Better to light a candle than curse the darkness, the saying goes. What if there are no candles?
Ken Rousseau, a software manager in Silicon Valley, went to Caltech in the late 70s. He didn’t have a good time. He was a physics major He took a required course on electricity and magnetism where the average score on the final was 15 out of 100. As he took it, he thought, I guess I can’t be a physics major. He got a 16 — a solid B. That a professor would design such a demoralizing test revealed, he believed, that the professor didn’t care about students. At Tech, lack of caring for students was shown in big things and small. Every building on campus was air-conditioned except the student houses, and Pasadena gets really hot in the summer. The graduation rate around that time — the fraction of entering students who graduate in four years — was 59%. At MIT it was 80 or 90%. When a student drops out of Tech, it’s a lost opportunity on both sides, Rousseau felt. It was/is very difficult to get into Tech. To send 41% of admitted students away struck him as a terrible thing.
He did graduate. For many years, when Tech would ask him for money, he would say no, sometimes with a letter about why. But he kept in touch with other students who had lived in the same undergraduate house (Fleming House), one of the seven student houses. Every year, a bunch of them would have a weekend-long beach party. At one of them the idea arose: Let’s start a Fleming Fund. To help the students buy beer, that sort of thing. Tech is a tough place, let’s help them get through it.
In the 1990s, Rousseau got a letter from the president of Caltech that made him angry. Tech was #4 in the U.S. News rankings, it said, mainly because of the low fraction of alumni giving. Let’s make Tech #1 by giving more, wrote the president. Rousseau responded with a five-page letter that made one simple point: Alumni giving is so low because the people in charge cared so little about students. Their lack of concern is being reciprocated.
By 2003 or 2004 Rousseau had enough money that he got a personal visit from the development office. His visitor knew his wife’s name, the approximate ages of his children, and the high points of his professional career. Rousseau told him of his residual bitterness. “You’ve obviously benefited a lot from your Tech experience,” said the development officer. “Why have you only given $163 over the years?” He had it wrong, Rousseau said. He had given $1. His wife, who had also gone to Tech, had given $162.
He told the development officer he was interested in helping Tech students — particularly Fleming House residents. In essence, he wanted to bring the Fleming Fund into existence. Around this time, Frank Bernstein, another Caltech alum who was working as a patent attorney in Silicon Valley, was also solicited. “Frank, I’m looking for a really significant donation,” said the same development officer who had approached Rousseau. Bernstein, who’d also lived in Fleming, told Rousseau about the conversation and they again resurrected the idea of the Fleming Fund.
The development officer came back to them with ideas. Maybe you could fund a lecturer, he suggested. Or graduate student salaries. Helping undergraduates was clearly a new and difficult concept for the development office. They were looking for contributions that, in their words, “directly benefited the Institute.” Bernstein pointed out to them that this was a narrow and self-defeating view. They want alumni to contribute. They want to get them in the habit of contributing. A Fleming Fund will help with that.
Because Rousseau’s daughter, a high school student, was considering going to Tech, Rousseau visited the campus in 2006. He met with Tom Mannion, the administrator for student affairs, and came to believe that the administration cared more about students than they had in the past. A new incoming president, Jean-Lou Chameau, appeared to genuinely care about undergrads. (Later events have validated that view.Â Chameau has made a point of discussing student life in his public discussions and has started to push administration officials to discuss what theyâ€™re doing with regards to student life.) After that, Rousseau and Bernstein met with the development officer who had solicited them and started working on the details. The Institute set a minimum of $100,000. Once the fund reached this level, income from the fund would be given to the students to spend.
In 2008 the details were hammered out. There would be two sort of restrictions: 1. Obvious limits on what the money could be spent on (no bail, no illegal drugs, etc.). 2. An oversight committee of three people, including the past president of Fleming House. The oversight committee only gets involved when the amount of money is more than the house’s usual budget. The income, at least at first, would be about $10,000 year for a house of about 120 students.
In May 2009, the fund was announced during a Fleming House reunion dinner at Tom Mannionâ€™s house. Many undergrads came up to Rousseau and told him it was a “really cool idea.” They were touched that someone out there cared about them. The Institute is thinking of repeating it with the other student houses.