If your college or university is anything like mine – seeking significantly increased resources to enable all the research, student aid, and facilities development that we would like to support – then perhaps you’ve been watching this summer’s social media phenom of the ALS ice bucket challenge with a sense of envy.
I share in the general pleasure that a worthy charity has enormously increased its finances, which may speed up a cure for a terrible disease. On the tally board of life, this profuse bucketing outbreak goes on the plus side for those of us who’d like to believe that people are basically good and inclined to help others in need.
And I also see the cavils: that this movement is a “slacktivist” fad, an easy and lazy manifestation of commitment; that amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is relatively rare, and perhaps less deserving of funding than more prevalent maladies like malaria, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s; and that research funding should be determined by the rational standards of peer review rather than clickbait.
But my own foremost (and self-centered) response to this orgy of charitable energy is: If only I’d thought of it first. We might have a half-dozen new endowed chairs in our department and teaching-free dissertation fellowships for every one of our graduate students. Zadie Smith and Thomas Pynchon would be the featured speakers in our English department lecture series. (Granted, Pynchon’s not very visible on the lecture circuit, but wait until he sees our offer!)
Is our cause sufficiently worthy? Of course it is, and it’s pointless to argue whether higher education or ALS is more deserving: apples and oranges. The suffering of an ALS victim is terrible. The plight of people who cannot maximize their talents, too, is terrible. At my university, where over half our students qualify for Pell Grants and a third are first-generation college students, I see firsthand every day how profoundly meaningful a college education is for those who are marginally able to achieve it, and how fundamentally valuable it would be to extend that margin as much as possible.
So what can we do to connect with the public, to promote our worthy cause, and to set off a chain reaction that will bring along hordes of people jumping onto our bandwagon?
In the meta-analysis of the ice bucket challenge, many have commented on the arbitrariness of charitable giving and of catching the public’s eyes and hearts. But still, is there something we in academe can learn from this? Is this sort of philanthropic enterprise replicable?
Where can I sign up my department to raise millions of dollars? I suppose I’d include the humanities at large – or even more magnanimously, I’ll extend the invitation to academe generally. (Participants from every campus could sport their university T-shirts to identify the recipient of each donation.)
Nearly as important as the cash, it would be extremely rewarding to find ourselves in the thick of a snowballing social movement, like the ALS campaign, that raises national consciousness and unleashes a contagious enthusiasm about what we do in higher education and how deserving our mission is of support.
Probably the appeal of the ice bucket campaign was lucky and unpredictable; if anyone knew exactly what makes a multimillion-hit meme, I imagine there would be consultants charging multimillion-dollar fees to produce them. (Perhaps there actually are such consultants, though I’m not aware of them.) Is it the snazzy visuals of the unexpected? The counterintuitive willingness to ruin an outfit and suffer – however momentarily – what I imagine would be a very unpleasant experience? (I haven’t taken this challenge myself, though I strongly suspect that I will be invited to do so any minute now.)
Honestly, I don’t have any bright ideas about how exactly to stage an academic iteration: a pie in the face? Banana peel pratfalls? Blind man’s bluff into a vat of tomato sauce?
Perhaps we in the academy should aspire to something more dignified, but maybe, presuming that the success of ALS merits attention as a “best practice” ripe for our own adaptation, what draws massive crowds of participants is precisely the unexpected contrast between the seriousness of the problem and the oddly undignified escapism of the momentary “challenge.”
Some kind of slapstick gesture seems necessary: something physical and messy and shocking, involving a very intimately personal – bodily – engagement.
As silly as it is, the ALS Association’s challenge represents a wonderful manifestation of human ambition and determination: curing a debilitating disease seems undoable until it’s doable. With enough resolve, and enough money to throw at the problem, and enough human intelligence (which mainly takes the form, I will note, of academic research), it can be done.
The same goes for a university education. Our scholarship, our teaching, and our community partnerships all contribute to the creation of a better society as measured by myriad qualitative and quantitative metrics. The notion of millions of citizens taking the time and energy to help us out by doing something that affirms our value would vitally reinvigorate our campuses after years of retrenched government funding and skyrocketing student debt. If our campaign were as successful as the ice bucket challenge – and why not dare to dream big? – we could actually mitigate those twin financial catastrophes that have lately taken such a toll on higher education.
I’ve done the hard part here in announcing this challenge to launch our challenge. Now somebody please just send me the YouTube link when you’ve figured out the specifics.
Randy Malamud is Regents’ Professor and chair of the English department at Georgia State University.
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