Sonoma State University president Ruben Armi?na on Tuesday defended his decision to award former Citigroup chief Sanford "Sandy" Weill an honorary degree at this Saturday's commencement ceremony.
Speaking about Weill and his wife, Joan, who will also receive an honorary degree, Armi?na said: "They have been highly commendable for what they have done and this degree is a recognition of that very large and very direct and personal involvement" in arts, healthcare and education.
The Weills, who own an estate near Sonoma and are known nationwide for philanthropy, last year gave SSU its largest single cash gift ever, $12 million, to be used toward the completion of the Green Music Center. Sandy Weill could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
But the selection of the former Wall Street titan to receive an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters has sparked anger among some students, faculty and community activists who say he contributed to the financial collapse that the country still is emerging from.
They have spotlighted Weill's prominent role pushing for the 1999 repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, a development that eliminated many barriers between banks, investment firms and insurance companies.
That, say Weill's — and now Armi?na's — critics, ushered in an era of lending practices that led to the housing collapse and foreclosure crisis.
"That opened the gates to all the mayhem we're living with now," said John Bertucci, a spokesman for the Day of Shame Coalition, which sprung up last week in protest.
"Half the students are going to be fighting debts that originated in his company for the rest of their lives," Bertucci said.
Armi?na said the roots of the crisis are more widespread, and noted that it was Congress that passed the law repealing Glass-Steagall and President Bill Clinton who signed it.
"I think there's a lot of blame to go around in terms of what happened," he said. "I think it is highly unfair to single out a single individual in such a monumental event.
Asked if those sharing the blame would include Weill, who led Citigroup when it was the world's biggest bank, Armi?na said, "I'm sure it does."
Then he added, "We are all sinners. That's part of the human condition; if not, then we'd be God."
Bertucci on Tuesday sought to allay fears that a protest planned for commencement would sully the event for thousands of graduates.
He said participants would wear black and that any concerted action would be "non-violent."
"We are there as witnesses to the infamy, the outrageous slap in the face that this represents," he said.
Some students said they support the protest action, which Bertucci said consists of Occupy movement activists from Santa Rosa, Sebastopol and Petaluma plus a smaller number of students and faculty.
"His actions will reflect on the school," Jude Rowe, a junior, said of Weill. "And in some ways it (the honorary degree) means the school is supporting his actions."
Others, including critics of Weill, said commencement was the wrong venue for a protest and Day of Shame was the wrong name for it.
"He doesn't deserve (the degree), I agree," said Kia Kolderup-Lane, who has organized student rallies focusing on budget and education issues.
"But my graduation day is nothing to be ashamed of; that's something to be proud of," she said. "Thousands of people are entering the workforce, thousands or people are getting a degree, and that's something to be proud of."