The Promise Auction: From Tangled Web of Obligations to Tangled Web of Influence

Shari Nathan (2L)

The Faculty of Law’s sixth annual Promise Auction was held on January 11. The event raised over $3,000 for the Native Women’s Resource Center of Toronto and the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada. The organizers, promisors, and bidders’ philanthropic efforts are undoubtedly of great value to these charities and are deserving of recognition. However, it is also important to recognize that the way the promises are structured can be problematic, reinforcing existing inequities amongst students.

The disposable income required to bid in the Auction can present a barrier to access to participation for many students who cannot afford to spend $50 or more on non-essentials. You may say that this is just how charity works. It is true that charity events limit access on the basis of financial means, and this concern is not unique to the Promise Auction. But a unique, more serious problem arises when this access is determinative of greater benefitsnamely access to networking opportunities with professors, practitioners, and faculty members.

The legal profession is built on relationships and connections. Networking tip-sheets provided by our CDO and other career services avenues frequently refer to the importance of using every chance to build one’s connections, and of converting that social capital into opportunities. They emphasize the importance of creating rapport with higher-ups in the profession as an essential component of success in hiring. The Faculty of Law reaffirmed this with its recent introduction of the Leadership Skills Program, which purports to teach extra-academic skills that are necessary in the legal profession, including network building. Given the supposed significance of building rapport that can later be used to achieve greater professional success, should opportunities for exclusive socializing with professors and administrators be up for sale?  

Economic privilege exists independently of the Auction and extends much further than the Faculty can control. Students can get a leg up in many ways—by purchasing everything from expensive suits to interview training sessions to résumé help. But the Faculty should be working to reduce these inequities, not perpetuating them.

Beyond this, some of the Auction promises offer something unique that is usually not sold elsewhere: access to some of the greatest legal minds in the country. These types of opportunities are not readily available to students outside of the Promise Auction. It’s not as though Dean Iacobucci holds a regular Sunday dinner to which he invites students. Sure, we can go to Yak’s Snacks and spend an hour vying for his attention among a crowd of pastry-seeking peers. But when do we get the opportunity to sit down for a meal and conversation and really get to know our uniquely brilliant professors?

Apparently when we have $150.

By peddling such unique opportunities, we are perpetuating the economic advantage of particular students in a way that is not only avoidable, but entirely created by our own design.

I’m not proposing that professors be barred from the Promise Auction. Their involvement is morale-boosting, and it contributes to the fun and profitability of the event. But their promises could use some work.

Not all promises made by Faculty members present this problem of exclusive access. This year, Professor Phillips offered a bike tour to students, but did not limit the number of people who can attend: a $30 bid guaranteed participation. That’s one remedy: making these opportunities less exclusive.

Another solution would simply be for professors to be a little more creative with their promises. In that spirit, here are some offers that I am sure students would love to take up, but which also would not be as problematic (and arguably boring) as just wining and dining them:

  •   Choose a song and I’ll perform it at the next Coffee House;
  •   You get my parking spot for a week;
  •   I will deliver a coffee to you during class; or
  •   You choose my outfit for a day.

With the prospect of seeing Dean Iacobucci’s rendition of Britney Spears’ classic “Toxic” on the line, who knows how much money we could raise.