About once a week, Zack Yost forwards an e-mail about some upcoming event to the student body of the College of Engineering. Last Friday, for the first time, administrators blocked his message.
Yost, an Engineering junior and an executive on the Michigan Student Assembly, was trying to advertise the Project Suyana Date Auction, a charity event to raise money to build a women’s shelter and clinic on the outskirts of Puno, Peru.
Most of the indigenous women there don’t live near a hospital and face high mortality rates during childbirth. Project Suyana, a new group on campus, hoped to help those women by auctioning off dates with prominent students. They lined up an a capella group, an improv comedy troupe and a pseudo-celebrity host, Johnny Lechner, also known as the guy who has been in college for 13 years.
Sounds like a good time, right? Administrators at the College of Engineering didn’t think so. A moderator of the e-mail group in question told Yost that the event was too dangerous and insensitive to advertise to students.
Of all the students involved in planning the date auction, it never occurred to anyone that it could be considered controversial. It’s hard to blame them. In the weeks leading up to the auction, I explained the event to at least two dozen friends and acquaintances to gauge their reactions. Most thought it sounded fun. A few found the idea anachronistic or said they wouldn’t want to be bought for a date. I couldn’t find anyone who was remotely offended.
Apparently, University administrators think they know better. According to an advisory University policy, date auctions (a) devalue human beings, (b) look like slave auctions and (c) invite sexual assault. “It’s hard for me,” Susan Wilson, an assistant dean of students, told a Daily reporter last week. “It’s like seeing a Nazi symbol.”
I suppose everyone experiences things differently. But I looked hard for anything comparable to a Nazi symbol at the date auction on Friday, and I just couldn’t see it. I saw students playfully strutting up and down a catwalk, whipping off their jackets and striking G-rated suggestive poses. I saw an appreciative and unusually diverse audience mingling by the punch bowl and running up the bids on their friends.
The men and women up for auction didn’t look like they felt devalued. These were successful students, poised adults, many of them leaders of campus groups and captains of athletic teams. They seemed fully able to take care of themselves.
Most of them were bought by friends in the audience. For those who weren’t, Project Suyana is sending escorts to supervise their dates at Salsarita’s. At worst, a few of them might be in for an awkward burrito dinner and an extraneous Facebook friend.
Is it possible that some students found the auction insensitive? Sure. There are always a few students here who will jump at any chance to be offended. These days, though, there don’t seem to be many of them. Staffers in the dean of students’ office couldn’t recall fielding any complaints about the widely advertised auction.
This date auction, by the way, might be the biggest student-group success story of the year. Reda Jaber, Project Suyana’s membership director and the auction’s architect, correctly predicted that booking good entertainment and auctioning off some of the best-known students on campus would bring in a large number of students from a wide array of backgrounds.
For a tiny, brand-new student group, it was a bold plan. “People looked at me like I was crazy when I suggested auctioning off someone like (All-American defensive end) LaMarr Woodley,” Jaber told me.
It turned out to be a huge success. Organizers sold 250 tickets at $5 to $10, and the 20 students up for auction took in $100 to $325 each. Along with donations from sponsors, the event likely raised several thousand dollars.
To put that in perspective, Mock Rock, one of the biggest student-run charity events on campus, raised $7,000 in its first year. And that was with the full backing of the Athletic Department. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that the Suyana date auction could raise more than $10,000 a few years down the road. That kind of money could make a real difference.
University officials think this event is offensive and dangerous. What’s really dangerous is that most women in the Peruvian city of Puno are giving birth in unsanitary conditions because they can’t make it to the city’s only working hospital. And what’s really offensive is that University officials would rather carp about some imagined danger and insensitivity than support the students who are trying to help them.
Donn M. Fresard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.