We’re all in this together. We’ll get through it. We’re here for you. You’ve heard the same blather from the same brands for months.
Apart from it being ridiculous to think Comcast or Pizza Hut are “here” for anything but money, this tactic has found its way to more familiar territory: your very own James Madison University.
JMU has turned the COVID-19 outbreak into a ripe opportunity for donation requests — much like ... well, any other event. To be fair, most schools followed suit, but that doesn’t make it right. In fact, it’s arguably tone-deaf.
“Madison For Keeps” is a scholarship program that, according to JMU’s website, first launched during the 2008 Great Recession to ensure that financially-impacted students could stay enrolled. The site boasts over 3,800 donors and more than $400,000 in its first run, which was applied to the 2009-10 school year.
With COVID-19’s impact on business, JMU reinstated this program for students who may be financially ineligible for a 2020-21 return.
The bad idea, like most for this school, lies in marketing, transparency and a consistent inability to remain self-sufficient. While there’s no doubt that this fund will help students in some facet, it’s always smart to dissect the school’s strategy in situations where it benefits from tragedy.
First, JMU loves this comparison to 2009. It claims to have currently received over 170 appeals — and counting — for emergency aid from students, which is higher than 2009’s first run of the program with 108. JMU is telling you that, with COVID-19 still active, it already surpassed that number. Your help is needed — hurry!
However, let’s talk statistics. In the 2009-10 school year, JMU enrolled 18,971 students. For 2019-20, the school enrolled 21,808 students. Proportionally, 0.57% of students requested emergency aid for 2009-10. For 2019-20? 0.78%. An increase, yes, but not astronomical. Not to mention, there’s no note of how many students appeal for emergency aid each year without a crisis.
Numbers without context are just numbers. Donation strategists will do anything to create a rise of pathos. I wouldn’t go as far to say this is fraud — but misleading, perhaps. The “need” in this scenario isn’t skyrocketing as exponentially as the bolded phrases on the website portray. In fact, 170 people is only 3.7% of the 2019-20 freshman class; many students end up taking a lecture with more than 170 peers.
Speaking of numbers, tuition is also disproportionate. For 2009-10, a year of tuition for in-state undergraduate students was $7,244, according to The Breeze and The Chronicle of Higher Education. An in-state student who attended this year paid $12,016. It’s safe to say that more than 108 students would’ve requested emergency aid in 2009 if tuition was almost $5,000 higher.
While the JMU Board of Visitors did approve a tuition freeze on May 15, it’s not a groundbreaking solution worthy of President Alger’s touting in his written statement. It’s more of a promise to prevent further harm.
But how do you ask an alumnus to donate without admitting to a constant, violent hike in tuition?
Well, the aforementioned strategist’s concept is now about convincing people to donate when their money — thanks to mysterious donors — will be matched, thus doubling its worth.
Those donors can keep their privacy. No one cares who they are, but why do they need others to donate in order to match? If you can match a $40,000 donation, why not just donate $40,000? Gotta love the ultra rich.
Public universities in this country are run like private businesses, and JMU is sadly no exception. Much like today’s CEOs who ask struggling consumers to spend $20 on a salad to “keep the business afloat” — as opposed to the CEO cutting their own pay — JMU is targeting middle-class alumni without looking inward.
If the university really cares about these students and wants them to receive an education without fear of poverty, it should work within itself to accomplish that.
No one is asking for employee donations to be the sole source of help, though. It’s just a sassy, hypothetical alternative. And honestly, it’s almost hypocritical to refuse to donate and then call upon the administration to donate themselves — almost. It is, however, archaic and disrespectful to dupe alumni into donations before even trying to allocate money internally.
If this school can afford to continuously build up its campus for two decades, but can’t afford to help 0.78% of students during an international crisis, there’s an issue of priority and planning. It doesn’t bode well to have a brand new business school with students who can’t afford to return to it.
And this isn’t the university’s first foray into using COVID-19 as a tasteless money grab, either. In late March, an email was sent to alumni that referenced social distancing. It read, “While ‘social distancing’ is probably the last thing any of us would associate with the JMU community … remember that we can grow closer by continuing to ‘hold the door’ for our Madison community in other ways.” Below the message was a “Consider Supporting Students” donation link.
Branding matters. If JMU wants to use public health emergencies and community empathy as a trendy way to collect money, it’s a poor ethical choice. An ethical choice from a school where students take numerous ethics courses before they can even move off campus.
Much like Pizza Hut or Comcast, the school wants you to believe that its resources are too low to help others and that, somehow, this is your responsibility. Neither of those statements are true. JMU is greedily milking the empathy and togetherness that’s blossomed as a silver lining during this horrific time.
The university could’ve at least tried to hide its excitement in passing the responsibility of caring for needy students onto alumni. Calling this donation campaign a “May 2020 Challenge” like it’s a video game to be won by alumni is insensitive to people struggling to pay their bills — especially those from JMU itself.
And in a situation like this, students and alumni must know that it’s OK to call upon the critical thinking they learn at JMU and hold the school accountable. It doesn’t mean you don’t love JMU; it means you’re using that education.
CORRECTION (May 22, 12:46 p.m.): A previous version of this article insinuated that the president and provost didn't donate or contribute a certain amount to the university. After The Breeze talked to a university official, that's been determined false.
Corey Tierney is a 2015 JMU alumnus. Contact Corey at firstname.lastname@example.org.