|SSU sees silent graduation protest
It was never the intention of those feeling the need to protest Sonoma State University giving honorary degrees to Sanford and Joan Weill during Saturday’s commencement exercises. True to their word, those who were offended – graduates, some faculty on the stage and community members – turned their back in silent protest at the time the Weills received their degrees. A group of students stood and applauded.
Those in silent protest have been critical of the decision to honor the Weills because of Sanford’s involvement in lobbying for the 1997 repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which many feel touched off the financial catastrophe that began in 2007.
Sanford was the former CEO of Citigroup. The law was passed during the great depression to protect depositors’ money from financial institutions making risky speculations.
“I’m totally offended that he’s receiving an honorary degree at my graduation,” said Melanie Sanders, who graduated with a B.A. from the Hutchins School of Liberal Studies. “I worked 19 years for this degree. I had an original loan of $15,000 that has now doubled under a very easy default to $29,000 under Citigroup. It’s totally offensive to me and my family that he’s up here accepting a free degree. I’m walking in the ceremony, but I will be turning my back when he’s here.”
Well, the degree may not have been free, as the Weills donated $12 million to SSU to help complete the Green Music Center, and part of the center now bears their name – the Joan and Sanford I. Weill Hall, Lawn and Commons.
Before the afternoon ceremony, members of the local Occupy movement – which includes Petaluma, Sebastopol and Santa Rosa also was part of the protest – joined with students who laid out some ground rules.
“We wanted to emphasize this was going to be peaceful,” said Chris Clipner, who was joining the protest as part of the Occupy movement. “We wanted it to be quiet and respectful of the students who are graduating. We need to start protesting the people who do things that uphold corruption, the status quo of capitalism and this corrupt system. We need to start standing up.”
Weill refused all requests for interviews, noting he wanted the focus to remain on the graduates. The Weills’ ties to Sonoma County extend back to 2010, when they purchased a 362-acre estate in the hills west of Sonoma for $35 million. SSU President Ruben Armiñana, however, felt they had done enough in terms of philanthropy and charity work to merit an honorary doctorate.
“Time magazine listed Sanford Weill as one of the 25 people most responsible for the financial crisis, he’s one of the people who made it so we have banks that are too big to fail,” said David Parks, a junior at SSU.
Parks also suspected foul play on someone’s part concerning the campus newspaper, the Sonoma Star. The newspaper had published a piece under the headline “Day of Shame at Sonoma State University,” which was penned by news editor Taylor Dickinson, but hundreds of copies had mysteriously disappeared from the racks around campus. As word spread, the papers suddenly reappeared.
The keynote speaker was Dr. Mark Lamont Hill, who has lectured widely and provides regular commentary for media outlets such as NPR, the Washington Post, Essence Magazine and the New York Times.
His message to the students at times tied into the protest theme.
“We live in a world where corporate greed tends to trump the public good,” Hill said to loud applause. “We live in states where education budgets are being cut at the knees at the same time we have a rapid expansion of jails that we’re building. We have first-class jails but second-class schools. We live in a nation where women still work harder for less money. The world still needs our help. The world still needs your commitment.”
Mainly, he implored the graduates to stand up for what’s right, even when it goes against the tide of the majority and to never whitewash or purify history.
“We have to send the message that the past was never perfect, but we can’t be a prisoner to it,” Hill said. “We can’t forget what it meant to stand here in May of 1962. We all now celebrate growth and admire Martin Luther King, but in 1962, MLK couldn’t speak here. We like to whitewash the past. But in the past, people who told the truth, who had the courage to fight for what’s right were often seen as bad guys and marginalized in the past and it’s only in the future that history redeems them.”