Home Opinions Letter to the Editor: Piper Center corruption

Letter to the Editor: Piper Center corruption

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UPDATED: This story has been edited to reflect the fact that Buntrock faced civil rather than criminal charges.

It’s only two months old, yet the Harry C. Piper Center for Vocation and Career has already violated the college’s commitment to its students as stated on the St. Olaf website, that it will “encourage [students] to lead lives of unselfish service to others” and “challenge [them] be responsible and knowledgeable citizens of the world.”

Through two of its new flagship programs, “New York Connections” and “Ole Biz,” the Center has connected scores of students with alumni who hold senior positions at Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo and Barclays – the very banking giants that have made fortunes by robbing pensioners, stockholders, homeowners and just about everyone else.

These alumni are remarkably intelligent and privileged human beings who have sold their souls to the highest bidder. They are servants of greed. The vast majority of them are no doubt morally upright in their households and workplaces, yet they use their talent to perpetuate institutions that destroy lives and families. Their work sustains the very mega-banks whose insatiable greed nearly destroyed the U.S. economy and then forced American taxpayers to bail them out.

The 25 students participating in the Piper Center’s New York Connections Program were divided into three tracks according to their career interest. Those who chose the business and finance track met with an alumnus who is a vice president at Goldman Sachs and Company. This behemoth investment bank played a leading role in two of the greatest financial disasters ever: the dot-com bubble of the late ’90s and the housing bubble that caused the “Great Recession.” Goldman Sachs also created the oil bubble that contributed to the price of a barrel of oil skyrocketing from $60 in the middle of 2007 to a high of $147 in the summer of 2008. This in turn caused food prices to rise, forcing an estimated 100 million people into hunger.

Some higher-ups in these financial institutions still have a conscience. Earlier this year, Goldman Sachs’s Executive Director Greg Smith resigned from the firm, citing its “toxic and destructive” culture.

After meeting the alumnus working for Goldman Sachs, the business and finance students met with three alumni who hold senior positions at the British bank Barclays formerly Barclays Capital. This summer Barclays paid a paltry $450 million to British investigators for its complicity in the biggest financial crime of all time. Barclays admitted to conspiring for the past decade with other Wall Street banks to fix global interest rates. The company manipulated Libor, a benchmark rate that determines interest rates for everything from student loans to credit cards and affects at least $500 trillion of financial transactions. As one Pulitzer prize-winning journalist put it, “Manipulating the Libor is a big deal because it affects the cost of money for almost everyone.”

That journalist is Gretchen Morgenson ’76, business and financial editor for The New York Times. Not only has she written about the Libor scandal, but she also has written extensively about the crimes of Goldman Sachs. Ironically, she was featured in the New York Connections program, although the business and finance students did not meet with her.

The Piper Center’s inaugural “Ole Biz” connected students with alumni serving another deviant mega-bank: Wells Fargo, the nation’s largest residential home mortgage originator. Held on Oct. 30 at the swank Minneapolis Club, the event featured over 150 students and 120 alumni, several of whom hold senior positions at Wells Fargo. The U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York is suing Wells Fargo for “hundreds of millions of dollars” for “defrauding a government-backed mortgage insurance program.”

In July of this year, Wells Fargo paid a laughable $175 million to settle a lawsuit brought by the Department of Justice DOJ for racially discriminatory lending practices. Among the DOJ’s allegations was that between 2004 and 2009 Wells Fargo discriminated by charging higher fees and rates “to approximately 30,000 African-American and Hispanic wholesale borrowers … because of their race or national origin rather than the borrowers’ credit worthiness …”

The Piper Center’s ties to criminal banks goes far deeper, for it is financed in large part by a multi-millionaire banker.

The Center for Vocation and Career bears the name of Harry C. Piper, who was chairman of Piper, Jaffray & Hopwood, Inc. and chaired the St. Olaf Board of Regents from 1986 to 1990. Harry’s son Addison “Tad” Piper donated $2.575 million to endow the center. Tad Piper is the retired Chair and CEO of Piper Jaffray Companies, an international investment bank based in Minneapolis. He was appointed to the Board of Regents in 1999 and became its chair in 2011.

Neither father nor son is a St. Olaf graduate, yet remarkably, they both have occupied the most powerful position in the college.

“[W]e have this kind of love affair with this college …” Tad Piper said in his speech at the Center’s dedication ceremony.

Students should be disturbed by this “love affair.” Piper Jaffray, like the other Wall Street banks, abused millions of investors. In 2003, it and nine other firms reached a $1.4 billion settlement with the SEC for “luring millions of investors to buy billions of dollars’ worth of shares in companies they knew were troubled which ultimately either collapsed or sharply declined.” Piper Jaffray and the other firms received “secret payments from companies they gave strong recommendations to buy.”

In accepting millions from Tad Piper, the college’s leadership clearly has no moral qualms about its cozy relationship with Piper Jaffray. Yet, this unconscionable action should come as no surprise. Nearly 13 years ago, the college leadership accepted $26 million for a new student center from Dean Buntrock ’55, one of the greediest CEOs in recent memory.

The Piper Center’s funding and its affinity for connecting students with alumni enriching themselves at Wall Street banks is a canary in the coal mine. It indicates that the president and Regents view the college mission statement as an anachronism, and they are in the process of rendering it irrelevant.

It also suggests a motive for turning the Center for Experiential Learning into the Piper Center: create more wealthy alumni. To hide this, the college leadership constructs a façade out of Christian rhetoric such as “vocation” and “unselfish service to others.”

Their hypocrisy was evident in President David Anderson’s speech at the Piper Center’s dedication ceremony.

“We expect graduates of our college to contribute to the common weal: in their families, in the workplace and in their communities,” he said.

Clearly this is duplicitous. Were it true, the Piper Center would not be introducing scores of unwitting students seeking to “expand their network” to alumni who work for banks that assault the common welfare.

In doing so, the Piper Center makes a mockery of the mission statement, which says, “life is more than a livelihood.” The primary function of the Piper Center is to create a new base of wealthy donors. To the Regents and the president, it is morally irrelevant how future donors will have made their money.

James Daly ’13 daly@stolaf.edu is from Cambridge, Wis. He majors in environmental studies.