My old school

Yesterday’s snail mail brought me the latest in a nearly two-decade (and counting) series of requests from the University of Illinois to be a good alumnus and send them some money.

uiuc letter

Bracketing (at least for this post) the tenaciousness with which universities stalk their alums and beg for money, I was particularly struck by this line in Illinois’ latest effort:

When you give to the Illinois Annual Fund, you choose how your gift makes a difference.

At other moments, this might be an innocuous enough platitude: a gentle attempt to help some former student believe that his or her gift will wind up helping to maintain/support/rebuild whatever corner of campus he or she most valued when they were there. This genre of letter, after all, is built almost entirely out of this kind of rhetorical lubricant.

Right now, however, coming from Urbana, this particular gesture simply makes me think of Steven Salaita. After all, the major rationale for firing Salaita (or, if you want to be persnickety about it, for declining to fulfill the employment contract that everyone else involved had already honored) appears to be that some sufficiently well-heeled donors made it clear that their gifts would no longer be forthcoming if Illinois actually allowed Salaita to join the faculty.

Some people, it seems, truly do get to choose how their gifts to the university make a difference. The majority of us, however, aren’t so fortunate. Those of us who can’t singlehandedly fund the construction of new buildings or endow bold new lines of research don’t really get to choose how our gifts make a difference. We merely get to help other, richer people make the difference that they want to make.

And much as this may have always been quietly true, the shameless display of this truth in the handling of Salaita’s firing is enough for me to swear off any future donations to my graduate school alma mater. At least until this particular violation of academic freedom is repaired.

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