(The following column by Yoni Golijov and Sumayya Kassamali was first posted on the Columbia Daily Spectator student newspaper website at Columbia University on October 13, 2011)
by Yoni Golijov and Sumayya Kassamali
Let’s not kid ourselves about how the beautiful space that is our university is paid for. Despite the tuition you are paying, the accumulated largesse of oligarchs of Manhattan continues to fund a large share of Columbia’s operations. The slew of named buildings and endowed chairs reflects how much Columbia University’s endowment is the combination of illicit wealth it has accumulated from Caribbean slavery in the past all the way to the financial crisis in 2008.
This larger fact is the background for many smaller connections between Columbia and Wall Street. Columbia’s endowment depends on good relations with the financial Masters of the Universe. For example, all of the five vice chairs of the board of trustees are financiers, from Goldman Sachs to real estate. Then there is the infamous Columbia Business School, where professors of finance reap enormous salaries from outside consulting gigs and positions on corporate boards of directors.
“Inside Job” did well at revealing some of the dodgy conflicts of interest surrounding the business school faculty. But it missed something that’s perhaps deeper. Many of the business school faculty would probably peddle the interests of the ultra-wealthy for free—they really believe it. Glenn Hubbard, the dean, was chair of the Republican Council of Economic Advisors, championed the first Bush tax cuts, and has repeatedly come out in favor of more and bigger tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans as the surest route to growth.
Moving along, there are the various cross-affiliations with the law school. Most immediately, Michael Sovern, former university president and a professor at Columbia Law School, is chairman of the board of Sotheby’s, the luxury art and real estate dealer. Sotheby’s is currently locking out its workers, members of Teamsters’ Local 814, and is demanding that all new hires work temp jobs with no benefits. The lockout has been going on for 10 weeks.
Finally, there is the conflict of interest of President Bollinger’s chairmanship of the board of the New York Federal Reserve. Bollinger was appointed to fill the shoes of Denis Hughes, state president of the AFL-CIO, to “represent the public” in the Fed. But how can Bollinger, whose job involves befriending the ultra-wealthy and convincing them to write checks to the University, carry out responsibilities that could endanger that very wealth (like pushing for higher inflation or large-scale student debt relief)? This is just the tip of the iceberg, and many more connections could be discussed. One ironic consequence of Columbia’s allegiance to the wealthy is that the endowment could actually swell with an increase in high-income and capital gains taxes. The endowment is a tax-exempt foundation, and evidence suggests that donations to such things increase when taxes go up. But the more fundamental problem is the dependence of Columbia’s prestige on the goodwill of the ultra-wealthy. While public universities like CUNY/SUNY are starved of funds, Columbia’s opulence remains, courtesy of a cozy relationship with Wall Street.
Yoni Golijov is a Columbia College senior majoring in economics-philosophy. Sumayya Kassamali is a Ph.D. student in the department of anthropology at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.