Accounting for Queer Studies
Queer people in America have an unhealthy addiction to institutional approval.
In 1989, John Silber, then president of Boston University, devised a plan for the University to purchase life insurance for the students. The plot would name BU as the owner and the sole beneficiary of the policy. Based on actuarial data about the average rate of death of about 1.7 students per year, this plan would have added $350,000 to the endowment for each student death, or about $600,000 per year.
Although Silber never was able to implement the plan (the student government was not convinced), it would have been completely legal. What does this demonstrate to us about the relationship between universities and students? The student relationship is often misinterpreted as a consumer/provider relationship, in which students exchange cash for classes, libraries, dorms, and ultimately a diploma of varying prestige and value. However, university students function less as customers than as assets. While a customer is someone who trades cash for a corporation’s product, an asset is something that a firm owns that it can use to create value. If the corporation is a bookstore, an asset might be books (inventory) or the bookshelves or fixtures in the store. Likewise, a farmer might have 100 acres of land, an asset, and that land would have a specific value over a period of time. For instance a farmer may be able to predict that a certain acre of land might yield $100,000 of strawberries over the course of ten years.
What I would argue is that a student acts much more like the acre of land than like the people who buy a bushel of strawberries. Just as a farmer can purchase an insurance policy against his land in case of flood or another disaster that would devalue the land and make it less likely for him to gain the full estimate value of the acre of land, Silber realized that BU could purchase insurance to protect the asset of its student and alumni population.
Today, BU has 16,000 undergraduates and on average each of those students has an annual value of $56,184 (tuition and fees) for the first four years and then some amount per year after that, as a certain predictable number of alumni make donations. Consequently, BU is able to put a dollar value on the life of each student, and a real monetary value on the amount that the (Non-Profit) Corporation is due to lose when a student or alumnus dies.
This is clearly not a simple customer/vendor relationship. For instance, I am a customer of T-mobile –-a value to them of 100 dollars a month– but it is not possible that they could take out a life insurance policy on me in the event that I die suddenly, and they lose a customer. T-Mobile doesn’t have an insurable interest in me, so they can’t purchase take out a policy on my life.
“Charity” life insurance is not a new thing, it has been long possible to list any 501(c)3 as a beneficiary on your life insurance. What would have made Silber’s plan so different is that BU was paying the premium on the policy. The cost to purchase life insurance on young students was so small, but that the student body pool was so large that BU would have been able to cash in a few of these policies per year.
Furthermore, what we might mistake as assets of the University, such as buildings, chalkboards, professors and equipment, are actually just equivalent to the fertilizer that the farmer works the land with to improve yield per acre. Better fertilizer is the reason that certain Universities can harvest $60k per year and others, with poorer fertilizer, can only harvest $20k per year.
What does this mean for the students/assets? While this relationship might be manageable if the price were more reasonable, in reality we are offered the opportunity to subjugate ourselves at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars per year, often paid off over the course of the rest of our working lives. Student loan debt is impossible to discharge because bank literally account for debt to students differently. When a bank loans someone money and they are late to make a payment, the bank has to assume that that debt becomes less and less valuable with each passing month, because that person is considered less and less likely to pay the debt.
My friends, your partial tuition scholarships are BOGO coupons, not a recognition of your outstanding academic merits.
However, student debt is unique in that it is accounted for by bankers in the opposite manner—the longer it stays on their books, the more likely the student will be out of college and it is assumed that they will be more likely to have a job and ability to pay off the debt. This is also one of the reasons that banks so easily loan a student money. The same person who would never be approved for a credit card, home loan or car loan, can, with only their signature on a few documents, take on debt of nearly $140,000 in graduate student debt. All this comes with no credit check and no payments due until after graduation—with interest accruing all the time, of course.
While this problem of student loan debt is widely covered in the mainstream media, I believe that it disproportionally affects queers. Queer people in America have an unhealthy addiction to institutional approval. Sometimes this appears in the form of advocacy for gay marriage, but other times it comes to us as the need for college degrees. Perhaps this happens because of familial homophobia, as rejection at an early age by our families forces us to seek approval from alternative sources, and college is an obvious choice. Perhaps it is also because queer culture has, over the last two decades, increasingly migrated from community-based locations and into the university classroom.
Whatever the reason for our debilitating addiction, I would like us to stop taking on punishing debt to become students. The disappearance of gay community bookstores, of queer theater, of LGBT publishing, can be directly tracked back to our collective insanity with regards to the academy. Instead of starting a sex toy shop or financing a short film, how many of your friends are paying off never-ending student loan debt? Instead of producing your own DIY book tour, are you paying Sallie Mae $500 per month as punishment for a degree in multi-media arts from an “elite” university? I wonder what culture could the queers of Brooklyn be making if we weren’t burdened by the $29,848 that, on average, every single person with an MA graduates with.
Furthermore, how do we handle the rising popularity of Queer Studies programs and departments? The transition from queer culture, which happens “in the streets” at community centers, feminist theaters, gay bookstores, to queer studies, which happens only inside colleges and universities, means that queer young people no longer, as they would in a bygone era, turn 18 and become an “asset” to the community, transferring value in monetary and non-monetary ways to those community centers, theaters and bookstores. Instead those 18-year-olds become assets for the University, transferring immense wealth to that Corporation.
Queer Studies classes serve the Corporation by drawing interested students to the University. They also make it easier to harvest tuition from queers’ assets, by legitimizing universities as they place to be when you “discover yourself” and create queerness. Graduate students who think they are getting a “free ride” to write about queers actually serve as the cheapest fertilizer that the farmer can buy. My friends, be sure that even partial tuition scholarships are BOGO coupons, not a recognition of your outstanding academic merits.