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Mixed campus reaction to proposed SSU benefactor protest


Sonoma State University staff and students said Monday they hope planned protests of the conferral of honorary degrees upon the former chief of Citigroup and his wife Saturday will not disrupt graduation ceremonies for the 2,300 students expected to walk in commencement exercises.

Joan and Sanford "Sandy" Weill are scheduled to receive Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts and Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters, respectively. The Weills gave the largest single cash gift ever given to SSU — $12 million for the Green Music Center. The concert hall was named in their honor.

Sandy Weill, credited with building Citigroup into the world's largest bank, also landed on Time magazine's "25 People to Blame for the Financial Crisis," list.

The move to honor the Weills sparked the creation of "Day of Shame on Sonoma State University" and planned protests to be staged on commencement day.

The protest was announced by Shepherd Bliss, an SSU lecturer in the psychology and humanities department, on behalf of what he called a coalition of students, members of the faculty and Occupy activists.

Top SSU officials were not available for comment Monday, but many on campus Monday in the throes of final exams and few seemed concerned with the either the honoraria or the planned protests. Still more people were unaware of who the Weills are or that they are getting degrees on Saturday.

Those familiar with the situation expressed the hope that graduation day would not get hijacked.

"I don't think it's that big of a deal. I think people give honorary degrees all the time," said senior communications major Taylor Minnick.

Minnick, who will graduate Saturday, said Weill deserves the honor but he did not want protests to mar the day for the students expected to take part.

"I totally respect their right to protest but as a day, it's supposed to be momentous for a lot of people and it doesn't seem right," he said.

Janet Henker, an office manager in the psychology department, offered a somewhat similar view of a potential protest. "I don't think it's appropriate. It's a misuse of the day," she said.

Henker, however, does not believe Sandy Weill should be honored by SSU.

"He is being a philanthropist and giving money, but I think a person's personal integrity should enter the picture," she said. "He obviously is one of the people who caused the banking crisis."

Ben Ford, president of the Academic Senate and a professor of math, sat on the committee that vetted the nominations for this year's honorary degrees.

"Four to five sets of people" were considered, he said. "The Weills were kind of part of the conversation from the beginning."

Neither the identity of who nominated the Weills, nor the the names of the others who were considered was disclosed by the university.

"It's a confidential committee," said Susan Kashack, SSU's associate vice president. The committee included three faculty members, one student, one staffer and four managers.

Campus presidents can forward a maximum of two nominees for honorary degrees to the Board of Trustees of the California State University. The CSU Board of Trustees makes the final decision.

Campus presidents are required to advise the Chancellor if there are any concerns regarding the nomination before the name is submitted. It was unclear Monday if the Weill nomination included any "concerns."

Both Sonoma State University President Ruben Armi?na and Provost Andrew Rogerson were unavailable for comment Monday.

"The committee is not charged with making recommendations or ranking but charged with giving arguments in favor and arguments against each candidate," Ford said. "(Armi?na) made the decision and forwarded it on to the Board of Trustees of the CSU. They are the official body that awards the degree."

Ford said the vetting process last fall was not contentious. He also said he had mixed feelings about any planned protests Saturday.

"On the one hand, the ceremony is in honor of our graduates who have worked for their degrees and I want this day to be about them," he said. "On the other hand, I believe that a university is a place where political expression is welcome and important and if people choose to make those expressions on Saturday, I hope they they can do it in a way that doesn't disrupt our graduates' special day."