For students at Syracuse University, a four-year degree can cost upwards of $200,000 -- plus all that hard work.
But for the university's rich benefactors, an honorary degree -- and the university's moral standing -- is for sale for a simple $30 million, protesters say.
That's because JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, whose company bequeathed $30 million to the school in 2007, was selected to be this private university's commencement speaker.
Today, nearly 100 students held signs, played the tuba, banged pots, pans, bongos, plastic jugs, danced to anti-Dimon songs and chanted anti-JPMorgan slogans on the steps of Hendricks Chapel, on the university's Quad.
"It feels like we were bought and paid for," said Kelsey Dyer, an SU student who was drawing chalk signs on the Quad. "Just simply because he gave us a lot of money."
Most protesters are upset about what they perceive as the corporatization of the university because of the 2007 deal with JPMorgan that allowed the bank to set up their own offices in a university building. As part of the deal, which allows students to take part in internships and work directly with JPMorgan employees, the company gave the university a $30 million grant.
One student held a sign that said: "Our going rate? $30 million." Another student held a sign that read "So happy together," with a JPMorgan Chase logo and the school's mascot, Otto the Orange, holding hands.
Students chanted "Chase, Chase, go away, don't come back any day," as ominous spring rainclouds threatened this central New York campus. Their goal is to get the university or Dimon himself to rescind the invitation. Both parties have indicated an unwillingness to do so.
"It's inappropriate to have the CEO of one of the banks that's too big to fail representing the university at a time when students can't even stay here because tuition is so high," said Ashley Owen, a protest organizer who was writing "Whose University?" in sidewalk chalk. Owen noted that JPMorgan is leading the fight against financial regulation reform.
Syracuse Chancellor Nancy Cantor also showed up to the protest. "I just want to talk," Cantor said, as students chanted that "Jamie Dimon's got to go" in the background. "These are my students, too."
Cantor defended the choice of Dimon as commencement speaker, saying that it's the role of a university to reach out and create partnerships with other entities. Corporations are no exception, she said.
Cantor said that the protest didn't surprise her.
"Every commencement speaker gets reactions," Cantor said. "This is particularly intense. I would expect it to be because of the urgency and timeliness of the global financial crisis, which affects everybody. So I totally understand the reaction. I'm sure Mr. Dimon does too."
Cantor said the university's relationship with JPMorgan will not change in light of the protests. "I wouldn't expect so at all," she said. "They're very committed."
The uproar has gained widespread, national media attention. But much of the coverage has completely whiffed, painting students as anti-capitalist intellectuals (The Wall Street Journal's story on the protest happened to mention that one protester cut the interview short because she was reading Karl Marx's "Das Capital").
An MSNBC reporter who was on the scene was overheard speaking in his live shot to reporters back at the studio--but the words $30 million did not cross his lips.
The view from campus is different. Here's what students, parents and faculty are actually saying: The choice of Dimon was quid pro quo, and one more step in the ever-closer corporate relationship between the university and the big bank.
"You can spin it any way you want," said Joel Kaplan, a professor at Syracuse's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. "Would Jamie Dimon have been selected if he hadn't given $30 million to the university?"
University spokesman Kevin Quinn rejected a quid pro quo arrangement: "The invitation to him was certainly consistent with the relationship we already have with the company but not in response to, or a result of it," he said in an e-mail.
Since Dimon was announced as the commencement speaker on March 25, students have not been decidedly split on the issue. Most students who aren't in the business school think it looks really, really bad to have the guy whose company gave the university $30 million dollars speak at its commencement.
Students and administrators in the university's business school and those who are involved in internships through JPMorgan have strongly supported Jamie Dimon's speech in letters to the school's newspaper, The Daily Orange and in interviews.
But outside of that, they're pretty much alone.
A letter to the editor from a group calling itself "Parents in Support of Take Back Commencement 2010" in the Orange reads: "[The choice of Dimon] ultimately cheapens the reputation of Syracuse University by giving the impression that the university is available to the highest bidder."
It was in 2007, some say, that the bidding began.
The bank gave SU a $30 million grant, but most of that money went to sprucing up a university building for the company's use, according to Jennifer Zuccarelli, a JPMorgan spokeswoman. She was interviewed for a story about the bank's close ties to the university, before Dimon was even selected as the university's commencement speaker. But JPMorgan Chase does not offer students at the university scholarships or any sort of tuition support, she said. (Zuccarelli did not return several calls and e-mails for comment on this story.)
"The bottom line is JPMorgan Chase has been incredibly supportive of our students and provided them amazing educational opportunities both in and out of the classroom," said Kevin Quinn, a university spokesman, in an e-mail.
Employees of the university also get a weekly reminder of the bank's relationship with the university: JPMorgan Chase Bank is emblazoned on the top right corner of their paychecks.
SU students, parents and alumni have responded by setting up an online petition demanding that a new speaker be chosen for commencement. The petition has gained more than 1,000 signatures.
Tom Wolfe, a university official, said that the university has reserved Hendricks Chapel for an alternative event with a speaker of the protesters' liking. Several leading activists have said they will reject the offer, fearing that their movement would be co-opted by the university.
Instead, they want to bring the protest to commencement. One idea is to gather all the protesters in one area, and turn their backs to Dimon as he delivers his commencement address.
Administrators seemed to have been caught off-guard by the uproar. When Dimon was first announced in late March, Quinn, the university spokesman, sidestepped a question about whether the university expected any backlash.
But after the online petitions, editorials in papers and a plan for a protest started piling up, Chancellor Cantor tried to put out the fire by sending a university-wide e-mail. She stood by the choice--word on campus is that there is no way the university will pull the plug on Dimon--but she also added: "I understand that in this economic climate the concerns may be especially acute."
The campus, known to be apathetic by most standards, has been completely turned on its head. One protester even said she received a phone call from somebody identifying himself as Jamie Dimon. A JPMorgan spokeswoman did not return several calls and e-mails trying to verify if the call took place.
Students are also upset over accusations that the university hand-picked Dimon, though university officials have ardently denied that. Class marshals--an honorary title given to two students from each college and two students university-wide--typically choose a list of commencement speakers, from which the chancellor picks one.
Several marshals said, both on and off the record, that they don't recall Dimon being on the list and don't remember him even coming up during any discussions when they were compiling the list. The two university-wide marshals who were in charge of sending the final list did not respond to several requests for comment.
Why is that? Word has gone around that the university will come down hard on marshals who speak out, and several have expressed fear of retribution if they speak to reporters.
Susan Germain, a university official who helped organize commencement, sent this e-mail to at least one of the marshals, obtained by The Huffington Post: "We are very excited by our speaker this year and hope you will all remain positive."
Quinn, the spokesman, said of the e-mail from Germain: "Susan explained the process and was being upbeat about the fact that Mr. Dimon was nominated by the student committee and included on their top 15 list." He added that he felt the quote was taken out of context.
The rain started coming down on the protesters about an hour after the event started and, after the chancellor's visit, the organizers decided to call it a day. For them, it had been a success, though they recognized that Dimon's appearance is all but inevitable.
"I hope they value their students enough to actually listen to what we're saying and to take some of it to heart," said Owen, one of the protest organizers, "and not just think we're a bunch of kids sitting on the steps of Hendricks with pots and pans and signs. If they do respect their students, they'll do a little bit better of a job letting us decide what goes on in our university."
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