Rifkin’s weekly message offends student

Campaign co-chair Barbara Meyers Pelson, second from left, donates  one million dollars to the College.
Campaign co-chair Barbara Meyers Pelson, second from left, donates one million dollars to the College.

The following message was sent out to students in the School of HSS in Dean Rifkin’s weekly email.  April 26, 2015

Dear Students: 

I hope you enjoyed at least some of the festivities yesterday during our alumni reunion and, especially, the launching of the College’s first comprehensive campaign. I enjoyed chatting with some of our alumni, learning about their lives and careers since graduation. One recent alumnus I spoke with is working in the office of a New Jersey state senator, another in a law firm, and a third completed a master’s degree and landed a new job with the Securities & Exchange Commission. I also had the pleasure of talking with alumni who graduated 10 or more years ago, including one woman back for her 65th reunion!  Everyone had beautiful stories to tell about the impact of their education at the College. In short, HSS alumni continue to be happy and super smart after graduation!

As a public institution, The College of New Jersey, of course, depends on the support of the people of the great state of New Jersey. Unfortunately, New Jersey, like many other states, has been reducing its financial support of public higher education. The most recent information on the budget proposed for the next fiscal year, as reported in The Signal last week, would suggest a reduction of over 8 percent in state support of our college. 

The comprehensive campaign is designed to help the College be more resilient to reductions in state support.  With the support of donors, the College can build its endowment and, thereby, sustain and perhaps even increase financial aid for students who face increased costs of attendance when the state reduces its contribution.  Increased financial support for the College from donors also means more money for students traveling to conferences to present their research and more money for student scholarships for study abroad, for example.  Indeed, the theme of our comprehensive campaign is “innovate, inspire, engage” because the additional financial support the College is seeking will help us continue to innovate in the design and delivery of the educational opportunities that change our students’ lives, inspire our students to attain the highest levels of achievement, and engage our students not only in the classroom, but all over campus and in the communities beyond Metzger Drive.   

The other theme of our comprehensive campaign is “all in.”  This means that all of us who are members of this community should be “in” in demonstrating our commitment to the College we love. 

As your dean, I ask you, too, to be “all in” by making a donation to the College, no matter how small, every year. By giving even just a few dollars, you add your name to the list of donors. This increases the percentage of students who are contributing which helps the College make the argument to other prospective donors:  if 80 percent of our current students and 90 percent of our alumni are contributing to the campaign (no matter the size of their gifts), we will be more successful in bringing in gifts from other donors who see that rate of participation as compelling evidence of our community’s belief in the value of a TCNJ education. 

So, please, make a gift – and you will make a difference.  The cost of your education exceeds the amount of tuition charged to you, even if you pay the non-resident tuition. By contributing to the College, even just a few dollars, you are saying to prospective donors everywhere that they should be “all in,” too.  When we increase the percentage of students (and alumni) contributing to the College, our rankings rise.  This makes your diploma more valuable, while allowing the College to attract the best qualified students, faculty, and staff.  Again, it’s not the size of the gift you make, but rather the fact that you made one at all.

I also ask you to ask your parents or other family members as well as any friends who are alumni to make a gift as well, again, no matter what size.  It’s not the dollar amount that matters for this aspect of our campaign: it’s the rate of participation for these groups – students, family members, and alumni – that makes a difference in our College’s rankings.  Faculty and staff are also making contributions for the same reason. 

It’s easy to give: just go to campaign.tcnj.edu and click on the button marked “donate.”

And, yes, I’m “all in” myself:  I contribute to the College every month with an automatic payroll deduction and I make additional periodic contributions as well.

Sincerely,

Your friendly neighborhood dean,

BR

This opinion piece was written in response to Dean Rifkin’s April 26, 2015 Weekly Message.

Dean Rifkin,

I have always appreciated your presence in both the HSS and the College as a whole. I have shared lunch and dinner with you, attended plays alongside you and have been very nearly inspired to consider the Russian language thanks to your recommendation and the prospect of having you as a professor. In short, you have had my respect for the entirety of my two years at the College, and I was genuinely disappointed to hear that you were leaving us at the end of this semester.

That said — and indeed because of that — I sincerely hope that the content of last Sunday’s weekly message does not reflect your personal beliefs. Despite its superficially good intentions, your email and its takeaway was patronizing, myopic, brash, naive and, as you can hopefully imagine, downright offensive. I read your email in an airport while traveling during my term of study abroad, a time of personal and intellectual expansion, and I was struck by its utter banality. Perhaps I had simply forgotten about the recurrent solipsism of the College’s administration, but I would like to take the time to offer proof of the existence and myself and my peers.

