In Loco Parentis

Last week, as the Class of 2010 prepared to graduate and join the ranks of some one hundred thousand alumni of the College, they received a letter from me that adumbrated an aspect of their new life that our alumni know all too well: I asked them to consider making a gift to the College. There would be no amount too small, for the point of the fourth-year gift is in the act of giving itself, a rite of passage marking an exchange of roles between student and teacher. As students, they were supported by their teachers, receiving instruction and advice that will direct the course of their lives. As alumni, they become the patrons of their teachers, providing the opportunity for others to receive the same education, while offering support and counsel to their teachers. I offered to match a portion of their giving from my own funds under a program the students call “Make the Dean Pay”; if more than 2,010 members of the Class of 2010 (which numbers 2,968) participated, I promised to commit more.

Shortly after sending out the message, I received a thoughtful response from a member of the Class of 2010, who argued that the burden on his family of paying four years of out-of-state tuition has been arduous—and even under-appreciated, given that out-of-state students can be seen as de facto subsidizers of our in-state and AccessUVA students. In light of that, the call to give yet more money struck him as excessive.

I understood his point. His class is staring at a troubled labor market, with the jobless rate holding steady at 9.6 percent, and 36,000 jobs disappearing in February. If there are signs that we may be out of the Great Recession, they are not strong enough to signal that we are on the way to a recovery. Meanwhile, the rate of underemployment is creeping upward, as more people cut hours for lack of full-time jobs.

The Greek goddess of wisdom, Athena, famously leapt full-blown from the brow of Zeus. We sometimes think of the University as Athena, arising spontaneously from the mind of Mr. Jefferson, and then living at the Olympian heights, unsullied by the troubles of the world. Athena emerged clad in divine armor. But the University has never had such protection, always subject—and now more than ever—to the vicissitudes of the state and national economies.

We are a public University, committed to the highest standards of education for all students, in-state and out-of-state. Yet public resources have never been enough to accomplish that mission alone, and the gap between resources and needs has never been greater. However onerous out-of-state tuition may be for many, it still does not pay for the cost of an education; the rest comes from philanthropic gifts and proceeds from endowments supporting research and scholarships of all kinds. In other words, the College is not a money-making institution but a money-losing institution; we subsidize not just in-state students but out-of-state students as well.

The economic downturn that has devastated so many of the families of our students has also struck the College, hard. And during the downturn, the College has remained strongly mindful of the sacrifices that parents make to send their children to Virginia. We have worked hard to keep our tuition below that of our peer institutions, both private and public. As a result, the College has to depend on alumni giving more than ever.

The first responsibility of our students after their graduation is to their parents, who in many cases sacrificed so much to allow their children to receive the best education in the world, an education that will launch them into life and career. But our fourth-year students joined a second family when they walked onto the Lawn in the fall of 2006, the family of the University of Virginia. And like their birth families, they will remain members of that family for as long as they live.

There was once much debate about whether colleges and universities served in loco parentis, a Latin phrase that means “in the place of the parents.” The question was the extent to which universities could and should regulate the social and political activities of its students; the consensus was that the powers of the university are limited in these domains. But in a larger sense, some of the best things about the parent-child relationship exist between alma mater (which does mean “nourishing mother,” after all) and student. The gifts of the natal parent to the child can never be repaid. The gifts of the alma mater are different, but no less real. The fourth-year gift is a rite of passage, and like most rites, it is rich in meaning, both symbolic and real.

3 Responses to “In Loco Parentis”

  1. Cathy Duke says:

    Dear Dean Woo,

    It was my son, Tyler Duke, who responded to your request that fourth year students give a gift to the College. He forwarded me your very thoughtful response, and I wanted to thank you for taking the time to address his concerns. Both my husband and I attended the University; we are both life members of the Alumni Association. I know that my son loves the University as much as we do and is just as appreciative of the excellent education he has received there. (It is gratifying to know that he also appreciates our financial support over the past four years!) I have no doubt that he will do his best to ‘give back’ to the University in the future. It truly is a second family — one that we are all very proud to call ours.

    Cathy Duke ’79

  2. Gerry C says:

    Dean Woo, you’ve done it again: captured in words a complex part of the essence of the University. There are all kinds of reasons to give–and no gift is too small–even in hard financial times as we are in now. As an alumnus of over 50 years’ duration, I remember when our UVA asked for very little from her alumni–perhaps we took the “no gift too small” adage too literally. But in the last 30 years, our University has proved the less well-known part of the giving adage: alumni who can give more have stepped up and done so, and UVA’s gift income is remarkable and record-setting. I spent 40 years raising money from others for good causes–it therefore delights me that our University has become a leader, from both in-state and out-state sources. Thankfully, UVA continues to pursue a national (indeed international) vision of her founder, and is not yoked to a state legislature that has forsaken the principles of its forebears. One of the best reasons for having beyond-state students, parents and alumni is to remind us Virginians that our University’s aspirations are world-class and are now open to all who would pursue lofty goals. Jefferson’s vision set this course; succeeding administrations have staid it, and current members like Meredith Woo have continued in the finest way. Thanks!

  3. Meredith Jung-En Woo says:

    Gerry: I agree, for a public institution U.Va. does well with private philanthropy. Our alumni show an unusually strong affection for the College and a deep appreciation for how their time on Grounds has shaped the rest of their lives. But here is a conundrum: our alumni often think of the College and the University as being coterminous — and so wanting to give to the College, they give to the University. In terms of annual giving, only six percent of the College’s own alumni give to the College. Gifts made to the College have the most direct impact on the education of the College students who are following in their footsteps. Helping our newest alumni understand that distinction between gifts to the University and gifts to the College is why I’ve chosen to match gifts designated specifically for the College from fourth years. We have also changed the name of our annual funds to the “College Fund.” You can find it by following the prompts on the College home page.

    The College is bracing for tough times ahead, with the worst yet to come in 2011-2012. Even as we stay focused on the College priorities, it is also true that we are going through the slog, reducing faculty lines and course offerings. Annual giving is critical as never before. If you give $50 to the College, that is equivalent to the payout from a $1,000 endowment; or $500 as an $10,000 endowment. I will say to the alumni the same thing I said to the fourth years: there is no amount too small.