TCS Daily

Politicizing Graduation

By Charlotte Allen - May 14, 2010 1:17 PM

It's shades of the 1960s at Syracuse University in upstate New York, as graduating seniors protest the school's invitation to James Dimon, chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase & Co., to speak at commencement on May 16. Leading the "Take Back Commencement" protests is Students for a Democratic Society, that Sixties warhorse group responsible for disrupting campuses across the country in the name of getting us out of Vietnam. The demonstrators have been banging pots and pans, chanting "Power to the people!" and staging a rage dance on the chapel steps. Syracuse president Nancy Cantor has declined to disinvite Dimon, but the protesters are thinking about not wearing their caps and gowns on graduation day or turning their backs when the JPMorgan CEO gets up to speak.

Similarly, graduates-to-be at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) are protesting the school's choice of Vikram Pandit, CEO of Citigroup and holder of a doctorate in finance from Columbia, as speaker at the school's May 17 commencement. SIPA's dean, John Coatsworth, is following Cantor's lead and refusing to retract the invitation.

What's the problem with Dimon and Pandit? Well, it seems that JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup are banks, and we all know banks are Bad Things. As Syracuse senior Ashley Owen, one of 900 students and alumni who signed a Facebook petition asking her university to rescind the invitation, told the Wall Street Journal: "He's a figurehead of an industry that has failed the American people in a lot of ways."

The anti-Pandit master's-degree students at SIPA also turned to Facebook, creating a page titled "We don't want a bank executive to speak at our commencement." One student wrote, "I certainly did not spend two years of my life at this school to sit for hours at my own graduation ceremony applauding a multi-millionaire bank executive while he lectures myself and my peers about a future to which he and the industry he represents caused grave damage."

Terms such as "figurehead" and "multi-millionaire bank executive" are about all the ammunition the protesting students have. JPMorgan and Citigroup are not Goldman Sachs, which is awash in allegations of wrongdoing over some of its subprime-loan-based financial instruments and reportedly in settlement talks with the SEC in a civil fraud suit filed by the agency.

Indeed, JPMorgan, under Dimon's leadership, was the only large Wall Street financial institution to weather the current financial crisis unscathed, posting profits every quarter. JPMorgan started selling off its subprime portfolio as early as the fall of 2006, when few other institutions worried about growing loan delinquencies. It tried to turn down a $25 million Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) bailout loan, but U.S. regulators forced the bank to accept it in late 2008; a few months later, the loan was repaid with interest. JPMorgan also bought out Washington Mutual in late 2008, swallowing the failed bank's disastrous loan portfolio and likely forestalling a multibillion-dollar taxpayer bailout. Even President Obama, who is generally critical of Wall Street, has praised JPMorgan as "pretty well-managed." Meanwhile, Citigroup suffered severe losses in the subprime implosion, but it too has repaid its TARP loan ($20 billion).

But the protesting students at Syracuse and Columbia don't care about the integrity of Dimon, Pandit, or their respective financial institutions. For the protesters, the CEOs are merely symbols of capitalism and convenient targets.

The demonstrators' brand of anti-capitalism pervades much of campus culture these days at both the student and the faculty levels. Syracuse protester Andrea Owen cut short an interview with the Wall Street Journal in order to finish a class reading assignment from Karl Marx's Das Kapital. The real focus of the students' anger is the free-market economic system itself, in which private entities, not the government, are the medium for lending, borrowing, saving, and investing.

Some Marx-besotted students may continue their protests right through the graduation ceremonies. Others may actually listen to what Dimon and Pandit have to say. They might learn something useful: namely, that the money that paid for their college educations didn't come from thin air, but rather from the astute decisions of the men and women who operate the private enterprises that create wealth. That includes the CEOs of banks, despite the mistakes made by some of them in recent years.

This article first appeared on National Review Online.

Charlotte Allen is a contributing editor to

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