This newspaper recently reported on the connection between Bowdoin trustee James Staley ’87 P’11 and billionaire sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein. The reporting makes no conclusions about Staley’s possible implication in criminal activity, but leaves the reader with the clear impression that further investigation is warranted. Such attention to these crimes of power is altogether appropriate. Yet, the salaciousness of Epstein’s crimes may distract us from the many well-documented instances of more quotidian wrongdoing to which we so easily become accustomed. Holding ourselves—as individuals and as a community—to the highest ethical standards means reckoning with the systemic corruption, banal evil and unethical practices on which the comforts and privilege of this extraordinary college prides itself. Here are a few examples of what I am talking about.
President Clayton Rose serves on the board of Bank of America, which profits off the private prison industry in general and, until recently, the migrant detention centers being built at breakneck speed to keep up with the booming business of family separation. Under public pressure, he gave a routine disavowal of the practice; he made no mention of repudiating the profits that have accrued to him under it. What if we demanded that he do so? A quick glance at BoA’s history finds a pattern of fraud, negligence and profiting from mountaintop removal coal mining, one of the most destructive practices in one of the most destructive industries in the world. This is where the money comes from.
The chairman of Bowdoin’s Board of Trustees, Robert F. White ’77 P’15, spent the 1980s as one of the architects of Bain Capital, a private equity firm notorious for its pioneering use of corporate dividends to accumulate massive profits for itself while processing the cash-starved companies under its control through the more Byzantine corners of the bankruptcy code. This practice sent hundreds or thousands of workers at a time into unemployment and hollowed out businesses once ingrained in their communities, while pocketing millions for White and others, so they could move on to the next acquisition. This is where the money comes from.
The vice-chair of the board of trustees, Paula Wardynski ‘79, is a senior vice president of Rupert Murdoch’s Newscorp, where she manages the company’s global assets. It seems redundant to even begin to describe the destructive practices Wardynski is indirectly complicit in—the dissemination of conspiracy theories, assaults on journalistic standards, systematic degradation of women and so on. But Wardynski is specifically implicated in behind the scenes work for the Murdoch family directly, where she helped in the management of secret boating and real estate holdings which may not meet the legal definition of money laundering, but which everyone involved worked to keep secret until the revelation of key documents in the Paradise Papers leak. This is where the money comes from.
Finally, let’s take a look at James Staley himself, who spent over 30 years at J.P. Morgan Chase, and is now CEO of Barclays, two of the largest and most powerful financial organizations in the world, each trailing a list of crimes, fraud and acts of destructive greed too long to list here. During Staley’s tenure as Chief Executive at Chase, the bank settled lawsuits or paid fines for market manipulation, non-compliance with banking regulations, bribery, fraud, sanctions violations and, naturally, obstruction of justice for hindering the investigation into some of those crimes. Making sure that the bank maintained a warm business relationship with a man imprisoned for sex trafficking barely makes the list.
I have mentioned these four people because of the prominence of their positions, but the choice was largely arbitrary. The Board of Trustees, the big-name donors, the other powerbrokers at this college—many of them have similar stories. It is easy to demand that someone cut ties with a sex trafficker, but other cases are not quite so easy. Using state of the art lab equipment made possible by the fruits of currency manipulation, or playing on a sports field underwritten by a peddler of sub-prime mortgages or joining an alumni network full of profiteers all feel just fine. But should they?
Let’s not let the dramatic revelations about Epstein, and the swirl of rumors that follows them, distract us from what is hiding in plain sight: dirty money flows through this college’s hefty coffers, and getting rid of it, if we decide we want to, will be no easy task. This is the hardest kind of moral reckoning, but in a world of profound and unexpected connections, as beneficiaries of institutional power, it is absolutely necessary.
Andrew Hamilton is a visiting assistant professor in the German department.