A Higher Learning is Needed: Balancing Corporate Interests and Civil Rights at Syracuse University

A Higher Learning is Needed: Balancing Corporate Interests and Civil Rights at Syracuse University

George Payne is a Visiting Professor of Philosophy at Finger Lakes Community College and Niagara County Community College. In 2014 he founded Gandhi Earth Keepers International, an online social justice network for activists devoted to environmentalism. George is also the host of the Broken Spear Vision on g-payne-1_23_13Rochester Free Radio 106.3 FM.

In Learning for the Long Haul: The Campus Sustainability Movement Grows, George reviewed sustainability initiatives and advances at colleges and universities across western New York.

Today George takes a closer look at Syracuse University.


Syracuse University. First floor reading room in the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial Library, 1972

Photography by George Payne


Ernie Davis statue outside the Carrier Dome. The Heisman winning running back is a legendary figure at SU.

Located in upstate New York, Syracuse University is a private research institution that was founded by members of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1870. Today it is nonsectarian but affiliated with the United Methodist Church. Syracuse offers more than 200 majors across 13 schools and colleges. The S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications is ranked among the top communication schools in the nation. Syracuse is also introducing the first sports analytics major in the country. The campus is home to a large pool of student media organizations, with a broad range of student-run magazines, radio and TV stations, newspapers, PR groups and ad agencies. The school recently opened a campus in New York City, where students can spend a semester completing internships and specialized coursework. The Syracuse Orange have produced seven football Hall of Fame members and have one of the most successful NCAA Division I programs in the country. Significant Syracuse alumni include VP Joe Biden, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, journalist Megyn Kelly, authors Joyce Carol Oates and Alice Sebold, and NBA star Carmelo Anthony.


  • Student Population: 21,492
  • Undergraduate Population: 15,224
  • Student to Faculty Ratioa: 16
  • Total Annual Costc: $61,242



The school prides itself on being at the cutting edge of technology, business, communications, architecture, and political science.

A university is just a group of buildings gathered around a library.
Shelby Foote


Syracuse is looking to become more sustainable. These gardens are a small scale example of how SU is working to green its campus and promote climate change awareness among students and faculty

The principle of academic freedom is designed to make sure that powers outside the university, including government and corporations, are not able to control the curriculum or intervene in extra-mural speech.
Judith Butler


Syracuse is a university town. These hallowed halls have paved the way for Nobel Laureates, Peabody recipients, Pulitzer Prize img_20141112_184742656winners, Vice Presidents, astronauts, Emmy winners and more.

 The exhibit below can be found in the foyer of a residence house across from Hendricks Chapel; it houses rare artifacts such as the cast fossils of ancient creatures and trees.

We live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups. I ask, in my writing, ‘What is real?’ Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudo realities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms.
Philip K. Dick

Crouse College of Fine Arts

In 2014, students occupied  a residence hall to protest discrimination, hate crimes on campus, and the overall corporate direction of their school. The sit-in gained national coverage on Democracy Now and other progressive media outlets. The chancellor eventually agreed to adopt a number of platform suggestions made by the student demonstrators.


“If then a practical end must be assigned to a University course, I say it is that of training good members of society… It is the education which gives a man a clear, conscious view of their own opinions and judgements, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them, and a force in urging them. It teaches him to see things as they are, to go right to the point, to disentangle a skein of thought to detect what is sophistical and to discard what is irrelevant.”
John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University


One in four corporations doesn’t pay any taxes.
Bernie Sanders



“Last Monday, students gathered on the steps of Syracuse University’s Hendricks Chapel for the Diversity and Transparency (DAT) Rally, organized to draw attention to issues facing diverse groups at SU and accusations that the school’s administration is not embracing diversity.

At the conclusion of the rally, protestors entered Chancellor Kent Syverud’s office and handed a member of his administration a 40+ page grievances and solutions document, saying they would sit in the lobby until all of their requests were addressed.

The students haven’t left the building since.

“There’s been a lot of decisions made without transparency,” says senior Laura Cohen. “Ever since May with the new chancellor, there have been a lot of closed door decisions, so we decided to form a coalition that united all of the different campaigns and groups that have been affected.”

From closing the campus Advocacy Center to fossil fuel divestment to defunding minority scholarships without any warning or student input, groups that have been impacted by these decisions have rallied around the DAT Movement. It is spearheaded by THE General Body, a student organization that calls itself “a united front of student organizations at Syracuse University.”




SU Partners with JPMorgan Chase & Co

“Twenty-five years ago, financial services firm JPMorgan Chase & Co. was locally processing paper-based transactions. Today, trillions of dollars pass daily through systems that are fully automated and global in scale.

Unfortunately, the skills needed to manage these systems are in short supply. Realizing that it needed a pipeline of technologists who could thrive in such a multifaceted, integrated environment, JPMorgan Chase began looking for a partner—a like-minded university that could help train this new generation of information professionals.

