Senior Gift boycott gains ground, sparks debate

Update: This article was updated on Dec. 6 to include an additional statement by Chancellor Cindy Barnhart.

A rising number of seniors are pledging not to give to Senior Gift in protest of administrative actions which include the Senior House moratorium on accepting freshmen.

“We’ve seen the administration make a lot of far-reaching decisions without consulting students during our time here,” boycott initiator Marcus Boorstin ’17 wrote in an email to his peers, citing the shutdown of Bexley Hall, changes in dorm security, and the ban on freshmen in Senior House.  

Every year, seniors are asked to contribute to “Senior Gift” – a donation to MIT. Boorstin hopes to “send a signal that something is seriously wrong” by lowering the percentage of seniors who donate this year.  

“I think the boycott’s greatest impact will be the future loss of alumni giving for both financial and image reasons,” Boorstin explained. “Older alumni donate increasingly more money, and I think that the Class of 2017 starting out with a significantly lower participation rate would be a bad sign for future giving, where the amounts are significant, if the administration does not change its behavior.”

Some students have argued that not donating to MIT will hurt MIT students more than it will help. But boycotters are quick to point out that money from the senior gift is not a significant portion of MIT’s funding.

“It’s not the actual donation that matters,” Lillian Chin ’17, another participant in the boycott, said in an interview with The Tech. “Consider that the minimum pledge is $5 for the Senior Gift. If everyone in the class gave, only $5500 would be raised. Even if this was matched 5 times, that's still only $25k, which is less than a semester's worth of tuition.”

“The operating budget for MIT is in the billions. So this is not making a difference,” Chin said.

So if a boycott doesn’t impact MIT funding, why participate?

“If you’re not happy with the direction of MIT, you shouldn’t donate,” Chin said.

Boycotters hope a sudden dip in the percentage of donating seniors would cause influential alumni, and through them the administration, to take notice. Senior gift donations have been steadily increasing since 2005.

A successful boycott would not only result in a drop in senior gift donations. It would also entail making both students and administrators more aware of issues surrounding MIT student-administration conflict.

“Even the fact that there is a discussion means that [the boycott] is kind of succeeding,” Chin said.

Another argument raised against the boycott is that it will further aggravate student-administrator relations.

“Multiple points of advocacy are key,” Chin countered.  “Boycotts happen because there aren’t channels of communication with the administration.”

Chin, as chair of the Student-Administration Collaboration Committee of the Undergraduate Association, was especially careful to consider the effect of the boycott on student-admin relations.

In a post to the MIT Class of 2017 Facebook group, UA President Sophia Liu ‘17 encouraged classmates to learn about “learn more about the Senior Gift and what it does for the MIT community.”

“After spending my MIT experience working to advocate for students, I've found that there are so many layers to every issue,” Liu wrote. “There are ways to make a point without negatively impacting student groups, and making a positive statement is so much more powerful.”

The post sparked a heated back-and-forth between seniors in the comment section. Controversial decisions made by MIT brought up in the debate included dorm security and RLADs, in addition to issues surrounding Senior Haus.

“I appreciate the concerns of the students involved, and believe that they have a right to voice their concerns in this way,” Barnhart said.

Barnhart invited students to converse with the administration. “They are welcome to talk to me or any other member of the Turnaround Team to learn more about the good work Senior House residents and the administration, along with staff and faculty, have been doing since September,” she wrote in an email to The Tech. “I believe we are on the right trajectory, if continued, to welcome first-year students back to Senior House in the fall.”

Lydia Snover, director of Institutional Research at MIT, disagreed with the boycotters.  

“Personally, I don’t think boycotts are very effective,” Snover wrote in an email to The Tech.

Snover said that she did not have insight on whether the senior gift was important in terms of influencing more significant donations in the future.

Boorstin encouraged boycotters to use their money to instead donate to other organizations, including Planned Parenthood, the Drew Esquivel memorial fund, and Camp Kesem.