Sonoma State University in Northern California recently announced that “philanthropists” Joan and Sanford Weill will be recognized as 2012 honorary degree recipients at SSU’s graduation ceremony on May 12. Really, philanthropists? Because they donated $12 million to a new music center at the school? Let’s go back a bit.
Fifteen years ago, Sanford (Sandy) Weill, the former CEO of Citigroup, a mega-banking corporation he created in 1998 through a merger with Travelers Group, was the highest paid CEO in the country with a salary of $230 million. Forbes estimated his wealth at $1.4 billion in 2006, though in April the New York Times downgraded him to sub-billionaire status.
Weill was a primary player in the disastrous removal of the Glass-Steagal Act during the Clinton administration. Abolishing this act allowed for Wall Street investment firms to gamble with their depositors’ money held in affiliated commercial banks, and led directly to the housing crisis of 2008. In 2010, The Times said Weill was once viewed as a “brilliant deal maker, while now critics cast him as the architect of a shoddily constructed, unmanageable financial supermarket whose troubles have sideswiped investors, employees and average citizens.”
Going further, Robert Scheer in The Nation described Weill as a “Jolly Good Scoundrel,” pointing out how Weill bailed out of Citigroup before the crash and went “laughing all the way to the bank.” Weill is currently reported to be selling his 200-foot yacht, named the April Fool, for $69.5 million. The boat has a huge master stateroom, a Jacuzzi on the fourth-level sun deck and a sprawling outdoor eating lounge.
Even the right-wing press has had it in for Weill. In 2009, The New York Post ran a front page story with the headline, “Citi’s Sky-High Arrogance: Company Jet For Mogul’s Luxe Holiday.” Just weeks after Citigroup averted total collapse with a $45 billion shot in the arm of taxpayer cash, the bank jetted its former CEO Weill and his family on one of its corporate jets to a posh Mexican resort for New Year’s.
So, in his effort perhaps to wipe the slate clean and become a local in Northern California, Weill paid $31 million in late 2010 for a 362-acre estate and vineyard in Sonoma County. He brought with him carpetbags of money, a $12 million pile of which he donated to gleeful SSU President Ruben Armiñana’s Green Music Center (officially named the “Joan and Sanford I. Weill Hall, Lawn and Commons”).
Now jump to the May 12, 2012 graduation at SSU where Sandy Weill and his wife Joan will be standing alongside graduating seniors to receive their honorary doctorates as many ask: What for? Is this doctorate honoring anything beyond the over-sized donation by a 1%er with way too much money on his hands? Is it honoring the work he did in helping to dismantle the U.S. economy, and the damage that collapse had on millions and millions of people’s lives, those who have seen their jobs, houses and prospects vanish from sight?
It is not that we don’t want to honor those who succeed in business and other large-scale enterprises. Previous honorary SSU doctorate recipients have been local community leaders with decades of regional merit including Herb Dwight, who distinguished himself as an engineer and prominent business and community leader; Belva Davis, a highly regarded reporter in the San Francisco Bay area; Bernie Goldstein, a provost and vice president of academic affairs at SSU; Edward R. Stolman, the past president and chairman of the Federation of American Hospitals; and Donald Green, a prominent leader in the telecommunications industry.
Weill stands outside that class entirely. By giving an honorary doctorate to a former billionaire who profited grandiosely from the financially criminal era he helped construct until the whole thing came down like a deck of cards isn’t just “not right.” It’s criminal in itself. The thousands who’ve lost their homes through foreclosures in the region might have something to say about such an “hononary” award. And perhaps some of them will be showing up on Saturday to say it. Shame on SSU President Ruben Armiñana for such an outrageous gesture and for dishonoring graduation for the class of 2012.
Peter Phillips earned a Ph.D. in 1994 at U.C. Davis and has been a sociology professor at Sonoma State University for the past 18 years. He is the president of the Media Freedom Foundation with Project Censored.