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University of Chicago response to crisis in Sudan

Feb. 2, 2007

From: Office of President Robert J. Zimmer
To: Students involved in STAND, Deans, Committee of the Council, Officers
Subject: Response to Divestment Proposal

I appreciate your willingness to engage in deliberations over the past months about the Sudan divestment proposal.  I write today to review the context of those deliberations, to provide a summary of the range of views I heard on this issue, and to inform you of the decision of the Board of Trustees on the proposal.

Over the last two years, trustees, faculty, students, and administrators at campuses across the country have debated whether there is an effective stand universities can and should take with respect to the actions of the Sudanese Khartoum Regime.  These deliberations have taken place in the context of a growing recognition that, despite considerable attention and effort in this area, few if any of the actions taken in the international political and economic arenas appear to have halted or even reduced the atrocities in the Darfur region of Sudan. 

The campus discussions have been driven in large measure by a student movement that grew into a national network of campus-based STAND (Students Take Action Now: Darfur) chapters, each working to mobilize local resources in an effort to have an impact upon the violence in Sudan. The students involved in the University of Chicago chapter have argued that universities can play a positive role in the Sudanese conflict by divesting investment holdings in companies whose business activities are understood to be supporting the Khartoum Regime and thereby capacitating its activities in Darfur.  They have also argued that, because the University has historically not acted as a corporate body on social and political issues, acting in this case would persuade other universities to look carefully at their own investment policies. 

For the last forty years, the University of Chicago’s response to proposals for an institutional stand on political and social issues that do not have a direct bearing in the University’s mission has been informed by the work of the 1967 Kalven Committee.  The report of this faculty committee, written during debate about the University’s response to the Vietnam war, stated that the University “should not…permit itself to be diverted from its mission into playing the role of a second-rate political force or influence.”  The Kalven Committee noted that “A university has a great and unique role to play in fostering the development of social and political values in a society,” a role that is carried out by individual faculty and students engaged in scholarly work and any political or social activity in which they individually or in groups engage.  Indeed, the work of faculty and students at the University of Chicago has been very influential in shaping public policy and national values around the world.  This distinctive contribution that the University has made and continues to make is the result in large part of an institutional culture that promotes and preserves free inquiry and the expression of the fullest range of perspectives.  Since the writing of the Kalven Report, the University has been steadfast in its protection of this culture, thereby preserving and extending the capacity of the University faculty and students to contribute to social and political issues over the long term.

The severity of the situation in Darfur raises reasonable questions as to whether the Sudan case is so exceptional that the University should act to divest despite its long-held adherence to the principles outlined in the Kalven Report.  For even the Kalven Committee acknowledged that “In the exceptional instance…the corporate activities of the university may appear so incompatible with paramount social values as to require careful assessment of the consequences.”

To understand the views of the campus on this issue, I led a number of conversations with faculty, students, administrative leaders, and trustees. These discussions took place with students leading the divestment campaign and included a face-to-face meeting with those students and the Chair of the Board of Trustees.  They took place during regular sessions of the Committee of the Council, in meetings of school and divisional deans, and in many one-on-one meetings.  I had the opportunity to hear from students and alumni on this topic as part of a broader set of discussions about the future of the University.  The Board of Trustees, which has responsibility for the University’s investment policy, considered the issue at four separate meetings, three at the Executive Committee and one involving the full Board.

These deliberations reveal a diversity of opinions about a University response to the proposed divestment strategy.  On the one hand, there is some sympathy for the divestment position, although those in favor of this direction comprise a clear minority of those involved in discussions.  Some argue that the divestment movement is gaining traction, and it is the most effective action a university can take in this instance.  There are also those who argue that divesting is an important moral and symbolic stand, even if it would have limited practical effect on the international crisis.  Others argue that precisely because divestment is likely to have little or no practical effect, especially when the University’s holdings in targeted companies may on any day be nonexistent or de minimis, the University should not venture onto the slippery slope of taking institutional stands on social or political issues.  Others raise serious questions about the efficacy of divestment efforts overall and of the value of economic sanctions in influencing the behavior of rogue states.  The preponderant view is that the University should identify ways to contribute to this important issue only through means that comport with the mission of the University — open and free inquiry in the creation and dissemination of knowledge — which have been and will be the basis for the University’s most important contributions to addressing political and social issues.

Some asked, for example, if there are research or educational programs that the University could support that might lead to a greater understanding of genocidal behavior and how to eradicate it?  Would it be useful to support research on the efficacy of divestment as a lever for international political change? Would greater study of rogue states lead to new options for bringing about positive change through legal, diplomatic, economic, or military interventions?  Should the University provide additional support for human rights internships to help educate and train the next generation of leaders and to broaden our understanding of global human rights initiatives?  Would support for conferences, speaker series, or visiting faculty deepen knowledge on these issues and influence public policy? How do these considerations apply to Sudan?

The Board of Trustees considered these different arguments and options for moving forward.  After lengthy discussions on this topic, the Board determined that it would not change its investment policy or its longstanding practice of not taking explicit positions on social and political issues that do not have a direct bearing on the University.  The Board believes that the University of Chicago’s distinctive profile in higher education and its greatest potential for influencing social and political issues is determined by its unyielding commitment to free inquiry and to fostering a community of scholars with a great diversity of perspectives.  The Board reaffirmed the principles on taking institutional positions on social and political issues articulated in the Kalven Report that have served the University well and can be expected to do so in the decades ahead if followed assiduously. 

The Board also shared the widely held view that the University should seek to identify means to contribute to greater understanding of the conflict in Sudan in ways consonant with the University’s mission, with the hope of adding value to ongoing efforts to end this international crisis. The Board left it to the Administration to consider how to proceed in this regard.

It is clear that at our University programs that could be developed or enhanced to meet this goal would need to arise out of the interest and work of faculty and students.  With that in mind, through University resources and the personal financial contribution of the Chair of the Board, I have established a fund initially in the amount of $200,000, to be administered by the Provost, which will support faculty and student work and activities on these issues. The Provost will develop and promulgate guidelines for the fund, which I hope will encourage creative and entrepreneurial thinking about University-based activities that will broaden knowledge and help prepare our students — through real world experiences and scholarly work — to advance human rights and the well-being of people around the world.

I understand that the decision not to divest will be a disappointment to some, especially to the students who have given great time, thought, and energy to their proposal.  At the same time, the campus deliberations on this topic have reaffirmed for me the extraordinary value in our University’s commitment to engaging the broadest range of perspectives.  This is a commitment we must attend to and promote if the University is to maintain an environment of open discourse and extend its rich history of influencing social and political values across the globe through the work of its faculty, students, and alumni.

Robert J. Zimmer
The University of Chicago

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Last modified at 11:09 AM CST on Monday, July 23, 2007

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