden and face a bleak job market, and baiting and guilting them to give back to the institution that has given them so much (such as the privilege to work for degrees while incurring monster private-school debt). It puts the students in a bind — if they donate the money, no one knows; if they don't, they may hate themselves for letting down the community. Either way, Drury gets the full amount of the donation, and the big-shot donor looks good.

OK, but isn't what students feel inside the important thing? Yes, but this experiment equates doing the right thing with a single, specific action — donating cash to Drury University. It manipulates the students into thinking they should feel guilty if they apply even some of the funds to their own pressing needs (which I'd argue is also a worthwhile investment).

When I first graduated from college 11 years ago (a public university, not Drury), it took my alma mater all of a month to start regularly hitting me up for money. I used to joke that if employers were that eager to reach me, donations would never be a problem. In the years since graduating, I've supported UL when I can. But in times when saving money and living tight take precedence, alumni support takes a backseat. It's not a jab at the school; I just figure they can make do until I can make do.

I wonder how I would have handled this challenge both times I graduated. I'd like to think I'd do the right thing in their eyes. But honestly, I probably would have kept most of the money. Because in those days, cash was often hard to come by (I wasn't in debt thanks to scholarships, but I wasn't rolling in dough either). I would have rationalized that I'd donate later once established, when I could give more anyway. Then I'd get mad about feeling guilty, and resent the attempt at rewriting my ethics for financial benefit. Which would lead me to wonder whether I should ever donate to a school that would allow such a stunt.

Returning found funds is the right thing to do, as is giving back to the community. Manipulative stunts that exploit an underfunded group's altruistic urges, on the other hand, deserve to be called out.

I hope that's the lesson the Drury students took from their pop final. It's a valuable one.

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