Bankers Are Controversial Choices for Commencement

April 21, 2010

First Syracuse University students organized to protest the selection of Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase & Co., as commencement speaker, citing the controversies over the finance industry. Now students at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs are organizing against the selection of their graduation speaker: Vikram Pandit, CEO of Citigroup. Pandit is a Columbia trustee, with four Columbia degrees (from divisions other than the public affairs school). A Facebook group called "We don't want a bank executive to speak at our commencement" explains the opposition this way: "We want people who did not take part in the financial crisis, who did not rely on massive bailouts to save their money making industry and that are actually helping the poor and the less fortunate of society be better off. Bank CEOs should go speak at the B-school commencement, not at SIPA."

One student told The New York Daily News that Pandit "represents an industry that, even when it was stable and not in crisis, paid itself outrageous salaries." And another said that students would have preferred to hear from Stephen Colbert, Bill Clinton, or Hillary Clinton.

John H. Coatsworth, dean of the School of International and Public Affairs, shared with Inside Higher Ed material from the e-mail responses he has been sending students who have questioned the choice. His e-mail notes that more than a third of the school's graduates work in the private sector, many of them in the finance industry.

As for Pandit, Coatsworth wrote: "Vikram Pandit took over at Citigroup after the crisis hit, reduced his own salary to one dollar per year, and designed the recovery strategy Citi has followed since. He is unusually thoughtful and forthright on the role of Citi and other banks leading up to the crisis, most recently in testifying before Congressional committees. Citigroup has repaid all of the $45 billion in TARP funds it received from the U.S. government; recent estimates indicate that the U.S. government will earn a profit of $8.2 billion when it sells all the Citigroup stock it acquired in exchange for its aid. I think that students and their families will find Mr. Pandit, who favors better regulation of the banking industry, to be an unusually interesting graduation speaker, perhaps quite different from what some would have anticipated. He accepted our invitation in part, I am sure, because of his long standing commitment to Columbia, but I think he also accepted because he wants to promote dialogue with future leaders, not only of the private sector, but also of the public institutions that regulate finance, and the NGOs that provide forward-looking solutions for the diverse issues of the 21st century."

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