Shame on Sonoma State

by SHEPHERD BLISS

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 this matter. They have a website to express their complaints: http://ShameOnSSU.org. Three articles on this matter appear in this week’s campus newspaper (www.sonomastatestar.com).

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.

“Sandy Weill is greedy,” says graduating senior Melanie Sanders. “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?

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

“For He’s a Jolly Good Scoundrel” entitles editor Robert Scheer article 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, it had been a firewall between investment and commercial banks.

Up went Weill’s fortunes and those of his 1% friends; down went the 99%, as the gap between the rich and the poor grows. 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.”

Weill’s degree exemplifies a trend in public higher education. It is being 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 Sana 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.”

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.”

Lamont concludes, “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 bought 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%.

The Day of Shame Organizing Coalition of students, faculty, Occupy activists and others plans for a dignified protest at the graduation. Lamont was a student at Brown University in l969 when it offered Henry Kissinger—an architect of the U.S. 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.”

Dr. Shepherd Bliss teaches college, runs a farm, has contributed to two dozen books, and can be reached at 3sb@comcast.net.

Will Falk moved to the West Coast from Milwaukee, WI where he was a public defender.

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