BY JEREMY BLACHMAN
“Item #721. An A in Professor Tribe’s Con Law class. Enjoy the guarantee of an A, without having to take the exam. Yours, if you’re the highest bidder.” “Item #462. Your third-year paper written by Alan Dershowitz, and guaranteed publication in the Harvard Law Review.” “Item #684. Supreme Court Clerkship. Donated by Justice Anthony Kennedy.”
No, these weren’t actually items up for bid at last week’s public interest auction. But are they really as far from reality as they ought to be? Something bothered me about access to professors – lunch, dinner, a hike in the woods – being auctioned off to the highest bidder. I think it’s great that the faculty is willing and oftentimes eager to have lunch with students, and the opportunity to interact with our professors is part of what makes the law school experience worth the tuition. But it disturbs me that additional access can be bought… if the price is right. It’s unfair to students who don’t want to pay that their classmates can get something that’s valuable, and not in the same way as a sweet potato pie, an autographed picture of the cast of Everybody Loves Raymond or, in the case of Lambda’s donation, a brand new vibrator. Access to professors is part of why we’re here, and creating an imbalance of access, and allowing it to be bought and sold, really does disturb me.
Many professors post on a discussion board or e-mail out to the entire class the answers to questions that students ask. One of my professors last semester stopped office hours after classes ended and would only take questions about the exam via e-mail, with answers mailed to the entire class, precisely to make sure that access was completely equal. Being able to pay for more begins to destroy the integrity of the professor-student relationship. And besides, something feels dirty about having lunch with a professor – or with anyone, really – just because you’ve won it at an auction. “I paid for this conversation, Professor,” I could picture someone saying – or at least thinking – “and you’re just not being interesting enough. Stop with the stories about your clerkship and start talking about the Tax exam – or I want my money back.” But, you know, it’s for a good cause, so maybe it’s okay.
But is it really? “Harvard Law School is having a charity auction?” someone from, say, the American Cancer Society might ask. “That’s fantastic. Who are they donating the proceeds to?” “Uh… Harvard Law School.” “Oh.” While I have no reason not to believe that the money raised in the auction does in fact go towards giving students working in public interest this summer a stipend (or “small tuition reimbursement in exchange for actually helping people”), is it really the case that without this money, Harvard couldn’t afford it? Look at the endowment. This is not a needy institution, desperate for the proceeds from an hour of babysitting and a tray of homemade manicotti to pay the bills. It’s in Harvard’s best interest to make public interest work possible for students – for public relations, to be able to recruit a broad range of students including those who want to practice public interest and not just corporate law, to ensure continued institutional connections with public interest organizations… it’s not hard to argue that the benefits exceed the costs… and I have a hard time believing that if the public interest auction proved to be a fundraising failure one year, Harvard would simply end summer public interest funding outright. All of this energy, and all of this goodwill. All of this money raised, and for whom? So that Harvard can save a couple hundred thousand dollars?
Then again, who’s really bearing the costs? The winning bidders. In effect, the students with disposable income are subsidizing their fellow students’ summers. It’s a massive wealth redistribution scheme, from rich to less rich, hampered only by the transaction costs of actually planning and holding the auction. Why bother with the auction at all if what we’re trying to do is make the students with firm jobs kick in a few hundred dollars to subsidize public interest? Why not just impose a tax? I think I’m kidding, but I’m really not sure.
I hate to criticize something that, at first glance, sounds like a great idea. And I know it’s well-intentioned. But all of this energy spent on transferring wealth, helping save Harvard some money, and bastardizing the professor-student relationship makes me a little queasy. But, of course, it’s nothing that a strawberry cream cheese pie, homemade pierogi, a Westlaw gift basket and a Soviet navy hat pin won’t cure….
And, please, don’t get me started on the ethics of serving free beer right before people go to bid.