I was eating dinner the other night, and the phone rang. It was an undergraduate classmate noting that I had yet to contribute to our class’s annual giving. She’s a nice person. I also have warm feelings towards Princeton, which opened valuable opportunities and treated me well. So I gave seventy-five bucks.

I gave, not entirely happily. My electronic and snail mail boxes are stuffed with fundraising missives presented with an urgency more appropriate to Oxfam than for one of America’s very wealthiest nonprofit institutions—one that educates some of the most privileged young people in the world. (My favorite: “Great news! If you are making a concerted effort to not pay your $50 class dues, you are well on your way to success!”)

Last year, my own undergraduate class donated $5,101,985 to Princeton’s annual giving. It was a big reunion year. And I don’t begrudge anyone’s charitable giving. Still, this is out of proportion. As of June 30, 2010, Princeton’s endowment totaled $14.4 billion. That’s almost $3 million for every enrolled student. Princeton is a great university, a national treasure. It just doesn’t need the money.

I am especially sensitive to this. My wife and I support the New Hope Center, a great organization that cares for her brother and hundreds of other intellectually disabled adults in the Chicago southland. Most families who rely on New Hope are of modest means. Many caregivers are elderly widows, part of that pioneering generation that took care of their children for decades in the family home. This is a tough time for the disabled and their families, especially in Illinois which faces a budget crisis and ranks 48th in the nation by some measures of intellectual disability services. New Hope attracted almost $400,000 in contributions last year. It needs this money more than Princeton does.

I teach at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration. Most of our students are social workers, who take on very difficult challenges serving vulnerable people and communities. Our students need the money more than Princeton does, too.

I’ll continue to pay my class dues and to make token contributions to a university to which I am grateful. Yet in this very difficult time for so many people, Ivy League graduates should express our deepest gratitude by helping people, communities, and institutions that really need our help, not by focusing our giving on universities that are wonderful places, but that are sufficiently blessed not to require this kind of help.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross Professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.