I, admittedly, have not been on the College’s campus this semester, and as such, was not aware of the College’s new “comprehensive campaign.” Without laboring on the exact nature of this initiative, its implications appear deeply disturbing. In particular, this concept of being “all in” concerns me. In your email, you ask that we students do our part to be “all in” and commit ourselves to the College and its future. In fact, you ask that we become all in, “too,” implying that we ought to be following some moral/social/communal paradigm set forth for us. You then go on to suggest how we too can achieve this state: by giving the College money.

I am perfectly aware of the reductions in state budgets for the College and all public educational institutions. Both of my parents are/were public school teachers, and many of my closest relatives and family friends also have careers in the New Jersey public education system. I am more than empathetic and sympathetic to the cause of raising more money and more support for our public schools, at the college and lower levels.

That said, I have to ask: just how many times do my peers and I have to pay the College to be considered “all in?” Did the designers of this new campaign forget that not only do students here at the College pay upwards of $27,000 per year to attend, but also that the College’s students and their parents also pay taxes that continue to make up the majority of the College’s endowment? Has the administration forgotten that the College has raised its tuition prices year after year, while keeping its financial aid offerings woefully lacking for all but the most impoverished of students?

I understand there are restrictions on how money can be raised and spent by public schools. I understand the longitudinal strategic goals of the College as a “school to watch” and such. But the College’s administration, and too often even its academic faculty, has become blind to the stark reality of what college truly is: a financial investment. I appreciate education as both a pragmatic advantage and as a philosophical endeavor, and I can understand the administrative tendency to downplay the chill of the former while exaggerating the idealism of the latter. But it is disingenuously bordering on dangerous to be so blind to the practical, tangible, life-altering burdens a college education represents, and to then shamefully add more.

My family is lower middle class, with my mom teaching special education and my dad having recently retired with meager disability benefits. They had no way of knowing that the costs of college would skyrocket by the time it was my turn to apply, and even if they had such foresight, they never had the means to offer me any substantial savings. I came to the College knowing that I would be entirely reliant upon scholarships and student loans. I came to the College because it is a decently well-respected and competitive school at supposedly competitive prices. I knew the concrete costs, I knew the theoretical rewards, and I made my decision knowing the potential consequences. After interest is considered, I currently owe over $50,000 in student loans.

I do not blame the College for my situation. I have faith that the College sets its prices to what it needs to survive.

What I do blame is the College, its administration and you, Dean Rifkin, for is the implication that if I choose not to give the College even more money that I am somehow less of a member of its “community,” somehow a less valuable student, somehow less “in.”

How dare you. How dare you patronize me by offering sappy stories of alumni with “master’s degrees” and jobs “at the SEC” and “a law firm” as justification for my blind and ultimately financial faith in this institution and its offerings. How dare you say that the “costs of my education exceed the amount of tuition charged” with absolutely no concrete idea what kind of long-term benefits and detriments my degree might hold. How dare you imply that even if I did donate money that its primary purpose would only be to “make an argument to other prospective donors.” How dare you put out a call for unity and obligation in this time of supposed crisis when you yourself are leaving the College to hold a loftier position at another university, while assuring us that monthly payroll deductions constitute your being “all in.”

I am a student at the College. I am a member of the Honors Program and two academic honor societies; I am a host of a WTSR radio show and a recurring contributor to The Signal; I belong to the Pre Law Society, Parliamentary Debate Team and Aikido Club; I hold a place on your very own Dean’s List; I work in both the College library and as a legal intern in the Office of the General Counsel; I am soon to be an alumni of the College’s study abroad program, having studied at the University of Oxford. My peers and I have been “all in” since the day we matriculated simply because we could have never been anything less. Yet despite the countless things my peers and I have accomplished, all of which helps make the College what it is and what it could be, the College now sees fit to launch a campaign that has at its core a greedy and dichotomizing sentiment.

We see past the kitsch, vapid anecdotes and embarrassingly aphoristic slogans like “innovate, inspire, engage.” We know that our school is both so much less and so much more than the imaginary contrivance you have helped to erect. At this point, the towing of this line has become more tiresome than anything else. It has made me cynical and skeptical, and yes, has led to my pursuing a college transfer. It has made me genuinely question whether a college community can even exist in the first place, or if any bits of uniqueness in a population will immediately be put to use as marketing tools or, as in this case, emotional leverage in fundraising campaigns. But I digress. I suppose that all I ask is that we students are shown respect not only as budding scholars or future workers, but first and foremost as intelligent and capable adults; that the administration that supposedly works for us act with dignity, sincerity and self-awareness; that we are treated not as a means to keep the school solvent, but as the entire reason for the school’s existence.

Do not scrounge your active students for extra cash, Dean Rifkin, and certainly do not extort our fondness for and appreciation of the College. No matter my opinions on the College, the HSS, you, the administration or the state of New Jersey itself, I continue to believe that we are all above that.

With respect,

Alex Holzman

Alex Holzman is a sophomore, double major in political science and psychology. He also serves as a TCNJ General Counsel Legal Intern and is a TCNJ Honors Program Scholar. 

 

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