One of my favorite records of all time is Vampire Weekend’s “Modern Vampires of the City,” a Grammy award-winning album I’ve basically listened to on loop since my junior year of high school.
Over the years, I’ve gone through phases where particular songs on the album have resonated with me and helped me parse through my feelings and thoughts.
Lately, I’ve been fixated on a specific line from the opening track, “Obvious Bicycle,” about a young man struggling to find employment.
In the second verse, lead singer Ezra Koenig sings, “So keep that list of who to thank in mind, and don’t forget the rich ones who were kind.” I often speculate about what he intended when he penned those words.
Did he mean it as a cynical jab at capitalist influences that elevate some while demoralizing others? Or maybe the line is a sincere meditation about the generosity of those who choose to share their wealth.
Perhaps it’s both. After all, his lyrics are known for — in addition to obscure cultural references — their commentary on class and capitalism.
Koenig, who had a middle-class upbringing, attended Columbia University on a scholarship. It’s clear from his music that the social juxtaposition he witnessed and experienced in college had a significant impact on his worldview.
Like Koenig, I think about the implications of class struggles daily — not just on a macro level, but in my personal life as well.
I attend Lehigh thanks to a generous financial aid package and several scholarships. I get help covering the cost of textbooks. I’ve received funding that has enabled me to travel to conferences related to my field of study.
Lee Iacocca, a titan of the automobile industry, funded my internship in Milan. Scott Belair, the co-founder of the Urban Outfitters empire, supported my research at Mountaintop.
And those are only the most direct forms of financial support. Every department, office or extracurricular you or I engage with at Lehigh is, to some degree, supported by the generosity of people who have decided to give back to the institution that enabled their success.
Lehigh’s endowment is worth around $1.3 billion, ranking it No. 85 on the list of 100 richest universities in the world. Some of our most generous donors’ names are emblazoned across the front of campus buildings and engraved in benches outside the Alumni Memorial building.
Their money is used to support the educations of my peers, the careers of our professors and the future of the university through initiatives like the Path to Prominence.
While I am eternally grateful for the opportunities Lehigh has given me, this year has pushed me to expand my moral understanding of what it truly means to accept financial support.
Philanthropy is not without its caveats. In reaping the benefits of donor generosity, we also bear the burden of their legacy.
And recently, I’ve had the sobering realization that “the rich ones” might not always have the best interests of students at heart.
Donations are essential to Lehigh’s existence, which means — for better or for worse — the university puts significant effort toward maintaining a positive relationship with donors. Every decision the board of trustees makes is filtered through its impact on donor relations. In some cases, Lehigh is forced to choose between prioritizing the needs of students and satisfying the desires of wealthy benefactors.
Whenever The Brown and White publishes articles about any remotely controversial changes at Lehigh, we get a slew of comments from disgruntled alumni. I’m sure the board gets a great deal of strongly worded letters from these same people when making tough decisions on these issues.
Revoke President Trump’s honorary degree? Put an end to Greek Life? Divest from fossil fuels?
The responses fall into one of two categories.
“If they do this, I will pull my funding.” “If they don’t, I’ll stop giving.”
While a certain decision might seem like a good idea to forward-looking students, it might not align with the personal philosophy or political agenda of a well-to-do alumnus.
Should we hesitate to take certain progressive actions out of fear they may upset donors? To what degree can we justify allowing money to direct our moral compass?
And should we cover up the less flattering facets of an institution, sometimes even skirting the law, so as not to tarnish relationships with wealthy individuals?
It would be ignorant of us to overlook where our money comes from and the unfavorable decisions that might have been made to accept it.
I have benefited greatly from the generosity of countless alumni who care enough about Lehigh to share their wealth with subsequent generations of students. I will never take for granted the positive impact they have made on my life.
While I may never be sure of what Koenig meant when he wrote that line, I will choose to interpret it as a cautionary message. Don’t forget the rich ones, but think about their intentions.
Are they kind?
Klaudia Jaźwińska, ’18, is a managing editor for The Brown and White. She can be reached at [email protected].
Loved this piece! Thank you so much
Smart column, and you should have a talk with the Development director about it. One of the reasons staggering tuition levels are a problem, and indeed why the defunding and decimation of state universities is a problem, is that schools genuinely do become dependent on alumni simply for recruiting future alumni, who in turn will be approached forever for money. One wealthy donor can have a very large effect on a university’s priorities. We’ve seen that where I live, where a donor essentially installed a university president with no academic background, and now we are watching our College of Liberal Arts and Sciences being dismantled, in accordance with large donors’ politics. (The last president to buck that trend got run off; he runs the Smithsonian now.) These things have large societal effects over time.
To those who are involved living in the present all change is bad. Unless you are ignorant, how you live now is probably based upon your best choices to live that way. If your are ignorant, a change would be easy. If you are actively involved, a change can be hard. You change to hopefully make things better in the long run. Will antagonizing Mr. Trump, taking away his honorary degree, make anything better in the long run? Will antagonizing big donors do any good?
Past administrations have made decisions that have made Lehigh more liberal. Alumni generally want to know if this has been good in the long run or only made current students happier.
Clearly the author is involved in the process of attempting to not only make things different but better.