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Arroyo Grande graduate protests Syracuse University commencement speaker

As an Arroyo Grande High School student, Adrienne Elizabeth Garcia was known on campus for having strong opinions on a host of issues — including her positions against the death penalty and in favor of laws to help immigrants coming to the United States.

So it’s only natural, Garcia said, that she’s now embroiled in a Syracuse University student protest against Jamie Dimon, one of the most powerful leaders in the financial industry.

Dimon, chairman and chief executive officer of JPMorgan Chase — a financial services firm with more than $2 trillion in assets and operations in more than 60 countries — is scheduled to give the university’s commencement address May 16. Chancellor Nancy Cantor selected Dimon, one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2009, in March from a list of speakers provided by a committee of student representatives.

But Garcia, a key organizer of the protest, and hundreds of other students say Dimon is the wrong choice given the current economic climate, the role that big investment banks played in the financial crisis and what they perceive as JPMorgan Chase’s influence on the university. In 2007, the firm gave the private university in central New York $30 million for a new technology center on campus. In turn, Syracuse pledged to supply the bank with financial and information technology graduates.

“The chancellor told us that he’s not being paid to speak, but he paid $30 million to come and speak,” said Garcia, a 20-year-old English major. “We feel that he’s using the university as a liaison with the public to repair the image of the financial industry.”

While not all students are opposed to Dimon’s invitation, Garcia said, about 1,000 students recently signed a petition rejecting him as this year’s speaker. A group established on the social networking site Facebook, Take Back Commencement, organized a rally in the university’s quad Friday, and about 85 students and professors marched to the administration building, she said. Some parents opposed to Dimon also wrote an opinion piece in the university’s newspaper expressing their disapproval.

If the selection of Dimon is not overturned, students are prepared to have a separate commencement or silently protest during the speech by holding up signs or placing their chairs so that their backs are facing him.

“Some people might not think a commencement speaker is that big of a deal, but I think this will encourage students to go out there and see the administration taking advantage of their power,” Garcia said.

A media representative would not comment Monday on the student protest, referring The Tribune to the chancellor’s statement on the university’ website.

In her message, Cantor acknowledged discontent over the speaker choice. However, she defended the decision, saying that Dimon, a graduate of Tufts and Harvard Business School, “brings a unique perspective from the field of business — a discipline that has not been represented by a university commencement speaker in 20 years.”

“It is rare that a university is able to bring a speaker with a birds-eye view of, and extensive on-the-ground experience with, a major global challenge,” Cantor said.

Syracuse University has invited a wide variety of speakers through the years, she continued, including journalist Bob Woodward, anthropologist Jane Goodall, songwriter Billy Joel, author Frank McCourt and last year, Vice President Joe Biden.

“Beyond our campus, millions of people all around the world recognize that Jamie Dimon is a leader whose voice is timely and seasoned, no matter whether one agrees or disagrees, reveres or rejects, his specific economic policies, corporate actions or leadership approach,” Cantor said.

With the choice of Dimon, Garcia said the administration failed to keep in mind that it’s the students’ voices that matter. Garcia, a 2007 Arroyo Grande High graduate, said she was encouraged by her teachers at the school to speak up. On Monday, she said jokingly that she was “notorious” for engaging her fellow students in debate.

“I feel that across the country, a lot of administrations have gotten into the habit of ignoring students or having ties with a corporation students don’t agree with,” she said. “I think the administration is kind of surprised at all this because they got used to us being complacent.”

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