Open letter to the UBC Development Office And Donors

Dear UBC Development Office and Donors,

I want to express my gratitude to the UBC Development Office. Recently, you sent me an unusually thought-provoking survey. It mentioned a scholarship I had been awarded as a second-year undergraduate student, way back in 2003.

You explained that you were hoping to encourage donors to keep donating, so you wanted to know a little bit about me. Why did I study what I studied? What had I been up to since then? And, most interestingly: what difference has this award made to me? I’m glad you asked. I never thought much about it before.

I looked up the award, to jog my memory. It was one of a number of scholarships I received as an undergraduate, which I mostly did not apply for and which more than covered my tuition. This one was awarded on the recommendation of my department, but had no further published selection criteria. I got good grades and was not in financial need, so I assume it was a merit-based scholarship.

I remember being pleased, briefly, to receive some money and recognition. It also contributed a line to my CV, but I can’t say whether that one line made any difference. I’m sure my parents also felt proud when they found out, but then they were already proud. And as for the money itself, well, my family has enough wealth that my tuition and living expenses would have been easily paid for regardless.

So what difference did that award really make? None whatsoever. It was totally unnecessary, now that I think about it.

I may have also thought about it in 2003, but I accepted the award anyway. It didn’t occur to me to do otherwise. Surely there was nothing wrong with me receiving an award. This, of course, was meritocracy in action. This was the world was working as it should. So I thought.

Incidentally, I recall that the students around me were protesting tuition hikes at about that time. This seemed somewhat selfish. Tuition is an investment in your future, I thought. You’ll get a better job with this degree and make the money back, I thought. And anyway, we can’t afford to just pay for everyone to stay in school as long as they want, as they would surely do if tuition was free, I thought.

Actually, I take it back. The award did make a difference. It reinforced my sense of entitlement.

Now it’s 2015. I’m 32, I’m still a student, and I’m still being given more money than I know what to do with. But I’ve learned a little more about the world. I’ve heard the stories of students who struggle to make ends meet, to eat and pay rent, to take care of their families, and to navigate a myriad of endemic hostilities against particular bodies, backgrounds, beliefs, or ways of being. The good grades that got me my scholarships were never simply the result of merit, or of good fortune. They were also the result of the unearned special treatment that had been lavished on me from birth, generally at someone else’s expense.

This new awareness didn’t much come from my classes, by the way. I’ve mostly studied technical subjects at university. So it’s taken me a while to learn to really listen to the voices of people with different life experiences from me. But I think I would have learned to listen a little earlier if many of these voices hadn’t also been unnecessarily excluded from the university by challenges that I didn’t face. As a result, I think the development of my own sense of empathy was delayed. So my concern is not just about fairness. These patterns of exclusion also impair the social and emotional education of all UBC students. We are not the “global citizens” we could be.

So, dear UBC Development Office, dear donors, thank you for asking me to think about the impact of your award. You couldn’t have picked a better time to ask. In return, I would like to ask you to think about this too.

I trust you want your scholarship money help promising students overcome challenges and succeed at university. If so, I hope my story will be illustrative. While many of my fellow students struggled, out beyond my awareness, you gave me award after award that did not motivate me, gave me no new opportunities, and eliminated no barriers. I always dutifully sent the enclosed thank-you letter to the donor, as UBC asked me to, but now that I’m being honest with myself and with you, those awards were drops in the bucket that I took for granted and barely noticed. And I was surely not the only one.

That may be disappointing to hear. I doubt this was what you set out to do. But, of course, you have an opportunity to improve this situation. If you want my opinion, as a UBC graduate and scholarship recipient, I suggest you stop giving out scholarships based simply on so-called “merit”, which I think usually means performance. Too much of that money is wasted on people like me. I could give the money away (and I have), but I would rather see the rules change.

