Published on February 11, 2013 at 8:00 pm
By ZACHARY OLSAVICKY
When Connor Clark was called to the stage at Date Your Classmate, he said he felt a bit nervous. As a graduate student, he didn’t have strong ties with most of the audience, and he later joked about his appearance. But with his desire to raise funds for Relay For Life, the annual fundraising event for the American Cancer Society, Clark overcame those concerns and let himself be auctioned off to the highest bidder.
The auction, hosted by the Student Events Board, raised more than $750 for the College’s chapter of Relay for Life. Participants, who were nominated by their peers, selected a gift card from a list and were auctioned along with the gift to the highest bidder. Clark described the atmosphere as “loosey-goosey,” and thought students “seemed to take it as a fun event.”
But while attendees took enjoyment out of the event, others in the Saint Rose community expressed skepticism about the image presented by the event. Dr. Angela Ledford, an associate professor of political theory at the College, finds the concept of date auctions “questionable” in light of historic and present challenges with slavery and human trafficking.
“While of course I understand that this is meant to be lighthearted and it’s a fundraiser,” said Ledford, “I think it’s very difficult to engage in this sort of ‘play-acting’ when it’s based off of something that there is a very brutal history of.”
Those sentiments were echoed by Father Chris DeGiovine, Dean of Spiritual Life at the College.
When you begin to do an auctioning kind of thing,” said DeGiovine, “given the history of our country, given the fact that people are not commodities to be bought and sold, that may not be the best way to go about doing this kind of thing.”
Ledford and DeGiovine also expressed concern over students being “commodified” at events like a date auction. Ledford feels that in contemporary society, “human beings are perpetually commodified,” and events like the date auction are “another iteration” of those problems.
Whether or not these concerns were shared by the Students Events Board is unclear; a number of organizers did not respond to request for comment. But Dennis McDonald, vice president for student affairs at the College, disagrees with the assessment that the event invokes slave imagery.
“I would understand the concern if the outcome of the auction was for a person to provide a service to the other person, but this is not the case. It is simply classmates winning the right to go on a date with a classmate.” McDonald also noted that participants “are freely choosing to participate in the event,” a point also raised by Clark.
But voluntariness is a “slippery notion” according to Michael Brannigan, the Pfaff Chair in Ethics and Moral Values at the College. Brannigan said that although students choose to be auctioned off, “undue pressure from peers… often color how freely consent is given.” Although he finds no “moral dilemma” in the event, Brannigan does see “moral tensions” arising from the “undeniably noble” fundraising for cancer victims compared to possible consequences, like perceptions of a “publically sanctioned comparative valuation of persons.”
Dr. Benjamin Clansy, a Professor of Political Science and History at the College, also expressed skepticism at valuing students. He felt that an event like the date auction could create an “ins vs. outs” situation, which wouldn’t coincide with the school’s goal to be inclusive.
“It’s one thing to auction off vacation trips and products,” said Clansy. “That’s totally appropriate. It’s another thing to auction off people, even though you think it’s benign, even though you think it’s not hurting anyone.”
Clansy does not believe harm was the intent of organizers, though. Nor did Ledford or DeGiovine, the latter of whom found benefits to the fundraiser.
“The fact that they’re raising money for a good cause, the fact that they want to help people relate… make connections between people, form community relationships, that’s all for the good.” He simply sees a need to “seriously balance” the best ways to raise funds with the most ethical ways to raise funds.
DeGiovine said he is no stranger to challenges in raising funds. He said the event reminded him of how some Catholic churches used to host bingo nights and gambling festivals to raise funds for schools and scholarships—“very good causes,” he said. Yet most churches stopped hosting those events after leaders decided funds could be raised in a better manner.
Joan Horgan, director of spiritual life at the College, said she sees no negative intent with the event, but felt there may be better ways to raise funds in conjunction with the school’s values.
“Sometimes in the name of fun, we think it doesn’t matter what we’re doing when actually, we still do need to look at it and realize there’s somebody maybe paying a price for the fun that we’re having.”