Bowdoin’s moral tanglements are bigger than the Epstein case
September 20, 2019
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.
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If you feel so strongly about the dirty money at Bowdoin why did you accept a visiting professorship here and what will your Edward Snowden wannabe act accomplish? Just as a point of historical reference some of the biggest philanthropists in our history, such as Carnegie and Rockefeller, make those you have named choir angels in comparison.
James Pierce 1969
Professor Hamilton: “Bowdoin society should improve somewhat.”
James Pierce, 1969: “And yet you participate in Bowdoin society. Curious!”
Fear mongering. Not a direct, clear fact or “violation” was listed, and you spent a paragraph attempting to graphically describe a private equity business. Shameful waste of ink and paper. Perhaps consider the environment before wasting resources
It seemed pretty direct and clear to me. Perhaps you should give it another read? I doubt the Orient “wastes” a ton of ink and paper churning out many print editions these days, with the ubiquity of the internet and all that, but fear not, youngAlumni! It is almost assuredly all recyclable.
“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”
[distributes op-ed electronically detailing unethical and inhumane practices of businessmen who also happen to invest in fossil fuels]
“STOP WASTING INK THINK OF THE ENVIRONMENT”
This is the garbage we get when the head of faculty hiring says he will do everything in his power to keep from hiring any conservatives.
Yes, because clearly wanting things to progress is the problem here, not the position of wanting problematic practices to stay the same forever.
“dirty money flows through this college’s hefty coffers”
And yet, here you are, bellied up to the trough.
Yes, making the fabulous wages of a VAP in the ultra secure world of academic labor. The ‘trough’ is what’s available for connected people, not a poor VAP who had the courage to satay what so many others have been only thinking.
As a parent of a Bowdoin graduate, I am impressed by Professor Hamilton’s moral clarity and outrage. There is no more courageous act than biting the hand that feeds you.
I do not know any of the people that Professor Hamilton slanders in this piece, but it was shocking as an alum to see a member of the (visiting) faculty engage in such one dimensional, personal vitriol. The world is much more complex than Mr. Hamilton’s cherry picked examples of “moral” transgression suggest. He knows nothing about what these people do, who they are, or the full context of their professional lives. However, all have made money and contributed significant amounts of it – and time – to the College. They have helped keep the humanities funded (how many German and other language programs have been eliminated at other colleges?). Thanks to alumni generosity, Professor Hamilton teaches students accepted through a need blind admissions process. Would he cut that Bowdoin policy out just to score simplistic rhetorical points against his selectively chosen “bad” guys? We should expect much more nuanced thought and dialogue from Bowdoin faculty. Surely the role of money is a fair topic for exploration and evolution. However, this op-Ed instead continues the very simplistic, polarized rhetoric that is all too common on Twitter and cable news.
‘Personal’? What are you talking about? Sounds like he knows all too well what he’s talking about. And is the idea that philanthropic benevolence offsets whatever inequities have been exploited to become benevolent? Of course not – the former do not erase the latter. You seem to be saying that the college itself can only continue its benevolence (as in the form of need-blind admissions) if its trustees continue to exploit. Sure that’s the argument you want to make?
You write that Jes Staley was “Chief Executive at Chase”, implying that he was in charge of the whole bank. That title belongs to Jamie Dimon. Actually, Jes was the CEO of the investment bank, meaning he had no oversight over many of the “crimes” you accuse the bank of. Please research more carefully before you slander a great Bowdoin alumnus.
Last year Jess Staley was fined $15 million in US and £642K in UK for trying to unmask a whistleblower at Barlcays. Mentioning his violation of law is not slander.
Why not insist those mentioned quit the private sector and become itinerant academics like you?
That’s not the point of this piece at ALL. Professor Hamilton never suggests that anyone has to quit the private sector or become an academic. He is just committing the apparent crime of pointing out that some people in the Bowdoin community made money in unethical ways. But that’s a wonderful strawman argument you’re bandying about there.
