05/18/2010 12:08 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Syracuse Graduation: A Protest Deflated

The supposed student uprising at Syracuse University landed with a predictable and pathetic thud on Sunday, as only a handful of the 4,000 graduating students took off their caps and gowns in the planned symbolic protest of JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon's commencement speech.

I had known all along that the excitement of some serious action among the usually lifeless student body was going to peter out.

Dimon was "chosen" (how he was chosen, we're still not sure... that's a whole different story) to be our university's commencement speaker. The move angered many on campus. The already-tight relationship between the university and the bank (a $30 million grant helped renovate a building on campus, which JP has taken over) was growing ever tighter, protesters and bystanders alike said, and it seemed like a poorly-timed move, given the economic troubles that many find themselves in, largely due to the failure of the economic system in which JP just happens to be the best at playing the game.

However you feel about Dimon, there remains one larger point: If college is about preparing us for the real world, we should be taught to stand up for what we believe in. Many Syracuse students turned their backs not on Dimon -- and what they believe is the corruption our university -- but on that belief itself.

As a journalist, I really didn't care about Dimon or JP; but as a senior who had spent too many days on Syracuse's lifeless campus, I was surprised and excited to see some real-life protesting going on, after nearly 100 students made national news in rallying against his commencement speech on campus.

Before Dimon, the most heated this campus ever got in my time here is when the university took away "Mayfest," a booze bash and annual day off in April that is tons of fun but, in the long run, of little importance.

Likewise, the loudest the crowd ever got on Sunday? Protesting the confiscation of several inflatables, including a blowup doll.

The story of anti-Dimon revolt echoes the events of May 1970. After the Kent State killings, Syracuse University erupted in protest, demanding that the school shut down classes.

It didn't. The chancellor equivocated, split the middle and then had his way, and classes remained in session, while many others were canceled for the rest of the year -- including the California state school system, at the time run by Ronald Reagan.

Nancy Cantor, our current chancellor, seems to have taken a page out of the 1970s playbook, with a few "I hear what you're saying, but Dimon is staying" talking points, and then the announcement on Sunday that Dimon is a "sage" of Wall Street.

I talked to one student, a friend, who was at first outraged about the choice, complaining that the relationship between the big bank and the university was egregious.

When I talked to her the day before commencement, she said she hoped not many students took off their graduation robes, as planned. They should just "sit down," she said.

Another friend said he would take off his robe only if everyone around him did so. That was truly the saddest thing ever said by a college student, someone who is supposed to be idealistic, ballsy and utterly willing to shed clothes for whatever reason.

Do you wonder why so many students backed down? One major reason could be the lack of support from anyone, including the Student Association. According to The Daily Orange, the SA sent out a statement saying that it wouldn't "support students who are disrespectful at the commencement ceremony."

What's up with that? I'm not saying students should have been disrespectful, but they should have the free ability to express themselves how they choose -- and not have the SA, which ostensibly represents their interests, kneecapping their beliefs and protest.

And yet, only a handful of students shed their caps and gowns. By doing so, they ended up losing the right of way: Say what you want about Dimon, but the man is a charmer, and his speech -- full of rhetorical traps and faulty logic -- earned wide applause from the audience.

Dimon's speech was a collection of talking points -- the importance of education and environmental reform -- and veiled potshots at the protesters who sat in the audience before him.

To wit: "It is not OK to oversimplify and paint everything with a broad brush. It should not be acceptable to denigrate entire groups -- not all companies, not all CEOs, not all politicians, not all media, not all students. Among these groups, there are some terrific people, and among these groups, there are some terrible people. To categorically and indiscriminately judge... is simply another form of prejudice and ignorance. It is not fair, it is not just, it is plain wrong," Dimon said to raucous applause.

The theme of Dimon's speech was accountability, which should have made those who were uncomfortable with his speech proud of their achievements in setting the agenda. Dimon should be held accountable, they'd say.

But unfortunately for them, Dimon completely contradicted himself, mentioning nothing for which he is specifically accountable, and then firing off the famous Theodore Roosevelt quote: "It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles..." and also a Rudyard Kipling poem: "If you can keep your head when all about you 
are losing theirs and blaming it on you..."

I was sitting next to a friend, a fellow journalism grad, who clapped at the Roosevelt line. I asked her how she could applaud at such a line; we are the critics, judging those in the ring, holding those in the ring accountable. I'm not a journalist today, she said, just a graduate. I don't think she got the point.

Dimon also mentioned that he had a conversation with a Syracuse student (which I first reported on these very pages).

What have I learned from my years as a Syracuse University student? In fact, I've learned a lot from Dimon's speech. The way universities are run, and the way groups of people can give up what they believe for what they believe is proper and decent under the pressure of a heavy-handed administration.

I was reporting this story not as an independent party. I had to fight the sleeve of my graduation robes to hold the pencil I took notes with, and also fight off funny glances and people telling me "Brian, put down the damn notebook for once."

At the end of the day, I moved the tassel from right to left, but it feels somehow empty knowing that I got my degree from a university whose leadership cares so little about the opinions of its students, and whose students care so little about their own beliefs that they'll let themselves be persuaded by lemmingness and intimidation.

Most of all, I hope that's not my preparation for the real world, but I fear that it is.