A reputation for academic excellence and a strong belief in Scholarship in Action made Syracuse University the ideal choice. So in 2007, JPMorgan Chase and SU launched a collaboration that’s as broad as it is unique. The 10-year, $30 million commitment to SU is creating a financial services technology curriculum and training program that will benefit students throughout the region…

Perhaps most important, SU and JPMorgan Chase have demonstrated a new kind of university-industry collaboration. “This close working partnership between a world-class company and a leading research university is an exciting new model for designing a curriculum in an emerging field,” says Ben Ware, SU’s vice president for research. “It’s a model that can be applied to a wide range of curricular reinventions.”



 “In feudal times the aristocracy had sent their sons to university, conferring superiority on the institution. Nowadays it was the other way round: the university conferred superiority on the man.”
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed


 Sports continue to be the school’s hottest commodity. The SU basketball team is one of the most profitable and nationally recognized brands in New York State. It brings in tens of millions of dollars to the university. As long as big sports continue to play such a vital role in the university‘s budget, other initiatives, programs, and campaigns will take a backseat in terms of prioritization.


The Olympic Games are highly commercialised. They purport to follow the traditions of an ancient athletics competition, but today it is the commercial aspect that is most apparent. I have seen how, through sport, cities and corporations compete against each other for financial gain.
Ali Weiwei

The Carrier Dome, a cathedral to corporatism. (Stock image)


from the collection of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library located in the Sims Building (from library website)

George Saunders’s Advice to Graduates

The entire speech, graduation season or not, is well worth reading, and is included below.

Down through the ages, a traditional form has evolved for this type of speech, which is: Some old fart, his best years behind him, who, over the course of his life, has made a series of dreadful mistakes (that would be me), gives heartfelt advice to a group of shining, energetic young people, with all of their best years ahead of them (that would be you).

And I intend to respect that tradition.

Now, one useful thing you can do with an old person, in addition to borrowing money from them, or asking them to do one of their old-time “dances,” so you can watch, while laughing, is ask: “Looking back, what do you regret?” And they’ll tell you. Sometimes, as you know, they’ll tell you even if you haven’t asked. Sometimes, even when you’ve specifically requested they not tell you, they’ll tell you.

So: What do I regret? Being poor from time to time? Not really. Working terrible jobs, like “knuckle-puller in a slaughterhouse?” (And don’t even ASK what that entails.) No. I don’t regret that. Skinny-dipping in a river in Sumatra, a little buzzed, and looking up and seeing like 300 monkeys sitting on a pipeline, pooping down into the river, the river in which I was swimming, with my mouth open, naked? And getting deathly ill afterwards, and staying sick for the next seven months? Not so much. Do I regret the occasional humiliation? Like once, playing hockey in front of a big crowd, including this girl I really liked, I somehow managed, while falling and emitting this weird whooping noise, to score on my own goalie, while also sending my stick flying into the crowd, nearly hitting that girl? No. I don’t even regret that.

But here’s something I do regret:

In seventh grade, this new kid joined our class. In the interest of confidentiality, her Convocation Speech name will be “ELLEN.” ELLEN was small, shy. She wore these blue cat’s-eye glasses that, at the time, only old ladies wore. When nervous, which was pretty much always, she had a habit of taking a strand of hair into her mouth and chewing on it.

So she came to our school and our neighborhood, and was mostly ignored, occasionally teased (“Your hair taste good?” — that sort of thing). I could see this hurt her. I still remember the way she’d look after such an insult: eyes cast down, a little gut-kicked, as if, having just been reminded of her place in things, she was trying, as much as possible, to disappear. After awhile she’d drift away, hair-strand still in her mouth. At home, I imagined, after school, her mother would say, you know: “How was your day, sweetie?” and she’d say, “Oh, fine.” And her mother would say, “Making any friends?” and she’d go, “Sure, lots.”

Sometimes I’d see her hanging around alone in her front yard, as if afraid to leave it.

And then — they moved. That was it. No tragedy, no big final hazing.

One day she was there, next day she wasn’t.

End of story.

Now, why do I regret that? Why, forty-two years later, am I still thinking about it? Relative to most of the other kids, I was actually pretty nice to her. I never said an unkind word to her. In fact, I sometimes even (mildly) defended her.

But still. It bothers me.

So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:

What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.

Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded . . . sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.

Or, to look at it from the other end of the telescope: Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth?

Those who were kindest to you, I bet.

It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.

Now, the million-dollar question: What’s our problem? Why aren’t we kinder?

Here’s what I think:

Each of us is born with a series of built-in confusions that are probably somehow Darwinian. These are: (1) we’re central to the universe (that is, our personal story is the main and most interesting story, the only story, really); (2) we’re separate from the universe (there’s US and then, out there, all that other junk – dogs and swing-sets, and the State of Nebraska and low-hanging clouds and, you know, other people), and (3) we’re permanent (death is real, o.k., sure – for you, but not for me).

Now, we don’t really believe these things – intellectually we know better – but we believe them viscerally, and live by them, and they cause us to prioritize our own needs over the needs of others, even though what we really want, in our hearts, is to be less selfish, more aware of what’s actually happening in the present moment, more open, and more loving.

