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AIG and Ethics: The Corporatization of Public Higher Education

Big corporations are pumping ill-earned money into public education across the U.S., threatening academic freedom and free speech.

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When asked by PD reporter Jeremy Hay if the Center would deal with the controversy of financier Sandy Weill receiving an honorary doctorate for his gift to the Green Music Center, the Center’s director, philosophy lecturer Joshua Glasgow, responded, “I don’t think I can comment.” What happened to free speech and academic freedom at SSU?

“I’ve learned to zip it here,” a long-time SSU staff member commented, drawing her fingers across her lips, when asked about the Ethics Center. Such fear of reprisal for having an opinion is not conducive to educating students to be good citizens, which is allegedly part of SSU’s mission.

Many have expressed ethical reservations about the AIG funding, but Glasgow apparently has no qualms about it. “That’s just the way it flows,” he said.

This contention “has no standing as a moral argument; witness slavery, smoking, nuclear arms, human trafficking, etc,” writes retired Professor Philip Beard. He asserts that such a “shoulder shrug should itself be the target of an ethical investigation.”

“The Ethics Center has a basic challenge to speak to the ethics of taking money from AIG,” noted retired Political Science Professor John Kramer. “The goal of conservatives is to so starve the public-caring institutions of funding that they are overwhelmingly beholden to private and corporate interests. Now they are often intimidated about speaking their truth.”

“Any entity designated an ‘Ethics Center’ has a special responsibility to scrutinize the moral and ethical correlates of its own supporting foundation, structure, and functioning, especially its filtering of acceptable and unacceptable issues,” noted Sociology Professor Noel Byrne. “Such filtering merits close scrutiny. Hay's [newspaper] story suggests that this issue is lost in the fog of myopic oversight.”

Tim Nonn, who has a doctorate in ethics, wrote in an unpublished letter to the same newspaper:

“The implications of sacrificing academic freedom in the name of ethics are mindboggling. What if a corporation based in the South had provided a grant to a university’s history department, but forbade teaching the history of slavery in America? Would the grant make the surrender of academic freedom acceptable?

“I had always assumed that a university existed to free, not enslave, minds. In this case, I was wrong. The popular motto on the walls of many universities throughout the world, veritas vos liberabit (the truth shall set you free), will never adorn the walls of SSU,” Nonn added.

“What good is an Ethics Center that won't discuss it's own ethics?” asked Thomas Morabito of Occupy Sebastopol. “They want to discuss your ethics, but not their own. They preach ‘do as I say, not as I do.’”

The Ethics Center plans to deal with issues such as immigration, water use, food ethics, clean technology, and income inequality, according to director Glasgow. “I look forward to many years of hard-nosed, sometimes gut-wrenching discussion of thorny issues,” Prof. Beard writes. We shall see.

The Center’s first event will be held on Feb. 6. While the talk is free, SSU has doubled its parking fees this semester to $5 - an increase that sends a clear message to the public that it is less welcome, although the university is funded primarily by taxpayer dollars.

What corporation or millionaire might be next at SSU? Wal-Mart? Monsanto, which funds the University of California at Irvine’s agriculture department?

May the the Center for Ethics, Law, and Society provide forums to discuss controversial issues and encourage critical thinking. Because right now, the take-over of public higher education by corporations is a serious threat.