Slander is false charges/misrepresentations. There is nothing false or misrepresented in this piece. It’s not one-dimensional or vitriolic either. How is pointing out that the President of Bowdoin College and some members on its Board of Trustees have obtained their wealth through unethical means slanderous? I’m truly curious about that. I’m not sure why you put moral in quotations either. The listed transgressions truly ARE morally wrong. There’s no debating that. I think he knows EXACTLY what these people have done. That’s quite literally what the article is about. We don’t need the full context to know that these actions were bad. What poppycock. It’s great that these people have contributed money to Bowdoin. Does that mean they get a pass at examination of the origins of that money? If a sex trafficker contributes money to homeless organizations, do they deserve to be forgiven for their crimes? No one is suggesting that we cut Bowdoin policy out, but that’s a good straw man argument. I thought the piece was very nuanced and starts a great dialogue we’re participating in right now. It’s fascinating to me that someone just pointing out where some Bowdoin money came from sparks such outrage.
The strongest theme among the comments here is best illustrated by the phrase (used by Michael Elias) “biting the hand that feeds you.” This betrays a fundamental and fatal misunderstanding of Hamilton’s critique, and of Hamilton’s position in the Bowdoin community. By analogizing Hamilton to a thankless dog, this comment reveals what its author thinks of faculty members here, and (one suspects) of how employees ought to relate to their employers in general: with servility and with silence.
Thankfully, one of the reasons that Bowdoin hires independent thinkers, and participates in a system whereby academic freedom is guaranteed, is so that people like Hamilton can engage in immanent criticism of the institution that employs them. This is exactly what he has done, and kudos to him. Immanent criticism makes any institution, and any community, stronger. This is the job of the faculty, full stop.
Hamilton’s argument is neither slanderous nor personal. It is, rather, a courageous first salvo aimed at opening a much-needed conversation among students, alumni, faculty, staff, administration, and trustees. One can only assume that most members of our community will react with interest and with grace to that conversation, and I look forward to participating in it.
We are all privileged and all guilty on some level, as Americans, investors, beneficiaries of a system that exploits people and has harmed people & the environment. I am grateful that these Trustees have given back to Bowdoin & to other causes, supporting Hamilton’s scholarship and other forms of unbiased inquiry, and extending those opportunities to new generations of students.
Professor Hamilton is an incredible professor and I emphatically agree with everything in this article. His courage is inspiring. I wish he were staying at Bowdoin for longer – he will be sorely missed.
Thank you Professor Hamilton, for inspiring Bowdoin students current and former to demand better from an institution that prides itself on contributing to the common good. You raise important questions about what image our Board of Trustees presents and whether Bowdoin as an institution wants to portray that image, as well as the moral implications students, faculty, and staff feel as a result. I hope the your message resonates with another ethically nefarious practice on campus: the abuse of our housekeepers.
Truly embarrassing that Prof Hamilton wrote such drivel, as it demonstrates such a shallow grasp of economics and ethics. Bowdoin should maintain higher hiring standards. If you wouldn’t let him in to be a student, why hire him to be a professor? Students deserve better.
To Prof. Hamilton, that old saying bears repeating: “better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.”
John, you’re totally right. You opened your mouth and revealed yourself a fool by calling this drivel.
I don’t recall when society appointed this man as our moral compass. How dare a man who teaches the language used by the most vitriolic hate advocates in human history publicize random threads as somehow invalidating the trustee’s right to help his college.
When did Professor Hamilton claim to be a moral compass? That’s a wonderful attempt at a straw man argument. Yes, Nazis were German, therefore we should never teach German. Good point, Bill.
So, here we have a Bowdoin Professor arguing that the College he works for is systemically corrupt, evil, and unethical. At least, that is the way I interpreted the opening salvo, in which Prof. Hamilton states:
“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.”
Curious people want to know: what is the College’s response to this charge?
One could ask why Prof. Hamilton chooses to accept paychecks from such a morally bankrupt institution run amok with “quotidian wrongdoing”? Surely, someone at a more ethically pure College could say he himself is “indirectly complicit” in building private prisons or that every dollar he takes from Bowdoin signals support for Jeffrey Epstein. That’s not me saying, “don’t bite the hand that feeds you,” as some have suggested. It is a logical next step in this cancel culture charade. To judge the morality of individuals – and entire institutions – based on associations or “indirect complicity” is intellectually lazy, and it is incredibly dangerous terrain for a College to tread.
The best way of changing any problematic or corrupt system is from within. It’s curious that multiple commenters admonish the professor for accepting a job at Bowdoin when that same professor is attempting to make Bowdoin better. Who better to ask Bowdoin to be better than a professor who teaches at Bowdoin? Do you think criticism from some random professor at any college of Bowdoin would be taken seriously?