Citibank reps field questions on policies

By Libby Pearson

Representatives from Citibank met with students and faculty members yesterday evening to discuss the possible renewal of Citibank’s contract with the University next June. The Banking Committee, which is composed of students and faculty members, will submit a recommendation on February 15 to the chief financial officer and President Don Randel as to whether or not the University should discontinue its contract with Citibank in favor of another bank.

Members of the Campaign for Responsible Banking, (formerly known as the Anti-Citibank Campaign), members of the Banking Committee, and a number of concerned students posed questions to Citibank officials about their business policies in Hyde Park and around the world. Bill Michel, deputy dean of development and student activities, moderated the event, along with Student Government (SG) President Ben Aderson. Michel began the meeting by opening up the table for discussion about what a campus bank should be expected to offer students.

One general complaint voiced by students at the meeting was that Citibank has not installed enough ATMs on campus. Students also suggested that Citibank should have tellers, in addition to ATMs, in order to better aid inexperienced bankers, and provide increased human contact with the bank.

Amy Olson, the financial center manager of Citibank’s campus branch, said that having tellers on campus would be impractical because of space constraints. She also said that tellers would generate longer lines. “Our six machines [on campus] are the busiest run machines in Illinois,” she said.

Olson went on to say that if students were further “educated” about Citibank operations, they might be more satisfied with the service it provides. For example, students have accused Citibank of charging students for opening checking accounts even though they were told they would be able to do so for free.

Olson said that because the checking fee is waived by hand and because September — when most students set up new accounts — is so busy for the bank, some mistakes are inevitably made. Last September, only one student was mistakenly charged, and that student was refunded. In general, Olsen said that students’ concerns stem mainly from misconceptions about Citibank’s practices.

Citibank’s relationship with students on an individual basis was also brought into question. Some students at the meeting suggested that because Citibank’s marketing strategy so clearly targets them, they do not feel comfortable asking questions about their finances. Olson conceded that Citibank was made up of salespeople, but said that the bank is trying to form a healthy relationship with the University.

The representatives from Citibank were questioned by members of the Coalition for Responsible Banking about the bank’s allegedly unethical policies abroad. These include charges that Citibank invests in companies that deplete rainforests and harm indigenous peoples.

Risa Davis, Citibank’s director of government and community relations in Chicago and San Antonio, responded to these questions by describing the ways in which Citibank helps the poor. These, she said, include tutorial programs and projects in Chicago high schools that teach students investment strategies, as well as partnerships with nonprofit organizations that try to help people with their credit.

Ilene Bieler, Citibank’s vice president of environmental affairs and global community relations, talked about Citibank’s risk-assessment process, and the financial concerns the bank faces when it lends money. “We certainly don’t go into a project with environmental issues that will cause us to lose our capital,” said Bieler.

Raphael Leib, a fourth-year in the College and a member of the Coalition for Responsible Banking, thought that having the opportunity to meet with Citibank and discuss concerns was an important one. “I think the Citibank representatives were getting very nervous,” Leib said, adding that the Coalition would prefer a local bank to Citibank.

The Coalition for Responsible Banking at the University of Chicago was first established last spring as an affiliate of a similar national group that formed in the spring of 2000. Justin Rolfe-Redding, a second-year in the College and a member of the Coalition, hopes that if the Citibank contract is not renewed, other Citibank branches and other banks might change their practices.

Michel has asked the Coalition for Responsible Banking to write a position on the Citibank issue to be handed into the Banking Committee.

This year, the Banking Committee received proposals from six banks, and has since narrowed them down to three, one of which is Citibank. The Banking Committee will not disclose the names of the other two banks. According to Rolfe-Redding, one is a mid-sized regional bank, and the other is a local bank.

“I don’t feel that the student body is in any way unanimous,” Aderson said.

Anticipating a need to sound out students for their concerns about on-campus banking services in the future, the University will bring together a Banking Advisory Committee. This group will include representatives from student government, the administration, and the student body.

Aderson believes that, had a committee like this been formed earlier, student complaints could have been dealt with more easily.

According to Michel, many changes need to be made in the University’s contractual relationship with its bank.

“We have not looked at this relationship the way we should have,” Michel said.

Michel believes that the numerous committees formed in order to establish lines of communication with Aramark, the food provider for all of the University’s dining halls, should be a model for how the University interacts with its campus bank.

Michel said that credit card solicitations will not be included in incoming classes’ orientation packages in the future. He also indicated that more education programs about banking procedures will be provided by Citibank, and also by the University.

Citibank has been on campus since 1996, when it replaced Hyde Park Bank.