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For many, this time of year brings a deluge of fundraising emails, letters, calls, text messages, and social media posts from non-profits asking for donations. Despite the disruptions that the pandemic has posed this year to colleges and universities, they have continued to fundraise. Many of them are using sophisticated, expensive commercial marketing technologies to “target” potential donors – including their own employees and tuition-paying students.
As a graduate student worker at the University of Texas at Austin, I am a target this year of both student and employee-giving campaigns. Because I completed a master’s degree as part of my doctoral program, the university’s fundraising apparatus also thinks that I’m an alumna. So, starting in advance of #GivingTuesday, and continuing through the new year, I receive a slew of “asks” for money from my employer. These solicitations are not limited to the holiday season. This year, I received several in August to support an emergency fund for students affected by the pandemic.
And I’m not alone; recently, university employees have taken to Twitter to interrogate this phenomenon. The most recent fundraising email suggested that I give money to a campaign that would support students through scholarships, stipends for them to work as unpaid interns, and “micro-grants that make the difference for students who don’t have the money to pay for a course they need to graduate.”
As Charisse Burden-Stelly has noted, events like #GivingTuesday are evidence of rapacious commodification even in the realm of charitable giving. University employee-giving campaigns index a deeper exploitation, as both a symptom of and a fix for neoliberal austerity.
Ruth Wilson Gilmore has referred to plutocratic philanthropy as the “twice-stolen wealth.” In her formulation, today’s robber barons accumulate wealth by exploiting workers and in another act of theft, ferret it away in philanthropic schemes and avoid paying taxes, further depleting the social wage of workers – public funding for healthcare, social services, and education.
Universities and the austerity policies under which they operate are the product of this double theft. These campaigns are symptomatic of large scale defunding of public education, as well as coercion by private philanthropies that value high rates of employee giving. They compel another dimension of wage theft, in which employees are expected to give back their wages to solve the crises that chronic underfunding and corporatization of universities that have often been overseen by billionaire philanthropists, create. Fundraising campaigns for causes like student emergency funds rely on the supposition that individual philanthropic giving is a duty of employment that can solve or at least ameliorate structural problems of austerity.
As Benjamin Soskis’s research has demonstrated, employee-giving campaigns are not new. Soskis traces their origins to the years following the Civil War and the creation of “community chests,” to fund local social services. As these chests expanded, they found a new segment of donors in corporate workplaces. Soskis’s work documents how workplace giving has declined, due to a political economy defined by jobless recoveries, wage stagnation, and notably, work without workplaces, as more employees are temporary, contingent, or contractors.
University employee-giving campaigns differ from those of corporate workplaces because they ask employees to give money back to their employers, rather than to external organizations. One might be able to imagine how when translated to a university context, these campaigns could be benign or even worthy: professors with lifetime job security would be happy to chip in to support students who need occasional “micro-grants” to make it through a financial rough patch.
However, this narrative betrays a wholly fantastic understanding of the modern university in an era of austerity. In a magnification of the political economic trends that Soskis cites as reasons for the decline of employee giving, 75% of teaching employees at Universities are non-tenure track employees. They are underpaid and overburdened despite performing a core function of the university. Employees work on a contingent, just-in-time basis, often unaware of whether or not their contracts will be renewed. Janitorial, food services, and other service workers whose labor allows universities to charge students for a residential experience typically work for subcontractors under equally or more precarious conditions.
The other side of the “professors chipping in to help students” story is equally fantastic. As we well know, despite the low wages of their teachers, students’ tuition costs have increased exponentially. Students face enormous debt burdens as post-secondary education is not a publicly funded good, but increasingly, an expensive credential for which individuals are expected to pay. As the ask I received suggests, this credential and its attendant debt open doors to opportunities to the tune of unpaid internships. “Micro-grants” will not save today’s undergraduates from debt-constrained futures and stagnating wages.
And this would be true in a “normal” year.
In 2020, the pandemic made this fantasy even less tenable. It made fundraising campaigns an affront, in addition to an annoyance. Already-exploited university teachers, staff, and students literally risked and in some cases, lost their lives to reopen universities. Employees and students whose classes were conducted online faced punishing Zoom-ridden days, invasive surveillance, and unrealistic expectations of productivity. Students and workers with care responsibilities or those without access to internet connections or safe places to learn were largely unaided by the universities which they work for or pay tuition to. The pandemic has offered another occasion to see austerity in action. Jobs of essential workers and professors alike have been furloughed or eliminated, while university president salaries are increased.
There’s only so much that workers in higher education can be expected to give back in a year when so much has already been taken.
Annie Bares is a doctoral student in the Department of English Literature at the University of Texas-Austin. She can be found on Twitter @abares981.