Tuesday, April 08, 2008

University Development and Campus Employees

Once a year, I get in my mailbox a packet of information about the latest capital campaign. This is not explanatory info telling us what the development office is doing, but an actual, bona fide pitch--they are soliciting my money.

This has always struck me as odd, and the more I think about it, the more I find it actually kind of offensive. What the university seems to be asking me, implicitly, is to take a voluntary pay cut.

Now I know that universities run on endowment, and I have given to my almas mater from time to time. I am less ambivalent about my undergraduate institution, which funded me with generous scholarships, than I am my graduate institution, for whom I worked for less-than-living wage as a TA and a graduate student writing program administrator. Sometimes, in my more blustery moods, I imagine that I'll only donate to them when I pay off all the loans I had to take out in order to live in a major metropolitan area.

But BRU is my employer, and this strikes me as a different thing entirely. We're in a poor state as it is, so salaries across the board are lower than peer institutions (indeed, lower than most four-year schools). But when they ask me for money, there is no implicit "giving back to the institution that trained you" kind of mentality. Instead, the underlying logic seems to be "sacrifice for the university you love."

This logic troubles me because of the way it continues to implicitly devalue intellectual labor: that we do it because we love it, and therefore it doesn't constitute a valuable commodity. Now, I have misgivings about the pervasiveness of commodification, and the reduction of everything to exchange value, but when it comes down to it, I work hard for a salary. A smallish one. So to have my employer ask me to give back a part of that salary for the benefit of my employer (presumably so we can pay our basketball coach almost 20 times my salary) seems a little insulting.

What am I missing here?

Edited to Add: Welcome IHE readers. There are some more cogent thoughts in the comments than in this off-the-cuff post. And as I've been thinking about it, I realize that there are a lot of reasons why development offices might want to solicit faculty, and why faculty might want to donate to their employing institution, and many of these reasons are contingent upon the kind of institution, the salary of the faculty, and the degree to which the institution invests faculty with power in the governance of the institution.

I don't want to say too much about those things here, but given my initial reaction, you might probably imagine how some of those things are configured here, or at least how they feel from the ground.

I do want us to think more about this, though: What kind of assumptions about faculty and intellectual labor are being made when we are given a cookie-cutter direct-mail solicitation? What other sorts of non-profits solicit their employees, and to what results? and what ends?

In the meantime, I do hope that new readers will comment extensively, if for no other reason that to continue informing me and the readership about the issues involved here.

8 comments:

New Kid on the Hallway said...

The development people where I've worked have always said that the percentage of faculty giving to the institution affects other donations - that the more faculty donate, the more they get money from alumni and other donors.

That being said, I never gave to the institutions paying me, either!

Andi said...

I certainly understand this frustration. My school doesn't solicit money directly from me for the school itself; I do give, however, to the scholarship fund that gets students books and helps them with emergencies - like rent money - if they need it. But I only do that through the Foundation, not through the schools coffers themselves.
I get paid way to little and give far too much in the way of time - 12 hours each day for the last two days - to give them any more cash.

kermitthefrog said...

I think it's that development offices just don't care about insulting a captive audience. After getting my M.A. (on the way to the Ph.D.), I started getting solicitations from my grad institution. They seemed not to keep track of who was still a grad student there, and in fact solicited money specifically for graduate education. I wrote back a note -- in retrospect, not as scathing as I should have been -- asking them to abstain until I had actually graduated, just because I couldn't stand the upswelling of rage when I periodically opened their mail.

Flavia said...

I've been told what New Kid has been told--that many big-ticket donors (including non-profit organizations) look at the percentage of faculty/staff giving as a sign of committment to/satisfaction with an institution as a criterion in making decisions whether to give money themselves. I've also been told that it is, literally, the percentage of PARTICIPATION, not the amount of money, and that even the smallest of amounts counts. So, I give literally $1 from each of my paycheques.

If that helps the overall financial health of the institution, awesome. And if it doesn't. . . eh, it's $26. But I'm also not at a Div-I school, and I feel generally very pleased with both the priorities and the financial decision-making of my institution, so that matters. If I weren't, I probably wouldn't give even that much.

aaron said...

Any organization (the United Way, say) that sends you a solicitation is asking you, in effect, to take a pay cut. And I'm sure there is a similar, if unspoken, expectation that employees at other nonprofits also return some portion of their salary as a charitable donation.

You may consider this practice unseemly. (In fact the level of offense you take leads me to think "unseemly" is a bit weak a term.) But from a fundraising perspective, soliciting you makes sense: who believes in the mission of higher education more than its practitioners?

Having defended, and perhaps implicitly endorsed, this practice, let me criticize what I think is a bit of a dodge by fundraisers. While some foundations look at the level of faculty/staff giving as part of their decision-making process, and while this percentage does figure, marginally, into USNWR and similar rankings, the reason nonprofits ask for gifts is because they think their work deserves support.

I think your response is legitimate: you do more work than most realize on behalf of your university, and for less money than you're worth. Your umbrage, however, seems misplaced.

Practical notes: the development office will put you on a "do not mail" list if you ask. And if that office is remotely competent, you won't get mail. Such offices tend not to have access to the records of current students, so the situation Kermit describes is probably not a sin of commission.

Also: cultivating a relationship with the development office can have benefits, both material and professional. And, unlike your department head, dean, provost or president, the development office will be happy to make time for you.

kermitthefrog said...

Aaron -- I think what both Horace and I are taking umbrage at (if I can read into Horace's original post a little) is the lack of specificity in our respective development offices' address to us. I don't take offense at being solicited per se -- I take offense at being addressed as someone I am not. In this case, they assume that my livelihood no longer depends on the very funding I'm being solicited for. Whether or not my own development office already has access to the records of current students, I think they should, ideally, be given information that would allow them to sort those getting terminal degrees from those who are still enrolled. That would allow them to write me a letter with the sort of appeal you suggest: "hey, you believe in the mission of the school, or you should, since you're still here -- can you make a show of that support by participating in our capital campaign?" Such a pitch has worked on me before, when the organization involved actually bothers to make it.

Likewise, it doesn't sound like Horace's university is making good use of the rationale that you and other commenters mention -- it's simply putting a packet in his mailbox in the expectation that he'll donate. If the development office doesn't tailor its address to faculty, with the recognition that yes, they are taking a pay cut, but even a token show of support would be appreciated, then faculty are likely to be alienated in just the way Horace describes.

The Constructivist said...

Probably a better use of faculty resources than including them in a mass solicitation would be in doing interviews with them on their research and teaching to further promote the work of the university with potential donors; finding out what department needs could be added to a capital campaign; using them to keep good contacts with alumni; and so on. I mean, we're a public regional university but we're small enough that our VP of Fundraising (not his actual title) has time to visit every department to talk up our capital campaign that's going public in May. Sounds like a short discussion with your chair could prompt more individual attention from that office--at best a "what we can do for you" thing and not just "what you can do for us."

I do think tenured faculty with a stake in the institution's advancement might be more easily persuaded to give (and might actually afford to)--but that would require a strategy aimed at emeriti and full professors first. Sounds like they have started on the wrong foot with you! After all, professors in some fields get lucrative consulting gigs or make a bunch of $$ on a textbook, so not everyone's as poor as English profs tend to be!

cero said...

I do not know whether your BRU is the same as mine but a while ago they asked for a direct donation by rank, I think it was $700 for assistant professors but I can't remember now, to save the institution from a fiscal crisis. The reward was that if enough people donated there wouldn't be vertical cuts. Some people gave - I didn't - and then it turned out the fiscal crisis wasn't as serious as had been thought.