Guest Columnist Leela de Paula: Smith’s $500K donation solidifies its relationship with city

  • Leela de Paula PHOTO COURTESY BAKER COBB

Published: 12/27/2021 5:00:47 PM
Modified: 12/27/2021 5:00:20 PM

What does it mean to be a Smithie? As a junior who has barely spent time on campus due to the pandemic, this question weighs on my mind often, and I will probably never get to an answer. One thing is certain, however — my short experience on the campus of Smith College has been heavily influenced by the culture and environment of Northampton, and it will always stay with me.

On Dec. 10, Smith College President Kathleen McCartney announced a $500,000 gift to the city of Northampton. Commenting on the decision, she said the following, “Smith would not be Smith without Northampton.”

In the days after the announcement, much debate ensued around whether it was an appropriate use of funds, overlooking the value that Northampton brings to the institution and the importance of its relationship with Smith College. It’s important that Smith, as a wealthy institution, recognizes the benefits of being a member of the community and contributes to its well-being — and one of the best ways to do so is by donating money for the upkeep of the city.

Firstly, Smith has a responsibility to compensate the city financially. Smith uses a number of city resources such as roads, nature and law enforcement — all without paying a penny.

The city spends a lot of money to maintain these services that Smith takes advantage of. Smith also doesn’t pay property tax as a nonprofit institution but drives up the tax rate in the city as a prestigious institution. This is evidently a huge disparity in the college’s financial impact on the city. Some argue that Smith compensates the city enough through other means, such as attracting investments, providing customers for local businesses, and an campus with a gym, pool, and nature trails open to the public.

However, the financial impact of the high property tax makes it difficult for many residents who are low-income to enjoy these additional benefits. The services also don’t contribute to more important aspects of their lives such as public education, public libraries, and community services. Therefore, Smith’s direct financial contribution is more valuable to the public of Northampton and compensates for what the institution takes from the community.

Secondly, Smith should see itself as being a part of the community, not separate. As President McCartney commented, Smith is not Smith without the city. The donation reinforces the relationship of the college, and thus students, with the local community, which contributes to Smithies’ well-rounded education beyond the classroom.

It may seem sometimes that the gap between the students and local community is too wide to bridge, since college students can represent elitism to many Northampton citizens who are working class. However, Smith attracts students from all over the world that bring a valuable diversity of culture and perspective to the local community, and they also stand to benefit from the residents’ knowledge of Northampton and Smith College history.

Finally, the large donation benefits Smith itself by boosting its reputation. Engaging in charity makes Smith look altruistic, which is considered a positive factor by both students and the community members. The money will improve the quality of life in the city, going toward important capital priorities such as community safety and making the local economy thrive. These are both important aspects of a college town that students consider when applying to colleges.

Smith did the right thing by donating $500,000 to the city that has given so much to the college without demanding compensation. By contributing financially to the well-being of the city, Smith is ultimately contributing toward itself as an institution and its students.

Additionally, by taking this step of charity, Smith is solidifying its relationship with Northampton and engaging in communal care.

At Smith, we pride ourselves on our strong emphasis on fostering a sense of community, so I can say with certainty — embracing our role in the Pioneer Valley community is one of the most Smithie things we could do!

Leela de Paula is a junior undergraduate student at Smith College who splits her time between Northampton and Boston. She is pursuing a degree in government as well as gender studies, and is interested in local politics and social justice initiatives.


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