The new Center for Ethics, Law, and Society at Sonoma State University in Northern California caused quite a stir among colleagues, students and community members during the first week of classes in 2013. Of central concern was its funding, and the further corporatization of public higher education.
The notorious insurance monolith AIG gave two-thirds of the Ethics Center’s $16,000 first year budget. What might AIG’s intentions have been for funding the Center? AIG has not been known for its ethics. In fact, the insurer’s risky bets on derivatives were central to the 2008 economic crash. They received a $182 billion bailout. Yes, billion.
Retired SSU Professor Robert Plantz reminded the university community on the faculty email list that AIG is “talking about suing our government for what they think is a lousy deal in the bailout.” So much for gratitude and ethics. AIG is one more mega-corporation jumping on the bandwagon to further privatize SSU and influence the education it offers students.
“If we allow economic entities to control our culture, to create the assumptions that underlie our lives, there can be no possibility of individual human freedom,” according to Abraham Entin of Move to Amend Sonoma County. “Economic entities need orderly access to resources and markets. They need docile workers and striving consumers. The last thing they desire are free human individuals. When they ‘support’ education it is for these ends and no others. We are fools when we allow them access to our children and our schools.”
Corporations are pumping an increasing amount of their ill-earned big money into public education throughout the United States, trying to bend it to meet their corporate goals. This threatens academic freedom and free speech.
It is bad enough when one is censored. But self-censorship can be even worse: when one holds back communicating what one really believes out of fear of repercussions. Humanities faculty are supposed to teach critical thinking. Instead, when corporations and millionaires buy their way into universities, receive unearned honorary doctorates, and fund research, their biases prevail and dissent is diminished. Students tend to fear challenging corporate power and policies and become obedient, partly so they can get jobs in an employment-scarce climate.
Former Citigroup CEO Sandy Weill -- who was instrumental in helping to dismantle the Glass-Steagall Act that separated commercial from investment banking -- gave $12 million to SSU’s controversial Green Music Center last year, for which he was rewarded with an honorary doctorate. Time magazine describes Weill as one of the “25 people to blame for the financial crisis.”
MasterCard then gave a few more million dollars to the GMC, in exchange for special access to students to sell its products. One wonders which other millionaires and corporations might already, or will soon, be knocking on SSU’s door to help direct education at the public university.
“The funding of SSU's Ethics Center is one more example of the privatization of education,” said SSU alumnus Susan Lamont of the Peace and Justice Center, and a key organizer of the ShameOnSSU protest against Weill’s honorary doctorate at last year’s graduation.
“The wealthy and corporations make sure they pay little or no taxes, public institutions become financially stressed, bonds are sold and the wealthy profit at both ends of the deal,” said Lamont. “‘Philanthropists’ or corporations come in as saviors with wads of cash, the public is grateful, and academic freedoms are chipped away slowly, but surely.”
The public first heard about the Ethics Center in an article headlined “Some Topics Too Close to Home for SSU Ethics Center.” The sub-head of the Jan. 17 article in the daily Press Democrat was “Director of new venture opts not to weigh in on donor AIG’s role in economic crisis.”
When asked by PD reporter Jeremy Hay if the Center would deal with the controversy of financier Sandy Weill receiving an honorary doctorate for his gift to the Green Music Center, the Center’s director, philosophy lecturer Joshua Glasgow, responded, “I don’t think I can comment.” What happened to free speech and academic freedom at SSU?
“I’ve learned to zip it here,” a long-time SSU staff member commented, drawing her fingers across her lips, when asked about the Ethics Center. Such fear of reprisal for having an opinion is not conducive to educating students to be good citizens, which is allegedly part of SSU’s mission.
Many have expressed ethical reservations about the AIG funding, but Glasgow apparently has no qualms about it. “That’s just the way it flows,” he said.
This contention “has no standing as a moral argument; witness slavery, smoking, nuclear arms, human trafficking, etc,” writes retired Professor Philip Beard. He asserts that such a “shoulder shrug should itself be the target of an ethical investigation.”
“The Ethics Center has a basic challenge to speak to the ethics of taking money from AIG,” noted retired Political Science Professor John Kramer. “The goal of conservatives is to so starve the public-caring institutions of funding that they are overwhelmingly beholden to private and corporate interests. Now they are often intimidated about speaking their truth.”
“Any entity designated an ‘Ethics Center’ has a special responsibility to scrutinize the moral and ethical correlates of its own supporting foundation, structure, and functioning, especially its filtering of acceptable and unacceptable issues,” noted Sociology Professor Noel Byrne. “Such filtering merits close scrutiny. Hay's [newspaper] story suggests that this issue is lost in the fog of myopic oversight.”
Tim Nonn, who has a doctorate in ethics, wrote in an unpublished letter to the same newspaper:
“The implications of sacrificing academic freedom in the name of ethics are mindboggling. What if a corporation based in the South had provided a grant to a university’s history department, but forbade teaching the history of slavery in America? Would the grant make the surrender of academic freedom acceptable?
“I had always assumed that a university existed to free, not enslave, minds. In this case, I was wrong. The popular motto on the walls of many universities throughout the world, veritas vos liberabit (the truth shall set you free), will never adorn the walls of SSU,” Nonn added.
“What good is an Ethics Center that won't discuss it's own ethics?” asked Thomas Morabito of Occupy Sebastopol. “They want to discuss your ethics, but not their own. They preach ‘do as I say, not as I do.’”
The Ethics Center plans to deal with issues such as immigration, water use, food ethics, clean technology, and income inequality, according to director Glasgow. “I look forward to many years of hard-nosed, sometimes gut-wrenching discussion of thorny issues,” Prof. Beard writes. We shall see.
The Center’s first event will be held on Feb. 6. While the talk is free, SSU has doubled its parking fees this semester to $5 - an increase that sends a clear message to the public that it is less welcome, although the university is funded primarily by taxpayer dollars.
What corporation or millionaire might be next at SSU? Wal-Mart? Monsanto, which funds the University of California at Irvine’s agriculture department?
May the the Center for Ethics, Law, and Society provide forums to discuss controversial issues and encourage critical thinking. Because right now, the take-over of public higher education by corporations is a serious threat.
Dr. Shepherd Bliss has taught at three North Bay colleges, including Sonoma State University.