Shame on Sonoma State University

Shame

Day of Shame planned to protest bailout bankster's honorary degree at Sonoma State University. Photo: Rob Gallop via Flickr.

Retired Citigroup CEO Sanford Weill will receive an honorary doctorate, as will his wife Joan, from Sonoma State University in Northern California on May 12.

Some SSU students, faculty, staff, and alumni are upset by this degree, describing it as “dishonorable.”

As someone who has taught at SSU for the last four years, this reporter has been interviewing members of our academic community about the matter. The upset ones have a website to express their complaints: Shame On SSU.

Why so upset?

Weill was CEO of Citigroup, the largest of the “too-big-to-fail” banks bailed out by taxpayers. Last year he gave $12 million for SSU’s new Green Music Center (GMC). At issue are how Weill got that money and what strings were attached to his passing it on to SSU.

A major purveyor of toxic mortgages, Citigroup required $45 billion in government investment and a $300 billion guarantee of its bad assets to avoid bankruptcy. Weill retired shortly before the 2008 crash. “Laughing All the Way From the Bank” was the New York Times headline.

Graduating senior Melanie Sanders says,

Sandy Weill is greedy. He is a symbol of a nation’s economy becoming increasingly unbalanced and building the accounts of the ultra rich on the backs of the very poor. Half of my school loans are with Citigroup. I once took out $15,000 in student loans. Now $29,365 is due.

Such debt doubling is no longer unusual. It used to be called usury and was considered at least immoral and often illegal. Weill, Citigroup and other big banks create debt bondage to banks. The national student debt recently reached $1 trillion, which is larger than all the credit card debt.  What futures might these college students have to look forward to? Sanders added that,

I am financially broken by his former company and unlikely to recover. I’m compelled to protest this award. I must now call my grandma and explain that I’ll be protesting at my graduation ceremony. I am personally offended that he will be at my graduation and receiving a degree.

SSU offends many by this decision.

“Weill represents a misuse of power, a lack of accountability, and economic abuse of people,” commented another graduating student, Christopher Bowers.

“Tainted money” and “reparations for ill-gotten sins” is how one retired faculty member describes Weill’s gift. He adds that the honorary degree is a symbolic “absolution of sins.”

Citigroup has paid many fines over the years, including $3 billion for involvement in the Enron scandal. As California’s Attorney General Jerry Brown wrote that Citigroup “knowingly stole from customers, mostly poor people and the recently deceased.” It has been charged numerous times with fraud, conflict of interest, and outright theft.

Context

For He’s a Jolly Good Scoundrel” was the title editor Robert Scheer used in an article on Weill in the April 19 The Nation issue. It describes Weill as a “hustler who led the successful lobbying to reverse the Glass-Steagall law” in 1999. Enacted after the Great Depression to protect us from the kind of economic collapse that we are now experiencing, Glass-Steagall had been a firewall between investment and commercial banks.

With the reversal of Glass Steagall, up went Weill’s fortunes and those of his 1% friends; down went the 99%, as the gap between the rich and the poor grew. Forbes magazine has listed Weill as the 75th richest American. His Sonoma estate cost $30 million, which included a red Ferrari. Is this a good model for students? Or does it corrupt them?

“Is this a doctorate honoring anything besides being the largest recent donor to the Green Music Center?” asks SSU Sociology Professor Peter Phillips. “It seems to smack of buying the honor instead of earning it.”

Some alumni are also disturbed by this degree. “It is with great shame that I am writing this letter to you,” begins Elaine Hotz in a letter to SSU President Ruben Arminana. “I am an alumna of Sonoma State, graduating in l975. At my graduation I was one of the main speakers.”

Holtz documents the harm that Weill has done, noting,

I cannot understand why you would even consider honoring an individual who has created such pain and misery in our culture and demonstrated he is not a man of integrity. (He has) inflicted so much suffering and destruction on countless lives—including many in this very graduating class.

