Dispatch: Sallie Mae Agrees to Meet with Students, Vote on Shareholder Resolution for Transparency

Blog from Lauren Ressler

On Thursday May 30th, over two hundred students and community members caravanned to Newark, Delaware for the Sallie Mae annual shareholder meeting. They braved temperatures over 90 degrees to demand Sallie Mae, the nation’s largest private student loan agency, take action to change policies that trap students in a lifetime of debt.

The first buses started rolling in around 6:00 a.m. bringing students from Massachusetts, New York, Wisconsin, and even Florida. By 9:30 a.m. we were ready to move. We marched about half a mile to the Sallie Mae headquarters where we were met by over 50 police officers including a number of mounted officers and police dogs.

They had formed a human wall of blue shirts and wide brimmed hats. As we approached this intimidating barrier we began to sing softly:

“We who believe in justice cannot rest
We who believe in justice cannot rest until it’s won.”

The police began separating us into two groups, those with shares who were able to go into the meeting and those without who set out to keep pressure on throughout the meeting. The “inside team” was comprised of students, community organizers, and union members including Randi Wiengarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers.

The inside team was escorted through the doors of the Sallie Mae building where two people the front desks scrutinized identification and proxy paperwork before sending people through a comprehensive bag search and metal detector. Cell phones were confiscated and discussions about whether we would be allowed inside the shareholder meeting or sent to an overflow room ensued. We successfully negotiated to get every member of our team into the shareholder meeting.

By the time we finished sitting down the room was packed. Most of the audience was over 50, white, and predominantly male. The opening remarks given by the President of Sallie Mae focused on reminding the people in the room that Sallie Mae was turning 40 this year and that the students who took out loans with Sallie Mae would be ensured a bright future if they rigorously planned how much debt they could afford with their parents, cut back their personal spending on frivolous items, and most importantly graduated at all costs.

Following the introduction, the Chair of the Board introduced the meeting agenda and opened the floor for someone to introduce a resolution put forward by the Responsible Endowments Coalition and American Rights at Work, that would require Sallie Mae to disclose all lobbying spending and membership in trade unions like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

After the resolution was introduced and seconded, shareholders were given space to ask questions concerning the agenda items. At this point the students from our team representing the Dream Defenders and United States Student Association stood and told their stories about what it was like to rack up thousands of dollars in debt in pursuit of an education. They called for Sallie Mae executives to meet with students in person to discuss the exorbitant interest rates being charged to students who could least afford them, the high rates of executive compensation, and the disturbing ties between the lender and racist, anti-student organizations like ALEC that are behind a push to privatize education in the US.

As the students called into question these predatory lending practice and questionable affiliations, the tone of the meeting changed. The moderator became more terse and flippant with his answers. In the end the inside team re-emerged with two tangible victories.

Sallie Mae executives agreed to set up an unprecedented meeting with students before the end of June. Additionally, the shareholder resolution calling for public disclosure received a huge 35.5% of the vote.

The crowd outside that persevered through over an hour and a half of scorching temperatures broke out in cheers as the inside team appeared and shared the good news. Without the hundreds of people outside refusing to leave until terms were met, the action would not have been a success and most likely wouldn’t have forced Sallie Mae into meeting with the stakeholders who matter most: students.

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