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Professor speaks at Occupy Richmond

Published: October 27, 2011, 12:05 am ET
Collegian Staff

A University of Richmond professor spoke last Sunday at what he said was one of the most significant social movements in recent years, Occupy Wall Street’s (OWS), “Occupy Richmond.” This movement is a byproduct of the original OWS demonstrations and has rallied protesters in Kanawha Park in downtown Richmond since Oct. 15.

Thad Williamson, professor of leadership studies, spoke at the an educational forum “Calling All Humanitarians” for Occupy Richmond. According to its website, the movement is a collection of thousands of Richmonders with personal grievances, issues, and problems — which all derive from the mutual source of profound socioeconomic disparity.

“My aim was to try to articulate how the extreme inequality of the last 30 years have harmed both our economy and our political system,” Williamson said in an email. “It might have taken some Americans by surprise, but globally more people are asking not ‘why’ but, ‘why didn’t it happen sooner?’”

Senior Brittany Kneidinger, a finance major, encountered the Wall Street protests in its early stages during her summer internship at a bank. She said she was picketed by homeless people as she walked to work in the mornings.

“It’s really frustrating to me,” she said. “You know, it’s not like my parents were investment bankers. I went up there. I paid my own way, got on a Chinatown bus to drive up there.”

Kneidinger plans to work on Wall Street as an investment banker after graduation. She said she was spit on when she visited Wall Street over the fall break.

“I just think if they [OWS protesters] were educated about things, I’d have a lot more respect for it,” she said. “It’s becoming radical, it’s not helpful at all.”

However, Williamson suggested that OWS was a well-educated movement. “I would recommend to business and all students to read up on the views of the many well respected economists who think that the protestors are exactly right,” he said.

Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman and Dean Baker comprise some of the corroborating economists, Williamson said, as well as publications such as Left Business Observer and Dollars & Sense magazine.

Williamson has worked at the Jepson School of Leadership since 2005. He wrote a book last year called “Sprawl, Just, and Citizenship: The Costs of the American Way of Life,” and has written several editorials in publications such as “The Nation” and “Style Weekly.”

At the forum, Williamson said: “That’s why we are here today. The economy is broken, and the political system is broken, for the same reason: the excessive influence of powerful corporations and wealthy, who are determined to turn this country into an oligarchy, a country in which no matter who is elected, the big bankers and the corporate interests remain in charge.”

Bloomberg, a financial and media company, sponsored its assessment test on campus for recruiting this month and plans to hold another assessment in November.

John Earl, professor of finance at the Robins School of Business, said a lot of finance students looking for jobs typically got offers after their internships. Goldman Sachs, Barclays, Citi and J.P. Morgan were among some of the New York firms that recruited students, he said.

As for the OWS movement, Earl said everyone was entitled to their opinion, but he said some of the demands of the group were not realistic. “They’re getting a lot of attention, but I don’t see that they’re going to bring any structural change,” he said.

Earl said he could understand graduates getting out of school with tens of thousands of dollars in student loans and then being unable to find jobs.

Earl said: “All these things like the Peace Corps and Teach for America, these things are all really good if your family has enough economic resources to provide a sort of safety net.

“But if you’re going in debt and you’re taking out a tremendous amount of student loans, I mean you have to be able to get a job when all is said and done to pay them back. So obviously the kids are saying, ‘well, where can I get a return on my investment?’ Obviously it’s not the Peace Corps, but it certainly is going to be in accounting or Wall Street. Those are the places where you get the good- paying jobs that allow you to pay off your student loans.”

Williamson said he would encourage business students to ask themselves why they were in the field, and whether they found intrinsic value in it.

“Personally, I think society would be better off if our business graduates were oriented toward finding ways to create jobs in the productive economy the old-fashioned way, by making things of value in a way that pays workers good wages,” he said.

Nancy Bagranoff, dean of the Robins School of Business, said there were a variety of interests among business students, and that some didn’t take jobs in the industry.

“I’ve met with alums from New York who came from all the different schools at Richmond, not just the business school and ended up working in business,” Bagranoff said. “So I think that’s one thing people don’t understand, business and Wall Street firms may hire non-business students also.”