Stack ‘em deep and teach ‘em cheap

Weill’s degree exemplifies a trend in public higher education. It’s increasingly corporatized and privatized to meet the financial desires of big banks and mega-corporations, rather than the needs of students and citizens.

Public education has been a primary source of California and the United States’ democracy and greatness. The decline of that public education means the loss of a foundational element of American society, democracy and greatness.

“Education has lost its soul in many respects,” according to SSU Sociology Professor Noel Byrne. “The corporatization of universities is a fundamental betrayal of the essence of higher education.”

“The honorary doctorate given to Weill is SSU’s pandering to the power elite,” said Carolyn Epple, formerly a tenured SSU professor and currently an activist in Occupy Santa Rosa.  “Much as Weil used the country as his own economic playground for personal gain, so too have many in SSU’s administration turned education into their own schemes for economic gain.”

Rerun

This is not the first time Weill has gotten bad press in Sonoma County. The daily Press Democrat (then owned by the New York Times) published a commentary April 6, 2011, by Susan Lamont of the Peace and Justice Center. It criticized Weill’s gift to SSU,

That money wasn’t Mr. Weill’s to give. He and Citigroup stole it from us…he should give it back. It is time to say no to corporate control of government…time to send the true criminals to jail…time to take back the wealth.

This was published more than half a year before Occupy Santa Rosa took to the streets here, making just such demands.

Protests against Weill’s degree have already started. On April 27, activists passed out research on Weill at a GMC dinner honoring him. They held the sign “King of the Subprime Mortgages—Architect of the Great Recession.”

Who knows what might happen at SSU on May 12? Occupy Wall Street activists might exercise their First Amendment rights of free speech and freedom of assembly, before government further restricts them in favor of government of the 1%, by the 1%, and for the 1%.

Day of Shame

The Day of Shame Organizing Coalition of students, faculty, Occupy activists and others plan for a dignified protest at the graduation. Lamont was a student at Brown University in 1969 when it offered Henry Kissinger — an architect of the US War on Vietnam — an honorary doctorate. Around two-thirds of students and spectators turned their backs when the degree was given. This is the main tactic expected at the SSU action.

According to the Shame Coalition’s press release,

The protest does not intend in any way to disrupt graduation proceedings. It is an urgent call to defend the integrity of the ceremony. (It asks people to) respect our commitment to non-violent assembly…and honoring the dignity of this treasured moment for students and their families.

Though officially still known as the Green Music Center, some are already calling it the complex the Weill Music Center, given their name in huge letters at the top of the concert hall, the highest building. Weill seems to be pulling the strings, as he and his corporations did with the federal government, making their own rules.

Don and Maureen Green, philanthropists after whom the GMC is named, apparently are no longer represented on the advisory board or any of the other committees. Insiders say they were pushed out. The Weill’s apparently run the show, as they are used to doing.

Weill and Citigroup give credibility to the popular Occupy chant “Banks Got Bailed Out, We Got Sold Out.”

–Shepherd Bliss, Transition Voice

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Comments

  1. Auntiegrav says

    The easy target is the greedy rich guy. Yes, he’s taken advantage of his opportunities to accumulate massive amounts of wealth that he has really no need for.
    Did he put a gun to the head of every person who applied for a loan? No.
    See, the problem is wealth accumulation in general, not just wealth accumulation by a few people who are very good at doing what everyone else WISHES they could do. It’s the wishing that gets us all into trouble. When everyone is racing for the goal, the guy selling Gatorade and the guy building the racetrack make a little bit of money from each contestant. Nature abhors a vacuum. It isn’t the rich bastard that fills the vacuum who is only at fault: it’s also everyone participating in the race for riches and failing at it.
    The only way to win is to not play the game. If you get enough people to stop playing the game, then you can build a cooperative society that works for its own best interests, rather than the coerced beliefs of others through money and actions taken based on unquestioned beliefs.
    The invisible hand, the free market, benevolent corporations, civil servants, Jesus, Santa Claus, odor-free underarms, liberal Democrats……pick your fantasy: just don’t believe it’s real if you’re past voting age.

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