So, the second million-dollar question: How might we DO this? How might we become more loving, more open, less selfish, more present, less delusional, etc., etc?

Well, yes, good question.

Unfortunately, I only have three minutes left.

So let me just say this. There are ways. You already know that because, in your life, there have been High Kindness periods and Low Kindness periods, and you know what inclined you toward the former and away from the latter. Education is good; immersing ourselves in a work of art: good; prayer is good; meditation’s good; a frank talk with a dear friend; establishing ourselves in some kind of spiritual tradition — recognizing that there have been countless really smart people before us who have asked these same questions and left behind answers for us.

Because kindness, it turns out, is hard — it starts out all rainbows and puppy dogs, and expands to include . . . well, everything.

One thing in our favor: some of this “becoming kinder” happens naturally, with age. It might be a simple matter of attrition: as we get older, we come to see how useless it is to be selfish — how illogical, really. We come to love other people and are thereby counter-instructed in our own centrality. We get our butts kicked by real life, and people come to our defense, and help us, and we learn that we’re not separate, and don’t want to be. We see people near and dear to us dropping away, and are gradually convinced that maybe we too will drop away (someday, a long time from now). Most people, as they age, become less selfish and more loving. I think this is true. The great Syracuse poet, Hayden Carruth, said, in a poem written near the end of his life, that he was “mostly Love, now.”

And so, a prediction, and my heartfelt wish for you: as you get older, your self will diminish and you will grow in love. YOU will gradually be replaced by LOVE. If you have kids, that will be a huge moment in your process of self-diminishment. You really won’t care what happens to YOU, as long as they benefit. That’s one reason your parents are so proud and happy today. One of their fondest dreams has come true: you have accomplished something difficult and tangible that has enlarged you as a person and will make your life better, from here on in, forever.

Congratulations, by the way.

When young, we’re anxious — understandably — to find out if we’ve got what it takes. Can we succeed? Can we build a viable life for ourselves? But you — in particular you, of this generation — may have noticed a certain cyclical quality to ambition. You do well in high-school, in hopes of getting into a good college, so you can do well in the good college, in the hopes of getting a good job, so you can do well in the good job so you can . . .

And this is actually O.K. If we’re going to become kinder, that process has to include taking ourselves seriously — as doers, as accomplishers, as dreamers. We have to do that, to be our best selves.

Still, accomplishment is unreliable. “Succeeding,” whatever that might mean to you, is hard, and the need to do so constantly renews itself (success is like a mountain that keeps growing ahead of you as you hike it), and there’s the very real danger that “succeeding” will take up your whole life, while the big questions go untended.

So, quick, end-of-speech advice: Since, according to me, your life is going to be a gradual process of becoming kinder and more loving: Hurry up. Speed it along. Start right now. There’s a confusion in each of us, a sickness, really: selfishness. But there’s also a cure. So be a good and proactive and even somewhat desperate patient on your own behalf — seek out the most efficacious anti-selfishness medicines, energetically, for the rest of your life.

Do all the other things, the ambitious things — travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers (after first having it tested for monkey poop) – but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality — your soul, if you will — is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Teresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place. Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.

And someday, in 80 years, when you’re 100, and I’m 134, and we’re both so kind and loving we’re nearly unbearable, drop me a line, let me know how your life has been. I hope you will say: It has been so wonderful.

Congratulations, Class of 2013.

I wish you great happiness, all the luck in the world, and a beautiful summer.syracuse-pic


Talker invited to the University of Rochester to talk about Talker

About The Author


Welcome to Talker of the Town! My name is David Kramer. I have a Ph.D in English and teach at Keuka College. I am a former and still active Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History and a Storyteller in Residence at the SmallMatters Institute. Over the years, I have taught at Monroe Community College, the Rochester Institute of Technology and St. John Fisher College. I have published numerous Guest Essays, Letters, Book Reviews and Opinion pieces in The New York Times, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Buffalo News, the Rochester Patriot, the Providence Journal, the Providence Business News, the Brown Alumni Magazine, the New London Day, the Boston Herald, the Messenger Post Newspapers, the Wedge, the Empty Closet, the CITY, Lake Affect Magazine and Brighton Connections. My poetry appears in The Criterion: An International Journal in English and Rundenalia and my academic writing in War, Literature and the Arts and Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Starting in February 2013, I wrote for three Democratic and Chronicle  blogs, "Make City Schools Better," "Unite Rochester," and the "Editorial Board." When my tenure at the D & C  ended, I wanted to continue conversations first begun there. And start new ones.  So we created this new space, Talker of the Town, where all are invited to join. I don’t like to say these posts are “mine.” Very few of them are the sole product of my sometimes overheated imagination. Instead, I call them partnerships and collaborations. Or as they say in education, “peer group work.” Talker of the Town might better be Talkers of the Town. The blog won’t thrive without your leads, text, pictures, ideas, facebook shares, tweets, comments and criticisms.


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