Despite my opposition, the University of Michigan announced two weeks ago that former New York City mayor and uber-capitalist Michael Bloomberg will speak at Spring Commencement and receive an honorary degree.
In their proposal, University President Mark Schlissel and the Honorary Degree Committee wrote, “Mr. Bloomberg … you are a role model for civic leaders, students, and others who aspire to be agents of change. The University of Michigan celebrates your storied career and contributions to business, philanthropy, and effective government, and is proud to present to you the honorary degree, Doctor of Laws.”
Following the announcement, The Michigan Daily published an article elaborating the argument behind the University’s above claims (e.g., that Bloomberg is “a role model for civil leaders,” etc.). The article described Bloomberg’s business accomplishments, such as founding the major Wall Street data-tracking company, Bloomberg L.P., as well as his political accomplishments, such as creating a $4.4 billion budget surplus during his mayoralty. Though the article briefly noted that Bloomberg and the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk practice was “received with controversy,” it failed to explore the reasons for the controversy.
Readers of the Daily have not received the benefit of any sort of dissident reporting on this issue, such as hearing the opinions of students and faculty who might be opposed to Bloomberg’s invitation, and/or reviewing the problematic portions of Bloomberg’s record. Journalists, even on the small scale of a college newspaper, have a responsibility not to simply support those in power (e.g., the University administration, Board of Regents, etc.), but rather to check their authority with reporting that complicates, problematizes and, when appropriate, contradicts the establishment narrative.
Until now, the paper has not published any article or op-ed exploring why Bloomberg might not be a good choice for commencement speaker and honorary degree recipient. The reasons that form this dissenting opinion abound, but they are apparently uninteresting to my colleagues.
When we choose to model ourselves after someone, we presumably already resemble this person to some extent. Paying attention to his personal identity, we notice that Bloomberg is a super-rich, old white man, an identity that literally no University students share. The University esteems Bloomberg as a role model because he resembles the rich, old white men who have run this University since the time of its inception.
In our white supremacist patriarchal capitalist society, a role model is by definition a person with an identity like Bloomberg’s. Hence, within the University’s consciousness, a working-class woman of color, for example, cannot qualify as a role model, and hence isn’t invited to speak at commencement. So despite its incessant protestations that it highly values diversity, the University decided not to actualize that supposed principle, opting instead to continue its long history of supporting the voices of rich, old white men over the voices of young people, women, people of color and poor and working classes.
I also find it incredible that anyone familiar with Bloomberg’s record as mayor of New York City could see fit to honor him with a “Doctor of Laws” degree. The Daily’s article noted that Bloomberg served three terms as mayor of New York City, but it didn’t note that Bloomberg changed the term-limit law during his second term as mayor so that he could serve for a third.
When it looked like a fellow NYC billionaire might obstruct Bloomberg’s effort to maintain power, Bloomberg promised his would-be opponent a seat on an influential board in exchange for his consent. It worked, and Bloomberg revised the term-limit law and was eventually elected for a third term — a problematic twist in Bloomberg’s “storied career” as a “civic leader,” but maybe one inconvenient for the University as they coronate him an honorary doctor of the law. (Maybe the more apt honorary degree for Bloomberg would be “surgeon of the law.”)
Perhaps the most glaring blemish on Bloomberg’s mayoral record is the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk practice (aka stop-question-frisk), whereby police officers who suspect someone (usually an African-American or Hispanic person) of committing a crime may stop, question and then frisk them. Critics of stop-and-frisk emphasize, like I just did, how this policing practice disparately impacts people of color, both in the number of stops and consequent arrests, arguing that stop-and-frisk codifies racial profiling and amounts to a campaign of harassment against Black and brown people.
Bloomberg has defended the practice by pointing out that Blacks and Hispanics are far more likely to commit crimes, suggesting that racial profiling might therefore be a legitimate policing practice. This is an example of institutional racism and an instance of the law and its police oppressing people of color while in fact rhetorically denying their oppressiveness. Stop-and-frisk should disqualify Bloomberg as a doctor of the law, assuming that a doctor of the law should value things like civil rights and oppose things like institutional racism.
Lastly, one might confusedly conjecture that the University ought, to some degree, express the will of the state it supposedly serves. But alas, no. In the very same month that the majority of Michigan’s Democratic primary voters chose Sen. Bernie Sanders (D–Vt.), the staunch opponent of the billionaire class, as their party’s nominee, the University invited Bloomberg, a multi-billionaire Wall Street capitalist. The University could’ve chosen someone fighting against the current political-economic establishment, the one that many graduating seniors will soon suffer under full time as young, debt-rich wage slaves. Instead, the University chose to invite a fierce market fundamentalist firmly embedded within this country’s (not to mention the world’s) politico-economic establishment.
In sum, we might have serious reservations about Michael Bloomberg as this year’s Spring Commencement speaker, not to mention reservations about lauding him as our role model for civic leadership and affecting change.
When the University administration writes that “The University of Michigan celebrates (Bloomberg’s) storied career and contributions to business,” and then the Daily corroborates their argument as for why, dissenting opinions like mine (i.e., the opinions of University students who decidedly do not celebrate Bloomberg’s career or contributions but instead condemn them) are erased. Maybe these dissident opinions are, on the whole, wrong, but they deserve some consideration, as do the less flattering aspects of Bloomberg’s record.
Zak Witus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.