November 15, 2011

People over Paulson

Student voices shouldn’t be drowned out in the name of private and institutional interests.

Yesterday morning, following a letter by Provost Thomas Rosenbaum and Vice President for Campus Life and Dean of Students Kim Goff-Crews late Sunday night calling for “protecting a speaker’s right to be heard, just as we have a responsibility to challenge their ideas with honesty, vigor, and respect,” the University indefinitely postponed the Paulson-Rice talk set for yesterday evening. The postponement is officially due to “scheduling conflicts” that ostensibly surfaced on the very day of the engagement. However, it is more likely that both the postponement and the Provost’s letter are responses to rumors that some University of Chicago students were planning a brief protest inside the auditorium. These rumors are accurate. Our intention was to read a brief and truthful counter-introduction of the speakers at the beginning of the talk, and then leave the auditorium, without any intention of interfering with the rest of their well-financed speaking engagement.

One would think that the unilateral creation of a Henry Paulson—purchased Henry Paulson Institute, affixed with the University’s distinguished name, should be an issue for general discussion and consideration within the university community. Instead, all 15,000 students were denied their right to join the discussion—to agree with or condemn the wholesale appropriation of a University-legitimated (but hardly legitimate) altar to the 1 percent. The reality of the birth of the institute is a simple financial transaction between Hank and our administration—you give us money and access to your bevy of international politico-business elites, we give you the University of Chicago on your letterhead and a plump five-year fellowship at the Harris School of Public Policy, right alongside Richard M. Daley (another champion of private interests).

By cancelling this event, the responsible officials have only shown that they are committed to granting our highly prestigious and limited fora to those with clout, to politicians playing academicians seeking uncontroversial platforms, without having to be confronted with the realities of what they have done and stand for. This does not amount to, in Rosenbaum’s words, allowing “inquiry to proceed untrammeled in the service of scholarship.” From the perspective of the administration, postponing the talks (maybe indefinitely) makes perfect sense—heavily dependent on private endowment, the absolute last thing they want is negative publicity influencing the image of the U of C as a great place to sink private largesse.

In engaging in direct protest, I fully anticipated being accused of wasting my time on a meaningless and misdirected gesture. Nothing could be further from the truth. Henry Paulson is the epitome of everything #Occupy and the 99% are fighting: Goldman-Sachs CEO turned Secretary of Treasury under Bush and Obama; secret architect of the evisceration of the Glass-Steagall Act and the Net Capital Rule; lobotomizer of the SEC and deliberate enabler of high-risk speculation using the savings of regular citizens; acknowledged force behind the Troubled Asset Relief Program (read: “bank bailout”); launderer of $700 billion into the too-big-to-fail banks that he helped create, then encouraging these same banks to borrow 3 trillion taxpayer dollars at virtually zero percent interest, and then lend back to the Fed at interest for massive profiteering off the average citizen (yet again). This is the man that our university is willing to immortalize. On hearing that last bit, a friend asked me, “Really? Tell me, where is the Noam Chomsky Institute? The Hannah Arendt Center?” These seem to me the kinds of people we should be immortalizing here, those who have earned their academic enshrinement by articulating and examining precisely these kinds of hypocrisy and discursive domination. Their claim to fame is far worthier, though naturally their ability to endow is much less.

For his institute, Paulson plans to secure “private funding” after the first out-of-pocket year (his pockets are $700 million deep). Ostensibly, it will serve to foster green energy research, with FermiLab playing some as of yet unspecified role. The “private funding” is almost guaranteed to take the form of dollars flowing through some of the contacts he made (as CEO of Goldman) in the political and business establishment during his more than 70 trips to China. Obviously, I am not against green energy, any more than I am against vital research being performed by our U of C scientists at FermiLab, especially with all that slashing of the federal budget (ironically being justified by the very financial collapse Paulson precipitated, giving him a convenient vacuum to fill). What I am against is all this being bought, paid, and signed for without any public discussion, and without it being clear who will benefit from this arrangement—beyond Paulson, foreign business, and to a lesser extent the University.

To call attention to the obvious contradiction in claiming to be an institution that values above all freedom of discussion and disputation, yet one that happily auctions off otherwise highly competitive positions through closed fora, I and the brave group that I was to be a part of—willing to risk reprimand, arrest, and, worst of all, estrangement from our treasured peers—chose to speak up for the silenced. We chose to take back our university, however briefly, however limited or unsympathetic the audience. View our proposed actions in light of their symbolic intent, and they may represent to you the necessity of directly confronting the agents of systemic manipulation and global domination masquerading as voices of reason and fairness. The Paulsons and Rices of the world have no difficulty airing their views, or making choices that impact the globe in direct opposition to the vox populi. It’s time for our voices to be heard over theirs.

Christopher Ivan is a graduate student in the MAPSS program.