James Dimon Comes to Howard

On Friday, March 6, James “Jamie” Dimon, Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer of JPMorgan Chase & Company, will speak at Howard University’s 147th Charter Day Convocation.  Dimon is a celebrated corporate titan and the head of a scandal-ridden entity that serves as a marquee face of corporate greed and largesse in a time of financial uncertainty, growing class stratification, and a searing debate about higher education’s relationship to addressing inequality in America and the world.

Dimon will not be the first major business figure to speak at a recent Howard ritual.  At 2002’s Charter Day Convocation, Franklin Delano Raines, the first African-American CEO of a Fortune 500 Company when he became Chairman and CEO of Fannie Mae, spoke of the denial of Black capital and the unfulfilled promise of “Forty Acres and a Mule,” two years before accounting irregularities saw his departure near the beginning of the subprime mortgage lending frenzy.  At 2004’s Opening Convocation, Stanley O’Neal, then CEO of Merrill-Lynch, spoke eloquently about being the Alabama-born grandson of enslaved Africans and the promise of Black economic progress, even as his company speculated in 40 billion dollars worth of subprime mortgage bonds.

Nor is Howard the first university to honor Dimon.  Among others, he received an honorary Doctor of Laws in 2010 from Syracuse University.  Syracuse's then Chancellor, Nancy Cantor, had been Provost at the University of Michigan during the Supreme Court's pivotal Grutter Affirmative Action decision and later remarked, as Chair of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education Accreditation 2009 team visiting Howard, that Howard's unique mission and work was more important now than at any time since its founding. Cantor's relationship with Dimon was undoubtedly connected to the JPMorgan Chase Technology Center at Syracuse and the jointly designed collaboration between JPMorgan and the program in Global Enterprise Technology.  He was also a director of the College Fund/UNCF, among his many other board memberships. 

Nevertheless, at this particular moment in American and world history, there is almost universal derision of Wall Street excesses that continue to preside over growing structural inequality.  Last week, JPMorgan announced the elimination of 8,000 additional jobs in its consumer and mortgage-banking units, bringing the total to 24,500 in those two divisions since the start of 2013.  This occurs as the company’s net income targets soared above the 27 billion dollar mark.  Several weeks before, the company’s Board gave Dimon a 74 percent pay raise for 2013 that, at 20 million dollars, brought his pay nearer the range of its annual pre-derivatives-missteps levels.  JP Morgan’s stock soared by 33 percent last year with a profit of 18 billion dollars, the company’s Compensation Committee’s putative justification.  As many commentators have observed, Mr. Dimon made more in two hours of work than the average minimum wage worker makes in a year

Rewarding a CEO who has presided over 30 billion dollars in legal costs, fines, and penalties for wrongdoing is a defensible action consistent with corporate values.  Speaking to any university community at its founding commemoration, however, provides a special moral windfall that monetary largesse cannot bestow.  Immoral business actions, while legally and financially defensible, also communicate larger social values.  Howard’s Bully Pulpit offers an extra measure of significance as one identified with representing and uplifting the oppressed, whose capacity for the indulgence of ironies is unquestionably enhanced by the propaganda that structural inequalities can be challenged by individual merit, hard work, and individual achievement.  If Howard received Dimon’s 2007 annual pay of 49.9 million dollars, we would be able to subsidize 60 percent of all student financial aid for an academic year.  The ironies are almost embarrassingly evident.  What, then, will the University hear from a man repeatedly feted by Time Magazine as one of its 100 most influential people?

In a fantasy, James Dimon would use the unique platform of Howard to announce a course change in corporate citizenship and, as a show of good faith and a smart investment in human capital, present Howard, UNCF, and the Thurgood Marshall Fund with a billion dollars to be divided among all HBCUs as a down payment on more to come.  Perhaps, more realistically, the James and Judith K. Dimon Foundation will donate tens (or hundreds) of thousands of dollars to Howard as it has done in recent years for schools ranging from his alma mater, Tufts University, to the University of Chicago, Harvard, Duke, Tulane, and others.

The Blue Octagon of the Chase Bank part of JPMorgan Chase emerged in the early 1960s as one of the country’s first abstract symbol corporate logos.  Its shape (which looks like a cross-section of a wooden water pipe) was partially inspired by Chase Bank’s original parent, Alexander Hamilton’s Manhattan Company, which provided Lower Manhattan’s water through wooden water pipes before the creation of New York’s municipal water system.  As Thousands of Howard freshmen traveling to the New York African Burial Ground each fall have learned there, those pipes coursed through the burial sites of thousands of Africans, many of who had been enslaved by that emerging corporate gentry.

I have examined the Magna Carta and a Gutenberg Bible in New York’s J. Pierpont Morgan Library and Museum, its world-class book collection assembled primarily by Washington D.C.-born Belle da Costa Greene, estranged daughter of Richard Theodore Greener, the first Black graduate of Harvard and one time Dean of the Howard School of Law.  Will Mr. Dimon’s researchers help him make these connections in his oration? These facts after all, are minor trifles in a world that prizes amnesia when discussing profits and losses.  Our academic regalia are vestiges of medieval Europe, its pomp and circumstance a constant reminder on the high holy days that old times, and the moral obligation of remembering as a foundation for visioning, are the academic’s bailiwick.  

Straddling the realpolitik of its curious existence in a world turned upside down by race, Howard has always walked the line.  A university established near the dawn of reconstruction as both statement and symbol of national hope, Howard was founded 14 months after the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment and 17 months before the Fourteenth Amendment.  Its charter states that Howard was founded as “a university for the education of youth in the liberal arts and sciences,” though, in a controversial move that found General Howard testifying before Congress, money from the War Department’s Freedmen’s Bureau was appropriated toward the construction of the university’s first building.  Clearly, while the “Freedmen” were not mentioned in the initial charter, the purpose of Howard was then, as now, clear: It would be an institution built on the premise of racial equality, with its primary beneficiaries being Africans.

Perhaps James Dimon will bring a message strewn with both advice and money for a Library Science Program to make a statement about literacy, especially in public education, in the name of Belle da Costa Greene and her father and their connection to Washington, DC, Howard and the larger idea of the book as foundation for learning.  Or a generous donation to the Montague Cobb Biological Anthropology Laboratory, reconnecting the work that the laboratory and Howard scholars did on the New York African Burial Ground, evoking the slavery-ambivalent Hamilton and the Chase Manhattan Bank he founded.  Perhaps at least an acknowledgement that Dimon’s researchers have ensured that he knows the significance of Charter Day.  Perhaps we will rise in standing ovation, bewitched, bothered and bewildered.  Perhaps.  Perhaps.