It’s hard to know where to begin when the phrase “Walter Athletics Center” finds its way into conversation, other than treat it with the implied derision that accompanies other things that are Self-Evidently Bad – “Jeffrey Dahmer”; “The Iraq War”; “Nickelback”. To qualify its Badness, whether casually among friends or in the pages of a student publication, feels a bit like explaining a joke in excruciating detail after everyone in earshot has already signaled their understanding with a laugh.
I should feel silly arguing that the Walter Athletics Center is a tremendous waste of money. It’s not just obvious; it’s boring, the juiciness of the hot take wilted and dried like a raisin under the rays of near universal consensus. I know this in part because I had to Google “new Northwestern sports facility” to learn which donor it was named after, but can tell you without consultation exactly how much it cost. That price tag – $270 million – has become such a calling card among the student body that the facility’s name, for all practical intents and purposes, is the “$270 Million Athletics Center”.
One can credibly argue for the value of investing money into athletic programs, as there is often substantial return on said investment that can ostensibly be used to benefit the entire student population. These arguments fall comically short in justifying the Athletic Center, a facility that exists for student athletes as a training center, and for the other 90 percent of students as an inaccessible gilded shrine to the sacrosanctity of a football team that is, diplomatically speaking, not good.
And I still feel like a raisin peddler explaining that the decision to spend $270 million on a training colossus for Northwestern’s sports teams feels morally bankrupt because of what else that money could buy. You know this – you know it if you’ve ever sat down with your family over summer break to figure out how you’ll manage to afford tuition for the upcoming year; you know it if you’ve been put on a waitlist at CAPS because Northwestern doesn’t employ enough clinicians to meet student needs. The question is not why the Athletics Center is an incredible waste of money, but rather how, with the why so obvious that explaining it is embarrassing, the money was wasted anyway.
The how question can be easily and not-all-that-cynically explained by the nature of private donorship. Northwestern’s mega-donor families, Walters and Ryans included, are able to earmark their contributions for specific purposes, giving the University itself little leeway in how the funds can be used. As Medill junior Davis Rich noted last month in Inside NU, the wishes of donors do not themselves exonerate Northwestern from having its institutional priorities questioned, since the University “could, of course, ask mega-donors to make contributions to CAPS or earmark scholarships for financial aid.”
All things considered, it’s hard to look at the shiny promotional photos for a building that cost more than the endowment of the school whose football team beat the Wildcats last month (not having attended, I can only hope with a tender heart that the Akron Zips’s mascot is a zipper, or, even better, a .zip file) and wonder: why do Northwestern’s donors have such shitty priorities?
I invoke all of the necessary “not alls”, of course, and offer my genuine gratitude to the many donors who earmark their contributions toward worthy causes like financial aid, particularly the donor whose endowed scholarship has allowed me to attend Northwestern. But the thorny truth is that, given the degree of engineered inequality and exploitation that powers the modern economy, the answer to the question of why some billionaire Northwestern alums don’t seem to share the values and priorities of students is that, if they did, they probably wouldn’t be billionaires in the first place.
The utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer has argued that the most effective way for young people with elite educations to work towards the eradication of poverty, homelessness, preventable disease, and other social injustices is by following a career path that will lead to immense personal wealth and then giving most of that wealth to charitable causes. I disagree with this proposal on two fronts: first, that it does nothing to change the political, legal, and social mechanisms that allow poverty, homelessness, and the like to exist alongside indescribable wealth and excess, and second, that pursuing a career in a high-powered, lucrative field is unsustainable if doing so isn’t personally fulfilling.
Still, I realize that after I graduate from Northwestern this June, many of those who graduate alongside me will go on to fulfilling and obscenely remunerative careers, and that their dreams to become billionaires may in all likelihood become realities before my dream to tax billionaires out of existence does.
So to the future generation of billionaire Northwestern alums, let me state categorically: if you’re going to donate millions of dollars to Northwestern, earmark it towards causes that will level the playing field for students who would otherwise be unable to attend Northwestern, rather than a literal playing field that will only be used by a select group of students. If you choose to use your wealth towards constructing state-of-the-art baubles and monuments to conspicuous consumption rather than fighting against the unaffordability of higher education that is as much a symptom of an unjust system as the extent of your own prosperity, you’ll be as deserving of roasting from the student body as the $270 Million Athletic Center.