Huffing The Cream Off Alumni Weekend

The view from outside the 2009 Reunion Party. June 6, 2014.
The view from outside the 2009 Reunion Party. June 6, 2014.

Last Saturday night on State Street, the Checked Shirts and the Sleek Dresses trotted through the drizzle, incessantly asking questions and making demands of one another.

Where next? It’s wet – Let’s go somewhere! Want another drink? It’s wet – Let’s take a cab! Tiny handbags, as usual, proved useless against hair-frazzling rain.

Outside a Walgreen’s, two long-frazzled men sat cross-legged, their shoulders swaying. Oxfords and heels, Timberlands and Nikes passed by, dozens a minute, making no pause, taking no heed. Next to the two sidewalk-sitters, wet plastic bags drooped onto the concrete. Out poked, like some rotting flower’s pistils, cap-less Redi-Whip cans.

If these two down-and-outs were, by chance, graduates of the University of Chicago, would they be welcomed in Hyde Park on Alumni Weekend with open arms? I wondered. If they, for some reason, paid up for admission to all the parties and talks, would people say ‘Hullo there, were you in my class?’

Surely, if they showed up without a ticket, they need not bother going into the Reynolds Club to get a sandwich from the Chicago Society’s hospitality table. Nor need they wander into the beer garden, nor show up for a tour of some new or renovated building. They would be avoided, then expelled, whether alumni or not.

Grant that these two huffers are alumni – are they not part of the “alumni community” I hear so much about? And if that’s so, is there no obligation to welcome them into that community, station in life notwithstanding?

These generous thoughts were sparked in part, I’m sure, by my own “expulsion” from the Five-Year Reunion of the Class of ’09 on Friday night. All was fine at first: I walked into the Reunion Tent like I belonged, which I did – I graduated with that class. I ate some dinner, saw some classmates, drank some fizzy raspberry punch.

Then I left the tent for the restrooms in Harper. Upon returning to the tent, one of the development ladies manning the registration tables noticed my lack of a red wristband to go with the white one. Another $10 she wanted for me to stay for the party’s short duration; she said she was cutting me a deal because there wasn’t much party left; she said it wasn’t fair that I didn’t pay like the others. Not seeing any sense in giving $10 more to a University I owe some $14,000, especially since I’d already had dinner, I left and posted up on a bench outside where friends provided company and some beers.

Now this whole scenario can be viewed from one angle, in which one says “Yes, there was a clear price placed on this event and they are right to make you pay it like anyone else.” And there’s another angle, where one might say “As an alumni, if you can’t pay, perhaps some consideration should be given to having some space where admission is not required.” And there’s another position which is “Man, if I paid $40 for a party where the open bar was some $8/bottle wine, Miller Lite, and some raspberry stuff that treated me worse than eating a whole pie of Cholie’s cardboard and going next door to the Falcon for a punch in the gut, I’d be pissed.”

Making alumni pay this fee and that and another for parties that pale, in selection, next to your average $20 7-to-11 all-you-can-drink slopfest on Clark Street, is stupid and not welcoming. If welcoming everyone is what the University was out to do.

What’s sad is this lack of welcome to those who can’t or won’t pay the full fee is unsurprising, if not expected. Because when you break it down, Alumni Weekend is all about getting that Alumni cash. It’s not about nourishing, feeding, or supporting Alumni – that’s what alere meant in Latin, from which alumnus is derived, if you believe Webster’s. Putting that Money-gate up on events – $20 here, another $30 here, $50 for the Big Party – ensures those who aren’t so enthusiastic about their school experience or the friends they’ll see won’t show up just to say hello.

I hold no ethical high ground on the University. I made the trip to Chicago to do my own ‘development,’ to see if I could hustle up some funding for my own work. I decided to bus out for Alumni Weekend and get in on exploiting the old boys’ network after a friend of mine, who’s usually sequestered in the woods, had the good fortune to meet an arts world high roller: a former dean at an Ivy who’s on museum boards who now won’t stop sending him invites to private clubs in NYC. I didn’t have such a good “hit,” (yet), this past weekend. I had a few decent conversations with strangers, ran into an old professor, harassed a couple ‘names.’ Yet in the spin of seeing people you know, hunting down the rooms in which they hide the older folk who have a lifetime of cash to dispose of and appreciate Youthful Energy was an unrealistic order this weekend.

If the University can’t see fit to open these Alumni Weekends up to everyone, they could at least give those who show up and are doing the arts/literature/do-gooder thing a hand with getting hand outs. The UofC is pretty good at making The Ask – if they could kick a few donors my way, it’d be Greatly Appreciated.