Sonoma State University Shamed

After four years of teaching various humanities courses at Sonoma State University in Northern California, I’m sad to report that our school sank to a new low on May 12 by awarding the notorious banker Sandy Weill and his wife Joan honorary doctorates. The retired CEO of Citigroup, once the world’s largest bank, purchased them for $12 million. He gave that ill-gotten money to the Green Music Center, an essentially non-educational pet project of President Ruben Arminana, which recently has dominated fund-raising at SSU.

“These awards by SSU are reprehensible in light of Sandy Weill’s role in bringing about the economic crisis that has seized this nation,” said SSU sociology professor Noel Byrne. “The consequences have been dire for the SSU community of faculty, staff, students, graduates, alumni and their families, in the form of elevated tuition, reduced funding for education, auctioned homes, dashed dreams, burdensome debts, loss of employment opportunities, and resultant tragedies of an array of sorts.”

“The chaos resulting from the financial meltdown has cost us millions of jobs, throwing probably four to ten million people out of work,” added political science professor John Kramer. “Many folks define their lives, their responsibilities, and their worth to their families and to society by their work. When their work is lost, all too often their lives collapse. Their likelihood of dying in the next year increases. Suicide rates increase. More babies are born underweight and more of them die. We know of suicides here in Sonoma County whose proximate cause is loss of a job. Sandy Weill helped to create this vast tragedy.”

This year’s graduation was a disgrace. When it was announced that the Weills would receive an honorary degree, students, faculty, and alumni began organizing a direct action against that dishonorable degree. Occupy activists and other community members joined them, as did groups such as the Living Wage Coalition and the Peace and Justice Center.

With respect for the hard-working graduating students who earned their degrees, the peaceful action focused on educating the 10,000 students, faculty, family members, and friends who attended the two graduation ceremonies. Thousands of flyers documenting Weill’s substantial abuses as the architect of subprime mortgages and consequential foreclosures and evictions were passed out. Dozens of articles appeared in publications around the region, nationally, and even internationally. Radio stations and a television station reported the action on news and talk shows.

Dressed in black, students, family members, faculty, alumni, and others turned their backs in a dignified shunning when the doctorates were bestowed.

Christopher Bowers graduated on May 12 with a master’s degree in counseling. He turned has back on the Weills and later said, “SSU’s administration has had, for years, an incredible lack of accountability to its faculty, students and the community at large. This protest was for those who have had enough of that kind of cut-throat, dehumanizing culture that SSU continues to perpetuate.”

The last issue of the student newspaper, the May 8 Star, ran the banner “Day of Shame at SSU” across the top of the front-page with an article written by the news editor. The opinion page had two further articles, one entitled “Day of Shame: Wrong Place, Wrong Time” by the editor-in-chief. Those articles, as well as others, are at ShameOnSSU.org.

The newspaper appeared on stands Monday; it was soon taken away. A faculty member wrote the following on the faculty email listserve: “An SSU staff member observed SSU employees removing issues of the Star that had front page information on the controversy regarding the honorary degree process. This is truly disheartening.”

An SSU vice-president admitted, “Some newspapers were removed as part of efforts to clean the campus for graduation — something they do every year. I have directed the Facilities Team to return the papers.”

However, another faculty member reported the following: “I remember there being Star newspapers after nearly every Spring semester I’ve worked here. Some years I’ve been able to grab a copy well into July.” Though copies may have been temporarily returned, they soon vanished again.

“The editor of the Star estimates that 95 percent of newspapers have been removed,” wrote the Star’s faculty advisor. “This is unacceptable and a shot across the bow of the First Amendment. These so-called cleaning efforts that included the Star removal are an affront to free speech. The Day of Shame is now. Is this some attempt to cover up our controversies? I join with those who believe in freedom of speech to ask that a full accounting of what happened to these papers be made.”

Activists describe Weill as a “predator,” given the predatory lending practices that he used while CEO of Citigroup, once the largest bank in the world. A billionaire, he has been on Forbes’ Magazine’s list as one of the 100 most-wealthy Americans.

Weill retired and then spent $31 million dollars to buy a vineyard in Sonoma County in 2010. The wine industry is a primary presence of the 1% in our semi-rural county, which used to have a more diversified food-growing agriculture. It is now a monoculture of alcohol farming and industrial wine production.

As full-time residents in this beloved county, activists do not want other predator bankers and corporate managers to follow and retire with their big bucks and think they can move here without consequences. It is their intention to continue dogging Weill and others who think they can buy public education, join the wine industry, and spend the rest of the lives comfortably spending their ill-gotten wealth.

California’s greatness is due partly to its extensive public higher education, which used to be available here. That system is being privatized and corporatized by the 1% to further meet its elite needs, as these bought doctorates reveal.

Shepherd Bliss (3sb@comcast.net) teaches college part-time and farms. Read other articles by Shepherd, or visit Shepherd's website.