SYRACUSE, N.Y., April 16, 2010— -- Following the lead of Wall Street and the banking industry, students at Syracuse University are looking for a bailout: Save them from the university's choice of commencement speaker.
They don't want Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, to speak at the May 16 ceremony.
"The Daily Orange," the student newspaper, has run letters and editorials pro and con, and a group called Take Back Commencement has attracted nearly 900 members to its Facebook page.
Today, the tension escalated as Take Back Commencement staged a dance-party protest at 2 p.m. on the stairs of the university's Hendricks Chapel. The group of roughly 60 protestors carried signs reading "Power to the People" and "No Corporate Commencement" as they chanted, "Stop the profit war on people," and other mantras expressing their discontent with the commencement speaker.
"We feel as though it's a little bit insensitive given the current financial climate that many of the banks caused the United States to have someone who is a representative of that industry come and speak to a graduating class and to an audience full of parents and relatives that are there on our behalf," said senior Audra Coulombe, a co-organizer of Take Back Commencement. "They've all been suffering and these past two years have not been very kind to them."
Gary Stefanski was one of the few students at the protest in favor of having Dimon speak at commencement. "I think that due to the way that he's run JP Morgan throughout this crisis that he's been able to really pull them through and make them one of the greatest bank industries," said Stefanski, a senior finance major.
Students chanting "Off the sidewalk, onto the stairs," encouraged passersby to join them on the steps of the chapel, using buckets, pots, and even a tuba to draw in people walking through the university.
Even Syracuse University Chancellor Nancy Cantor stopped by Hendricks Chapel to hear students protesting her decision to invite Dimon to speak at commencement. "I fully understand these students' distress and I embrace their right to protest," she said. Cantor, however, is not rescinding Dimon's invitation.
"We want a commencement speaker who can inspire rather than draw criticism and infuriate people," Mariel Fiedler, a senior and co-organizer of Take Back Commencement, told ABCNews.com. "It's a day of celebration, and he brings a lot of heartache to a lot of people by what he represents."
A representative for JPMorgan declined to comment directly to ABCNews.com. But Dimon told a group of reporters on a conference call about first-quarter earnings Thursday that he could "completely understand that some people may be opposed to" his Syracuse appearance, according to Bloomberg Business Week. "People should stand up for what they believe in. I applaud that some folks there want to stand up for something different."
In a letter to "The Daily Orange," Fiedler and two other seniors referred to Dimon as one of the "crooks of the old age who value personal gain above a collective prosperity."
"While we know JPMorgan Chase was forced to accept bailout money and repaid it in full," they wrote, "the bank and its officials still represent a system that is failing the American people. Although Dimon humored us by adopting a $1 salary, he also took about $17 million in bonuses for 2009. ... Wall Street bonuses jumped about 17 percent, while unemployment hovers around 10 percent."
Coulombe said her goal is to persuade the university to choose a new speaker.
"To have someone representing that industry who earns more than $1 million a year come to speak to a group of students who are lucky to maybe make $20,000 a year as they get out of college just seems insensitive," Coulombe said.
Even if Dimon does not step down Minnie Bruce Pratt, a Syracuse University professor and protestor at the rally, says the protest is still significant. "This is a protest that is education way beyond this university and whether or not the chancellor changes her mind, or whether or not Dimon withdrawals or whatever should happen on the actual day, this will have been immensely successful."
Syracuse University Stands by Its Man
As the CEO of JPMorgan Chase, Dimon, a graduate of Tufts University and Harvard Business School, headed one of the nation's largest banks through the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
In March 2008, he steered it through the purchase of the almost-bankrupt investment bank Bear Stearns (he famously offered $2 per share, which was raised to $10), and six months later bought Washington Mutual, after WaMu was seized by the federal government.
At the end of that year, JPMorgan Chase received $25 billion in the government bailout plan, a figure Dimon later referred to as "a scarlet letter."
In an open letter to students, Cantor said that Dimon's experience through bailouts and buyouts makes him the perfect commencement speaker.
"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," she wrote, "and that was in the forefront of my mind as I made my selection this year."
Cantor wrote in her letter that every year she receives a short list of recommendations for commencement speakers from a committee of student marshals and student trustee representatives.
"The Daily Orange" reported that, besides Dimon, Maya Angelou, Tina Fey and Bill Gates were some of the names on that list.
Last year's commencement speaker was Vice President Joe Biden, a Syracuse University alumnus.
Activist Jane Goodall, singer Billy Joel and ABC News' Bob Woodruff were among recent speakers.
Protest is not new to Syracuse speakers. Students objected to the university's choice of Malcolm Forbes in 1988 and Rudy Giuliani in 2002.
The Bank and the School
In 2007, SU and JPMorgan Chase launched a collaborative effort to enhance the university's financial services technology curriculum. The 10-year agreement came along with a $30 million commitment to the school. One campus building was renovated to include a "technology center," with prominent branding of JPMorgan.
Four hundred and fifty students are enrolled in the program for financial technology.
While a petition circulated by Take Back Commencement contained a comment that inviting Dimon "seems like it is just the Chancellor's way of strengthening ties to JP Morgan and throwing [the] Class of '10 under the bus," others have defended the connection.
"Refurbishing that building is a huge resource for the university," Whitman School of Management senior Chris Ransom told ABCNews.com. "Not only will it help students get jobs, but it could help them get front-office jobs and higher incomes. And JP Morgan will be able to give back more to the school."
"Students now have the opportunity to hone a skill related to their major to get a job out in the corporate world," he said. "That's why kids come to college.
"The fact that [Dimon] was able to come in to this financial crisis with a decent bank and come out with a stronger one just shows his leadership, and he'll have something motivational to say for students on their last day on campus," Stefanski added.
Ransom and Stefanski defended Dimon in an op-ed article in "The Daily Orange," writing that he "was able to make JPMorgan one of the best banks on the street, while saving the nearly one-quarter million jobs that would have been lost if JPMorgan were to go under like Lehman or Bear Stearns. ... Dimon is also respected by President Obama (whom the majority of our student body either supported or voted for)."
"We were reading what most of these kids were writing and it just didn't make sense," Stefanski said.
To the argument that students don't want to hear the words of a man whose bank offered them loans, he said, "if they didn't owe money to this commencement speaker, chances are they wouldn't be in college."
Many still disagree.
In Fiedler's eyes, Stefanski's statement is not such an easy comment to make.
"People have to pay interest on those loans and pay them back, and now Jamie Dimon is working towards fighting legislation to build up more banking regulations," she said.
"A commencement speaker needs to uphold other principles besides someone who's interesting," Fiedler added.
Some students already are planning on not attending commencement, and the online petition now has over 1,000 signatures. One commenter wrote, "Jamie Dimon is a bad role model to Americans who paid $1.9 billion to WAMU. I hope justice is on our side. He is not above the law."
Though Coulombe, who signed the petition, still plans on attending commencement ceremonies, she may tune out for the speech.
"Whether or not I listen to him when I'm there is my own choice," she said, "and I am planning on attending so I can celebrate with my friends. But perhaps my chair won't be facing the podium as he gets up to speak."
ABC News on Campus reporter Michelle San Miguel contributed to this story.
ABCNews.com contributor Matt Markham is a member of the Syracuse University ABC News on Campus bureau.