Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Friday, September 21, 2018

Op/Ed: AU Trustee, Gary Cohn, Betrays Our Trust

In the media and on college campuses, the student debt crisis has been a topic of intense discussion. The fact that the average U.S. college student graduates with $30,000 of debt, and that the total student debt in the U.S. now stands at over $1 trillion (more student debt than that of the rest of the world combined), no longer sits quite as well with the American public. Our system of higher education, which has long been lauded as a stairway to the American Dream and a leveler of playing fields, is now being exposed for what it is. Its structure has produced an unsustainable, corporatized racket, the result of which is the perpetuation of entrenched systems of inequality. The famously destabilizing nature of student debt is discouraging many from pursuing higher education, even as a college degree becomes increasingly critical. It is limiting the economic prospects of the many students who graduate owing tens of thousands to the federal government, commercial banks and private companies.

The rising cost of college, however, is neither a natural nor inevitable trend. In fact, many parties stand to profit greatly from this crisis, and have thus encouraged the transformation from the pursuit of education to the pursuit of profit.

At their last meeting, the AU Board of Trustees refused to divest the University endowment from fossil fuel corporations, and in so doing continued to bolster the industries that profit most from climate chaos and injustice. By raising tuition at the upcoming Board meeting on March 6, individuals on the Board will continue to profit from the systemic inequality that makes higher education inaccessible. As a student body, we believe that our University investments should not profit from racial or economic inequality. We believe that our University’s mission statement of "promoting education" means that the Board of Trustees must invest in our futures, not benefit from our indebtedness.

As such, we call on our Board of Trustees and the University administration to recognize and examine the corrupt structures in which our institution is complicit. The individuals who sit on our Board knowingly represent powers which continue to deny climate change, corrupt our political discourse and gentrify the city in which we live.

Gary Cohn, president and chief operating officer of The Goldman Sachs Group and a former oil trader for Goldman, sits atop the AU Board of Trustees as the chair of the Finance & Investment Committee. As the financial crisis of 2008 led to the mortgage bubble, Goldman Sachs, under the leadership of Cohn, began to commandeer a new sector and take advantage of a new population of consumers: students. As students took refuge in higher education during the bear market, Education Management LLC, under the control of Goldman Sachs, began a long history of exploiting students in the for-profit college arena. As the chair of the Finance and Investment Committee at American University, Cohn is the most institutionally responsible face of student debt and fossil fuel addiction at AU. His committee refused to divest from fossil fuels and continues to increase tuition on campus.

Cohn is also responsible for fueling the climate crisis and condemning students and communities to climate disaster. Cohn’s evils are explicit: Goldman Sachs directly invests in the expansion of the fracking industry in the Marcellus Shale region. As a former oil trader for Goldman Sachs’ J Aron commodities arm, Cohn is, quite literally, invested in the success of the fossil fuel industry.

How can we leave our tuition dollars and the responsibility of our endowment in the hands that profit from our debt and destruction?

As Student Confederation Assistant Comptroller at AU in 1982, Cohn filed a restraining order against the Board in an attempt to prevent them from meeting and voting to raise tuition by 18 percent. This increase in 1982 translates to roughly the same increase in tuition we face if the Board votes for an increase from 2.5-4.5 percent, as expected. It is up to us to remind him what real student power looks like. It is up to us to demand accountability from those with the power to hijack decisions about our futures. It is up to him to divorce himself from the corrupt and oppressive structures he considers “business as usual.”

Until that time, we cannot trust Cohn with decisions about our future.

Rebecca Wolf is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences.


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