Williamson ended his talk at Kanawaha Park on Sunday by issuing a challenge to build a movement that demanded both social justice and democracy, and to find creative ways to practice it.

Contact staff writer Keon Monroe at

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  • Rory Quinlan

    “Personally, I think society would be better off if our business
    graduates were oriented toward finding ways to create jobs in the
    productive economy the old-fashioned way, by making things of value in a
    way that pays workers good wages,” he said.

    -Sweeping generalization of hundreds of students
    -At least business grads are learning directly productive skills
    -False nostalgia for the “old-fashioned way”

    • Reilly Moore

      Define “directly productive skills.” All students at Richmond learn directly productive skills. They don’t always directly produce high-paying jobs or create a product for someone else’s consumption, but learning how to think and be responsible citizens of the world is just as productive as learning how to crunch numbers or invest properly. I have nothing against B-School grads or business people in general, but to demean students who take a track other than business by saying the B-school is the place for “directly productive skills” is unfair.

      And, why is saying that B-school students should “find way to create jobs in a productive economy” nostalgic? After all, there is an entrepreneurship program in the B-school now, right? Striving to be creators, innovators and leaders rather than cogs in a business system that produces many of the country’s inequalities should be encouraged, not denigrated as “old school” or impossible.

      • Rory Quinlan

        In an economic sense, which was the focus of this quote, I define “directly useful skills” as, like you said, “skills that directly produce high-paying jobs or create a product for someone else’s consumption.” Basically, skills that add direct value to the economy. I thought that was obvious. The soft skills you are pointing our are useful to the economy too, but in an INdirect way. I’m not trying to demean anyone, Professor Williamson is the one who attacked Business students and I am defending them (us).

        As far as the nostalgia thing, I was noting his FALSE nostalgia, implying only that what he calls “the old fashioned way of doing business” is a misrepresentation of history. I hope I don’t have to write up a timeline for you to understand that business people haven’t always focused on “making things of value that pays people good wages.” I am not saying people shouldn’t try to create good jobs. Why would anyone say that?

        So basically, we don’t disagree on these points at all, read more carefully and stop putting words in my mouth.

      • Zhivko Illeieff

        Yea man your soft, indirect skills can’t compare to  “adding direct value to the economy.”

        What Williamson said makes a lot of sense, actually.

  • Ana Mitric

    This article gets off to a promising start.  “Balance for balance’s sake” is a legitimate problem in this nation’s mainstream media and something that deserves much more of our attention as a citizenry.  Another related issue is illustrated by what happened on the NPR/APM show “Marketplace” last month.  Conservative commentator David Frum resigned, essentially because he no longer felt he was able to represent the Republican point of view–that is, he could not provide ideological “balance” to his left-leaning counterpart, Robert Reich (see here for details:
    So, along with often enforced “balance,” even on issues where the two sides are not, in fact, equally valid (or, for that matter, there are more than two, opposing sides), we’re also getting increasingly ideological viewpoints. 

    However, the subsequent moves of the piece are problematic on a number of levels.  First, the examples used are not the best ones to support the original case about the “sickness of ‘balance’”; and in providing these examples, several functions of journalism get conflated.  The two articles cited from national media report polls that are representative of ongoing debates.  While the articles are implicitly *about* the debates, they are not contributing to them: they are merely highlighting the citizens’ (sometimes shifting) viewpoints within these debates.  I agree that the media has a job to do in establishing &/or clarifying the truth of the matter, where what is at issue is a matter of scientific or research-based evidence.  And it is certainly the job of journalists to fact-check claims being made by influential people, whether political leaders or scientists.  But I don’t necessarily think that the same article reporting the *fact* that a certain percentage of Americans believe something that is demonstrably false (e.g., Saddam Hussein’s involvement in 9/11) is necessarily the place for making arguments.  Investigative journalism–not news reporting–is the genre used to dig into the details of a particular situation; op-ed pieces are the primary genre through which journalism makes arguments.  By 2006, when the latter poll was taken, this investigative journalism had been done, and the CNN article does indeed make note of its conclusions: that is, though connections between Iraq and the 9/11 had been asserted by the Bush administration in the past, by now “The White House has denied Hussein’s 9/11 involvement — most recently in a news conference August 21, when President Bush said Hussein had ‘nothing’ to do with the attacks.”  I’m not sure what more our author
    wants to see in an article like this, other than the highlighting of the public’s ongoing confusion.

