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The Shill on the Hill

Syracuse University President Nancy Cantor stands by her decision to invite Jamie Dimon, JP Morgan Chase Chairman and CEO, to give the commencement speech at this year’s graduation ceremony, despite vehement and vocal protests by students. JP Morgan Chase has a close collaboration with the university and has pledged 30 million dollars to the school.

Cantor, in an April 9 email message sent to Syracuse University students, faculty and staff, and posted at the university’s website, defended her selection of Dimon. Cantor claimed that “…Mr. Dimon is playing a key role, front and center in addressing one of, if not the major global challenge(s) of our day.” The President’s message enthusiastically praises the CEO as a leader who “…can speak with widely recognized authority to issues that inevitably will shape the landscape of opportunity and prosperity for all of our graduates, no matter their field or geographical location or perspective on the world.”

There are those, however, who deride Dimon as a “bankster” and accuse him of bearing significant responsibility for the 2008 financial crisis. A good many students and their supporters do not see Dimon as a leader, but as a symbol of corporate greed — one of a small group of bankers that are directly responsible for their worsened economic situation. Mariel Fiedler, a journalism major at SU, says that the last person that students, who are heavily in debt from rising education costs, want to see is a banker.

The students have organized a petition which at the time of this writing, has garnered 1175 signatures for uninviting Dimon to the SU graduation. The petition criticizes the “… [use of] the 2010 commencement to restore the public image of the banking industry and validate the anti-environmental and anti-humanitarian interests of JP Morgan Chase.” On April 16 a group of 75 students held a rally protesting Dimon’s appearance which included chanting, songs and dancing.

Dimon’s methods and ideology have been vehemently opposed from other quarters. Professor Simon Johnson, a former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, is a nationally recognized expert on banking and management. He teaches at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has been strongly critical of Mr. Dimon. Dr. Johnson has called the JP Morgan Chase Chairman “the most dangerous man in America.” In Johnson’s view, Dimon knows how to use wealth to buy the kind of political influence that will prevent government regulation of the banking industry in the immediate future. Because of this Johnson declared recently on the Bill Moyer’s Journal: “Jamie Dimon, head of JPMorgan Chase, one of the most powerful men in the country. If you don’t know his name, you should look him up because this is a man to fear.”

Even before the commencement controversy, many members of the SU community knew the name, Jamie Dimon, due to the close collaboration between JP Morgan Chase and Syracuse University. The bank donated the funds for a new technology center and has recently been involved in starting a new minor called “Global Enterprise Technology.” Critics say that JP Morgan Chase is establishing a training school for future employees and is using Syracuse University to burnish its tarnished image at the expense of student education, replacing true learning with corporate indoctrination.

Under President Nancy Cantor, Syracuse University has been a relentless pursuer of revenue. She initiated a billion dollar fund-raising campaign which the university has assiduously promoted. Syracuse’s unremitting quest for dollars has often engendered both harsh criticism and ridicule, as in the 2006 commencement speaker selection. Singer-songwriter Billy Joel was chosen as commencement speaker after a $320,000 donation to SU’s Setnor School.

Arguably the most embarrassing incident thus far during Cantor’s tenure was at the unveiling of the Ernie Davis statue on campus. Davis, a legendary football player, at SU, died in his early 20s of leukemia. It was not too long after the drape came off the sculpture of Davis that someone noticed that Davis’ likeness was adorned with a pair of sneakers with the Nike logo. Nike, of course, was founded many years after Davis’ death. University officials blamed the unfortunate footwear malfunction on the sculptor. However, the fact that the school had an agreement with Nike whereby the football and basketball teams wear (and advertise) the company’s uniforms and footwear, made the ludicrous SU denial as outrageous as the school’s original “error” of putting the shoes on the Davis statue.

The selection of Dimon as the commencement speaker does follow a pattern. But this time Cantor may have gone too far. The choice of Dimon is a direct insult to many Syracuse residents who saw their jobs outsourced to India by JP Morgan Chase. Depending on the source, JP Morgan cut 200 to 400 jobs at its Syracuse facility in the last two years. This was accomplished in batches of 20 jobs at a time. Some argue that the piecemeal approach to trimming their Syracuse workforce was done specifically to shield the company from bad publicity and accountability. A look at the comments of the ex-JP Morgan Chase employee “Cindy98989” to the Syracuse Post Standard website, gives a sobering view into the hurt and indignation felt by many of the workers who lost their jobs.

So when Cantor defends Dimon, she is defending one of the most powerful figures in today’s out-of-control corporate culture. Stubbornly, at first the school administration ignored the student protests against Dimon, but later offered the dissenters a venue for an alternative speaker on graduation day. According to the Huffington Post, “Tom Wolfe, a university official, said that the university has reserved Hendricks Chapel for an alternative event with a speaker of the protesters’ liking.” The chapel, a large and beautiful facility, is situated in very close proximity to the graduation ceremony which is being held at the enormous Syracuse University sports complex that was until recently called the Carrier Dome. Since the Carrier Corporation discontinued their “collaboration” with the university, the venue is now known simply as the Dome. According to the same Huffington Post article quoted above, despite the tantalizing possibilities which the offer of the chapel presents, “[s]everal leading [student] activists have said they will reject the [school’s] offer, fearing that their movement would be co-opted by the university.”

Like the bronze Nike swoosh on the Ernie Davis statue which was eventually removed, many students and faculty hope Mr. Dimon will be removed as commencement speaker. Others express a wish that Mr. Dimon abandon his company’s investment in Syracuse University, thus releasing the beautiful campus on the hill from his company’s pernicious corporate influence.

There has been talk of demonstrations during Mr. Dimon’s speech, such as students turning their backs to the podium or waving dollar bills at the JP Morgan Chase Chairman. There are also rumors that some students will take up the administration’s offer and organize a protest event at Hendricks Chapel.

If only the late Abbie Hoffman were around to organize an alternative graduation, there would be a filled chapel and thousands of people; students, faculty and all kinds of Central New Yorkers at SU on May 16 — expressing their outrage at the “banksters” and the politicians and educators they have bought. My wife tells me it is a different time now. It is very unlikely to happen today.

We will see.

Update: According to the Inside Higher Ed website, students at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs are organizing a protest against Vikram Pandit, CEO of Citigroup, who has been chosen as the school’s commencement speaker. The student protest at Columbia has a presence on Facebook.

IRA GLUNTS is a bookseller and college reference librarian who lives 45 minutes east of Syracuse in beautiful Madison, NY. He can be reached at gluntsi[at]morrisville[dot]edu.

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IRA GLUNTS first visited the Middle East in 1972, where he taught English and physical education in a small rural community in Israel. He was a volunteer in the Israeli Defense Forces in 1992. Mr. Glunts is a Jewish American who lives in Madison, New York. He owns and operates a used and rare book business and is a part-time reference librarian. Mr. Glunts can be reached at gluntsi[at]morrisville[dot]edu.

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