The University’s Vision and Values would be much better served by transferring all merit-based scholarship money to the needs-based bursaries and support services that students really need. Affordable child care, food security initiatives, anti-violence initiatives, and the creation of safer and more accessible spaces come to mind, but I’m sure there are many capable student advocates at UBC today who have already articulated their collective needs far better than I can. I hope that you, too, will listen to their voices.

Andrew Gray is a UBC Alumnus who first graduated with a BSc in Mathematics and Computer Science in 2005, then again in 2011 with an MD. He is currently a medical resident in public health at McGill University.


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  1. I must commend Andrew Gray’s open letter.

    He expresses a great deal of empathy and sincere, genuine & selfless concern for others.

    Not knowing Mr. Gray, I am very proud of his sincere
    mindful approach to the scholarship aspect of fund

    Thank you

    Robert Sung

    Posted by Robert Sung | August 17, 2015, 8:17 pm
  2. We need more people in the world like Andrew Gray with the empathy and insight he demonstrates. We are all better when our society offers truly equal opportunities, particularly in the case of university education.

    Posted by Helen Kettle | August 18, 2015, 6:22 pm
  3. Hi Andrew,

    Thanks for posting this. Interestingly, one of the University’s award regulations does state
    “A recipient of a student award may retain the honour of an award but resign the monetary value. Any funds thus made available will be made available to another eligible student.”

    But this has only been invoked a few times to the best of my knowledge, and I feel like it’s not widely known/publicized. We’re presently revising the award regulations generally (yet again), so I’ll certainly give what you’ve written some serious though.


    Chris Eaton
    UBC Senate Office

    Posted by Chris Eaton | August 19, 2015, 10:09 am
  4. Hi Chris,

    Thanks for your comment. But with all due respect to whoever wrote and approved that regulation, I don’t think it really does anything to address the concerns I raise.

    First, scholarship recipients are already free to do whatever they wish with their scholarship money. That could include making a donation to UBC or anyone else. This regulation simply invites recipients to direct the money back towards the same scholarship they received. The money will then go to some other top-grade-earner. Perhaps that will be someone in greater need (though probably not the person in greatest need), or perhaps it will be someone who doesn’t need the money and keeps it anyway, like me. On balance, probably nothing will be accomplished.

    Relying on individual generosity is never going to address the effectiveness and equity concerns that I raised, as my case hopefully illustrates. The only way I can see to achieve those goals is for awards to be distributed on need (at least in part) in the first place.

    So I would discourage UBCDO/Senate/anyone else from publicizing this particular option to recipients. Instead I would like to see a more systematic assessment of the true impacts of merit-based scholarships, and encouragement for donors, scholarship committees, and anyone else who makes these kinds of decisions to emphasize need rather than achievement in their award criteria.


    Posted by Andrew Gray | September 1, 2015, 3:09 pm
  5. I should add that what I do find interesting here is the idea of uncoupling money from recognition, which I would certainly support. Recognition is still another kind of resource that I would like to see distributed fairly in some sense, but of course it doesn’t make sense to distribute recognition based solely on financial need.

    Posted by Andrew Gray | September 1, 2015, 3:20 pm
  6. I suspect a great number of the awards he been endowed as merit based awards and switching them over would violate the terms of the trust. In that instance Chris’s suggestion would be a decent bandaid as far as what’s possible. There would also be a number that have been endowed under more ambiguous terms and could be converted.

    That said, Development should be trying to prevent new money from being endowed in such funds. Great letter.

    Posted by Spencer Keys | September 2, 2015, 2:17 pm
  7. Spencer’s point is spot on. Also, the university reserves the right to ask their donors a couple years out to reconsider the award’s selection criteria. Unsure if that’s done.

    Posted by Alex Lougheed | September 2, 2015, 4:18 pm
  8. Indeed, Development can’t alter existing trusts unilaterally, but I’m hoping there are some donors who would be willing to do so.

    Posted by Andrew Gray | September 2, 2015, 7:20 pm
  9. Posted by Spencer Keys | September 4, 2015, 10:38 am
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