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Big banker Sanford Weill's "honorary degree"

By Shepherd Bliss
On May 8, 2012

I wish all the students who have studied and worked hard at SSU an enjoyable, well-deserved, and celebratory May 12 graduation. I honor their families, friends, and teachers for their support of those finally graduating. The world they now enter is a much more difficult place than when I finished undergraduate studies nearly half a century ago.
 However, I am ashamed of the SSU Administration, where I have taught for the last four years. It will award the notorious Wall Street bankster Sanford Weill a bought, unearned honorary doctorate at its May 12 graduation. This disgraces SSU.
 Some SSU students, faculty, and staff are upset by this award, describing it as "dishonorable." Weill was CEO of Citigroup, the largest of the "too-big-to-fail" banks bailed out by taxpayers. 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.
 Last year Weill 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 that money on to SSU.
 "Sandy Weill is greedy," says graduating senior Melanie Sanders of SSU's Hutchins School. "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 doubling of student loans 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. Another student described her huge bank debt as a form of "indentured servitude" and "the mortgage of my future."
 The national student debt recently reached $1 trillion. This is larger than all the credit card debt in the U.S. 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, who will receive an M.A. in counseling psychology.
 "Tainted money" is one retired faculty member's description of Weill's gift. It could be considered "reparations for ill-gotten gains," with the honorary degree a symbolic "absolution of sins."
 Citigroup has paid many fines over the years, including $3 billion in the Enron scandal. When Gov. Jerry Brown was California attorney general, he 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's article in the April 19 The Nation issue. It calls Weill 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 lists Weill as the 75th richest American. His Sonoma estate cost $30 million. Is this a good model for students? Or does it corrupt them?
 Weill retired shortly before the 2008 crash. "Laughing All the Way From the Bank" was the New York Times headline.
 His SSU degree is part of a trend in public higher education. It is being 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 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, a former tenured SSU professor.
Protests against Weill's bought degree have already started. On April 27, Occupy 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 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%.
Though the complex is officially still known as the Green Music Center, some are already calling it the Weill Music Center, given his 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.
Weill and Citigroup give credibility to the popular Occupy chant "Banks Got Bailed Out, We Got Sold Out."
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