    Second, the comparison between these two articles and the author’s Collegian piece involves a false analogy.  The author’s original article was about a town hall meeting on Sharia Law, not a debate about Islam–or religious belief–itself.  So, it is not analogous to the previous two examples, which are explicitly about people’s beliefs, as reflected in responses to polls.

    Third, there is no place in a news article–whose job it is to *report*–for the author’s judgment.  By using the terms “undue” and “inherently arbitrary,” the author has introduced his own opinions–in fact, about something that not only isn’t the article’s primary subject but wasn’t even discussed at the event itself.  By asking the question, “If an axiom is unfounded in rationality, of what use is debating the theorems derived from that axiom?” he is questioning the very purpose & existence of the town hall meeting–surely not the job of a reporter sent to cover the event.

    Finally, the author seems a bit confused about not only genre (what type of writing) and the purpose of the profession (i.e., I’m not sure that journalism is the best venue for launching an argument against any religion, not just Islam) but also religion: for many–if not most–believers, religion is a matter of faith, not a matter of proof.

    Two take-aways: the Collegian’s editors were correct in removing the sentence in question (in fact, it should have been removed publishing the article) and the author would benefit from re-thinking both what he hopes to achieve through his writing and how best to go about
    doing it.

  • Ana Mitric

    Everyone involved in this debate–actually, everyone on campus, in the B-School or not–would benefit from listening to this “Marketplace” interview and reading the Stanford Daily piece that prompted it about the influence of Wall Street on college campuses.  To sum up one of the author’s key points, he is “concerned about is an over-supply [of top collegiate talent] and an over-emphasis [by campus career centers] on institutions that aren’t actually necessarily contributing to social and economic productivity in this country.”
    It also bears noting that Stanford, unlike UR (but like so many other elite schools), doesn’t have an undergraduate business school.  This fact alone should make all members of the UR community wonder: if Wall Street has this much influence on these kinds of campuses, what about on ours, where we have a whole school dedicated not to a single academic discipline (economics) but to a professional industry?

    From my perspective, Williamson isn’t attacking B-school students so much as encouraging them to give a bit more thought to a) why they’re studying what they’re studying, b) the role of certain sectors of the finance industry in exacerbating–if not causing–our current economic problems,  c) whether or not they want to be part of those sectors as professionals, and d) if so, what they can do to make sure they’re part of future solutions, not a continuation of serious problems we’ve seen over recent years (and that the OWS movement is trying to highlight).

    While I understand why they were included (in large part, presumably, to offer some “balance” to Williamson’s views), the comments of the B-School prof and dean seem oddly out of place here.  In fact, with the introduction of Bloomberg, about mid-way through the article, the piece veers off course.  If you want to have a debate about the purpose of a Business education, have that.  Or if you want to talk about the tough market conditions or massive college debt facing current graduates, have that.  If you want to have a discussion about the OWS movement, have that.  One problem here–other than several topics being merged in a confusing way–is that the B-School prof and dean are defending their disciplinary/professional territory but not really addressing the OWS movement, which the headline suggests is this article’s focus.  While Earl is paraphrased as saying, “everyone [is] entitled to their opinion, but… some of the demands of the group were not realistic,” nowhere do we hear what he thinks those demands are, why they’re unrealistic, or even if he thinks calls for “structural change” are warranted.  How about asking the B-School leadership to comment in a substantive way about a) the economic problems our country is facing and b) the challenges of educating students who will enter not only this economy but also this society as a whole?  The mission of the University is, after all, to “prepare students to live lives of purpose, thoughtful inquiry, and responsible leadership in a global and pluralistic society.”

  • Rory Quinlan

    You’re still arguing with ghosts here man.

    I just found some of his words off-base and insulting.