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Choice of Commencement Speaker Spurs Protests at Columbia University

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By Stig Arild Pettersen

The choice of Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit as this year's graduation ceremony speaker has caused anger among some students at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). As soon as the announcement was made on Friday at 5:20 p.m. through an e-mail to the school's students by Dean John Coatsworth, Facebook statuses such "Am I the only one who thinks a bank CEO is a pathetic choice for a graduation speaker for a school like SIPA??" started popping up. A few hours later a Facebook group was created with the title "We don't want a bank executive to speak at our commencement." As of Monday morning, the group had more than 220 members, and acts as a forum for outlining a joint letter of protest to the dean.

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Daniel Safran-Hon, graduating SIPA student and founder of the Facebook group, stresses that he has nothing against Mr. Pandit, but that his problem lies with the industry the CEO represents. "Mr. Pandit's industry has spent millions to lobby against reforming the student loan system and is now combating other essential reforms that would prevent financial meltdowns from reoccurring," he said. Safran-Hon finds it "unacceptable" that SIPA gives Mr. Pandit the opportunity to speak unquestioned at such an important event under these circumstances.

Mr. Pandit is a Columbia University trustee and has been acting as CEO of Citigroup since 2007, but has also received the questionable honor of being ranked number 20 on a list of America's worst CEOs put together by Portfolio.com. In e-mails sent to the dean and published on the Facebook group, students question what the head of a major financial institution like Citigroup, part of an industry that caused the ongoing financial crisis, can contribute to SIPA.

"This invitation is an absolute insult to myself and my class, most of which is made up individuals who have spent years of their life contributing to the world in ways that Vikram Pandit could not begin to imagine," one student writes.

"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," writes another.

The announcement of Mr. Pandit's speech only adds to the grudge that some graduating students already hold against SIPA's administration, after the date for the graduation ceremony was changed from May 20 to May 17 only a few weeks ago. Students and their families suffered financial losses, some quite substantial, primarily due to flight cancellation costs. At the time, students asked Dean Coatsworth to address the situation. After many visits to the Dean's offices and formal email requests, the Dean responded with a mass e-mail. The commencement date was not changed, nor was any compensation offered to families who were strongly affected. The e-mail asked for student understanding and forbearance.

Mr. Pandit is also coming to address SIPA's World Leaders Forum later this month, and Safran-Hon welcomes him to attend. "There students can ask questions and challenge what he says and represents," he says, while letting Mr. Pandit speak at the commencement ceremony just "gives him political capital" and "allows him to promote his interests unquestioned."

The students now urge Dean Coatsworth to change his decision and find another speaker for the commencement ceremony. If not, one of the group members write, they may "be forced to consider alternative forms of celebration" on graduation day.

Safran-Hon says his participation very much depends on how the school will handle the protests that have emerged during the weekend.

"I hope they understand that a mistake has been made and that they have learned from it," he says. "We are not in an attack mode. I believe this can be resolved. But the ball is now on the dean's side. If the school ignores the protests, it's hard to know what will happen."

Safran-Hon says that the protests are a sign of the respect and care that the students have for their school, and that they see commencement as a great opportunity to celebrate all that's good about SIPA. He is sure that the administration has no bad intentions, but calls the decision to invite Mr. Pandit "ill-conceived."

As for alternative speakers, the students want someone who stands for the exact opposite of Mr. Pandit and his colleagues, not necessarily President Clinton or Meryl Streep, who will be speaking at other schools around campus in May.

"I would prefer to have a high school teacher or principal from Harlem or a social worker from the Bronx," Safran-Hon says. "These are people who offer real solutions to real problems, which makes them merit the honor of such an occasion."