Friday, September 20, 2013

We Won't Pay You For Your Work (But You Can Pay Us!)

I received a letter yesterday from the University of Minnesota Foundation, in which they were attempting to solicit an alumni donation from me. Ignoring the fact that because my pay as a grad assistant during my time there was so low I'm still paying off my debts (thus leaving me no money to donate), I found it especially surprising that the College of Liberal Arts would reach out to me through this third party.

Because when I was part of a movement to unionize grad students, the university repeatedly explained to  us that giving any slight amount of money to, or even ever listening to, such a third party would destroy the very fabric of the university. Instead of doing silly things like unionizing (what's that ever done for anyone?), we should rely on the one-on-one relationships we have with faculty. It's pretty unimpeachable logic -- when in recorded history has someone's boss ever not listened patiently to all of their problems? Especially when said problems are that boss illegally over-working that employee? Never. Never is the answer.

Anyway, I felt the need to respond to their funding appeal, using the language I learned from the university administration. Below is the text of my response:

To whom it may concern in the College of Liberal Arts:
 I received your letter asking me to make a donation, sent on behalf of the University of Minnesota Foundation, with some sincere puzzlement. You see, I was heavily involved in the campaign to unionize graduate assistants when I was enrolled at the U of M. You might remember us; we were the people with the funny acronym who kept angrily insisting on things like cost of living increases, protections from the capricious whims of administration and faculty, and truly outrageous demands like basic dignity.

 To try and achieve these ends, we formed a collective that eventually partnered with the United Auto Workers. We mistakenly believed that by coming together (and with the assistance of this much larger organization that has experiencing in achieving exactly what we were trying to achieve), that we could then negotiate with the university on equal footing.

 Thankfully, the university administration was willing to patiently explain to us why our logic was so very wrong. We didn’t need a union, we were told, because the university is looking out for us. Maybe not by giving us adequate pay above the poverty level, but somehow. Besides, we most certainly did not need a third party like the UAW getting involved, the administration helpfully explained. Instead, we were told, we should settle these matters in the one-on-one relationships we already have with faculty.

 And, again thankfully, we saw the error of our ways and voted down the union. Mostly because we accepted the unimpeachable logic that speaking as a collective was useless, especially when it involved a third party in any way, and that instead it would be far more effective for us to use those vaulted one-on-one relationships.

 So you can understand my confusion when you, the College of Liberal Arts, reached out to me for a donation through the University of Minnesota Foundation. Why are you trying to bring an outside third party to interfere in the relationships I have with faculty in the College of Liberal Arts? It’s not that I don’t want to give you money, it’s just that I fear the Foundation will come between me the faculty I spent so long cultivating close relationships with.

 I understand that in reading this letter, you may be inclined to think I never actually intended to donate to the University, and that all of this language about the Foundation coming between me and the faculty is just a thinly-veiled excuse to not give you any money. That, of course, could not be further than the truth. Just as the administration was certainly not lying to us or trying to prevent us from unionizing, I am genuinely concerned about a third party organization I have no history with and can’t be certain about the motivations of (is my money really going to go to support the innovative work of the College of Liberal Arts, or is it going to go to some foundation office, full of people who aren’t even in the liberal arts?).

 So I have to regretfully inform you I simply cannot donate any money to this strange third-party organization, because I whole-heartedly believe the administration of the University of Minnesota has my best interests in mind, and they spent a significant amount of money and personnel hours to convince me that doing so would ruin the university. And how could I dare participate in something that would ruin my beloved university?

 I am saddened the university does not follow its own advice. I would happily donate on a one-on-one basis if any of the faculty were to reach out to me and explain why they, as individuals, need my alumni donation. But until then, I’m going to have to vote no on giving my money to a third party, just as President Kaler taught me.

Jesse Wozniak, Ph.D. 2012

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