Earlier today I got a call from the University of Colorado, where I earned by doctorate. It was one of those periodic fund-raising calls that probably every alum gets, and the young woman on the other end of the line was incredibly polite and winning. She asked a few questions about how I was doing, what I was doing, had I been back to campus lately, and so on. You can’t just pass the offering plate right away, even though everyone knows the ritual.
Eventually she worked around to asking me for $500. Which wouldn’t be unreasonable under most circumstances, I suppose. Even though times are tight out there I do have a good job and it would be easy enough to argue that my degree from CU certainly didn’t hurt me any in getting the job or in the performance of my duties there.
But there won’t be a check. I told the nice young woman that I’d explained the situation in the past when the school had come calling, hat in hand, and that I’d explain it again and she could pass it back up the line if there were mechanisms to do so.
Here’s the issue. I entered the university shortly after the goddamned state passed the Douglas Bruce-inspired “taxpayer bill of rights” legislation (may Bruce die soon and rot in Hell for all the damage his malevolent bullshit has wreaked on the citizens of Colorado) that made it impossible for the school to make even critically necessary operational cost bumps in tuition. So they had to resort to the widespread use of “fees.” Which was fine, in some cases. But there were also other fees, like the athletic program fee. Even if you never went to a game, played a sport, watched a game on TV, or knew that there was an athletic program on campus, you were compelled to cough up the fee, which I recall being at least a couple hundred dollars a year.
Even though I’m a sports fan, this griped me. More importantly, though, it illustrates the prevailing philosophy that the school had during those years. Put simply, it went something like “we’re going to take your money because we can.” And they did.
There are two cases that led directly to what I told the student who called me today. The first was an insurance fuck-up. There was a time, in 1999, if I recall, when I needed to cancel my university insurance. I had secured coverage elsewhere and no longer needed the student policy. In order to do so, I had to fill out and submit a form by a certain date, which I did. My mistake was not doing so by registered mail, because they went ahead and billed me for the coverage (which was maybe $400 or so). I went to see them, said no, I sent in the form. They said we don’t have any form. And away we went. Those familiar with the workings of state university bureaucracies will recognize the process.
I appealed and lost, surprising nobody. To my way of thinking I was able to prove my case pretty conclusively, but you just got the sense, as the proceedings got under way, that there was a certain predestination about the verdict. Short of producing Jesus as a witness, my money was gone.
I wrote a letter to the U – can’t remember who all I sent it to, but it was designed to make a point for those interested in my future donor status – and explained that there was nothing I could do about this case since they had me by the balls. But I was giving them a choice. They could have this few hundred dollars, but it would be the last cash they would ever see from me. No response.
The second case came a few years ago when I was on campus for a picnic (my wife is a CU employee and her department has a get-together every year). Somehow I guess I parked illegally – in an empty lot, on, I believe, a Sunday afternoon during summer. Literally, the only car in the lot, the only car as far as the eye could see. I sent another letter, mainly on principle. Again, no acknowledgment – just the implied “STFU and send us the money.”
Okey-dokey. They made a liar of me and got a few more dollars, after all. But since then I’ve been rabid in making sure that I’m parked legally and violating no rules when I’m on the campus.
This is the second or third time that some unfortunate student has had the misfortune of drawing my name during a fund drive. In all cases I’ve been polite and made clear that I wasn’t upset with them. Not at all. But there won’t be a penny for CU. Not now, not ever, not even if I hit the Powerball and I’m the only thing that can keep them from having to shut their doors.
Perhaps, you might argue, there’s no way for an institution to build working policies that account for students getting pissed off and threatening revenge. If you did, you might say, they’d never be able to regulate parking or collect on any justly owed debt. That may be, but you’d have fewer irate alums if your policies and enforcement procedures didn’t border on taunting. There may not be a perfect answer, but there are damned sure better answers.
In the end, the ever-polite young woman said she was sorry I’d had such a hard time with the school. I laughed and told her that it had actually worked out pretty well, because over the last decade CU’s arrogance had saved me quite a bit of money.
If by some slight chance this post finds its way into the hands of some administrator charged with revenue-gathering and enforcement policies at some university or another, do with it what you will. Ultimately the choice between extracting short-term cash flow from an impoverished student and fostering a profitable relationship with a well-educated professional is yours, isn’t it?