Novel Side Project

Like I don’t have enough of those, right?

Northwestern was founded in 1855 in Evanston. Like several schools of the period, they sold perpetual full scholarships to people who gave $100 to the university as a means of raising capital. I recall a controversy highlighted in the Chronicle of Higher Education a few years ago in which a small college had merged a couple times in the intervening century and, when someone produced an aged, brittle certificate attesting to their scholarship to the ancestor college, the administration of the modern college balked (I may research and update this with specifics later). Eventually, some crappy compromise of half-tuition or something similar was worked out, which was totally unsatisfying, in my mind. When you merge with or buy a corporation, you acquire their liabilities as well as their assets.

Anyway, a display near the archives building indicates that 1150 such scholarships were purchased and that the university still honors them, including a student currently at the university. The scholarships have only been used 400 times in the history of the institution.

The project: wouldn’t it be great if I could find the university’s copies of these scholarships, do some genealogical research to find some descendants, and let the families know that one of their kids could have a full ride to Northwestern? It’s not out of the realm of possibility that my research skills could be a major catalyst in changing somebody’s life (in a concrete, immediate fashion, not the usual “I’m making a long-term, incremental difference” way). I’ll keep you posted.

UPDATE: The more that I think about this, this could be a tremendous model project in enabling social mobility (provided I can get access to the documents, the dissemination of which goes against the economic interest of the university). As with all my recent ideas, it will have to be collective and relatively decentralized. Two questions: (1) Who wants in? (2) What are the best tools for coordinating such a project: On the genealogy side? On the communication side? At the risk of thinking everything is a nail, maybe a flickr group could allow me to put up images of all the scholarships, enabling wide access and public participation.

Now, how to deal with the possibility I would be alerting already wealthy people they have free scholarships that their wealthy great-great-great-great-grandparents bought? Hmmm…