Jeremy's Weblog

I recently graduated from Harvard Law School. This is my weblog. It tries to be funny. E-mail me if you like it. For an index of what's lurking in the archives, sorted by category, click here.

Thursday, April 10, 2003

This evening is the annual public interest auction here at Harvard. See, the school provides a stipend ($3600) to students who spend their summers working in a public interest job, as incentive to not necessarily go the much-more-lucrative corporate route because you need to earn some money. The auction is set up to help raise the money that Harvard will use to pay these stipends. Maybe I'm a moron, but I find a few things about this to be completely baffling:

1. Calling the $3600 a summer stipend is a public relations ploy. We pay them a lot more than $3600 to come to school. I'd feel much less dirty calling it a small tuition reimbursement in exchange for spending your summer helping people instead of helping corporate law firms, frankly.

2. The notion that Harvard Law School can't afford this money without holding a charity auction is absurd. And probably insulting to actual charities, which could benefit from the money earned a lot more than Harvard Law School needs to. It's a law school fundraiser more than it is a public interest auction -- it's to Harvard's advantage to fund people who aren't getting paid for the summer and doing public interest work because it helps them get public interest-oriented students and build up goodwill; but having to raise money to do it sort of defeats the purpose.

3. In actuality, this is a wealth redistribution scheme. Students with money bid on the items. The money then goes to students without money. It's tax and transfer. That actually may be a good thing, but if I had any money to bid on these things, I'd basically be paying to fund a classmate's summer. Which sounds weird.

Anyway, it's actually a really big event. Students, faculty, corporations, and famous people donate stuff. Signed footballs, homemade cakes and cookies, etc. Most of this stuff I'm cool with -- I think it's perfectly legitimate for a student to bake a cake for the auction to help raise money for public interest funding, or to donate an hour of golf lessons, an hour of babysitting, all sorts of personal services that students donate to be auctioned off. What disturbs me -- and it bothers me more and more each time I think about it -- are the faculty donations. Lunch for you and 5 friends with a professor, home-cooked meal at another professor's house, poker game with a professor, hike in the woods with a professor. One professor will go up to the parents of the highest bidder at graduation and tell them that their child was the best student he ever had. That last one I'm sure isn't taken completely seriously and probably doesn't actually trigger in practice the ethical issues it sounds like it might, but the rest of them bother me because they're having students pay for access to professors. The students with the most money get to literally buy a professor's time. Does no one else find this extraordinarily disturbing? We're here in no small part because of the faculty Harvard has -- for the opportunity to learn from these brilliant, accomplished people. We pay thousands of dollars in tuition for the privilege. The thought that students can buy greater access to their professors is astonishing to me. And incredibly awkward. I don't want a professor having lunch with me because I've paid for the privilege. To think that the lunchtime conversation at the rent-a-meal the professor sees as obligatory because I was the highest bidder makes me angry. Yes, our tuition pays for access, and yes, professors probably wouldn't have office hours if they weren't getting paid a salary, but that's all kind of indirect. To create a direct commodification of the relationship -- you give money for access? I'm doing a bad job putting this into good words that are actually creating a persuasive argument -- I know there's some more powerful rhetoric I'm just not coming up with right now -- but this makes sense, doesn't it? It's a profound perversion of the teacher-student relationship to allow -- encourage! -- professors to sell their time to the highest bidding student, and allow students to buy greater access to faculty. I don't think the fact it's for a "worthy cause" -- if I can even accept that funding Harvard Law School's summer stipends is a worthy cause -- even comes close to justifying it. Do the winners really feel comfortable with the results? Sure, you get to have dinner at the professor's house. But not because she wants you there. Because you paid for it. Thrilling.