Open letter in response to the U of C’s rejection of divestment

President Zimmer’s office released a memorandum Friday afternoon announcing the Board of Trustees’ decision to reject the proposal calling upon the University to divest its assets from companies currently financing the Sudanese government’s perpetuation of the ongoing genocide in Darfur. The proposal was signed by over 1,500 students, 110 faculty, and the eminent historian and last surviving member of the Kalven committee, John Hope Franklin.

STAND is extremely disappointed by the Board of Trustees’ decision to remain complicit in genocide. If President Zimmer and the Board of Trustees have sought to set the University apart, they have succeeded. In their rejection of divestment they have set the University apart not as a leader, but as an outsider, dangerously far behind and out of touch with widespread acceptance of corporate social responsibility and the role of the modern university in world affairs. While our peer institutions, including Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Columbia, answered calls for divestment from the genocide in Sudan and apartheid in South Africa, the University rejected both, demonstrating time and time again that it does not feel beholden to the same moral standards that all other responsible academic institutions accept.

By invoking the Kalven Report in their justification to reject divestment, the Board of Trustees has demonstrated their indifference towards the report’s core values and has surrendered the moral authority to interpret it. We firmly believe in the core values of academic freedom of expression espoused in the Report and believe that divestment from genocide is consistent with them. Genocide seeks to destroy and silence a people, a culture, or a society. John Hope Franklin, the last surviving drafter of the Kalven Report, agreed that the genocide in Darfur qualifies as an “exceptional instance” under its terms. The genocide is incompatible with the “paramount social values” mentioned in the Report, and Franklin “had no difficulty concluding that divestment is consistent with the core values of our report and the mission of the University.” Reaching the threshold of an exceptional instance under the Kalven Report does not merely give the University the option to act, but creates a moral imperative to do so.

The Zimmer memorandum expressed concern that by deciding to divest from Darfur, the University would be “venturing down a slippery slope of taking institutional stands on political or social issues.” The slippery slope argument is a fallacy, appropriate perhaps for sophists, but not for a world-class academic institution. The University takes positions on social and political issues on a daily basis but chooses to consider the “slippery slope” argument only when it suits its needs. During our conversation with Board Chairman James Crown, we pointed out that there were many bright lines the University might draw if they sought to avoid precedent for taking positions on all political and social issues. It could have set that line at crimes against humanity, or more narrowly at genocides in progress as defined by U.N. Convention Against Genocide. If the University felt those too broad and that some genocides were perhaps more permissible than others, it could have defined the threshold more narrowly still to apply only to genocides in progress as declared by the United Nations and the President and Congress of the United States of America. The genocide in Darfur meets all of the criteria above. In truth, it is difficult to imagine an instance with a greater degree of moral clarity. If the genocide in Darfur does not qualify as the exceptional instance that violates our paramount social values, then we challenge the President Zimmer and the Board of Trustees to define what does.

As if the Board of Trustees’ decision was not injurious in and of itself, the language used in the memorandum was belittling to all of those affected by the genocide in Sudan. The University’s statement fails to term the situation in Darfur as a genocide, a fact the United States Congress, President Bush, and the United Nations have all acknowledged. The memorandum’s language of “atrocities,” “violence,” and “genocidal behavior” echo Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s characterization of the 1994 Rwandan genocide as “acts of genocide,” a terminology the United States used to excuse its inaction in the face of crimes against humanity. The University’s failure to acknowledge the truth of Darfur is a similar attempt to whitewash the horrific state of affairs to which the University is now decidedly a party. It is a mechanism deployed to justify its tolerance of the intolerable. By once again distinguishing itself as a leader in denial, the University has set a precedent for other institutions to remain deliberately indifferent toward the slaughter of 400,000 innocent people in Darfur.

Instead of divesting, the University has proposed to set up a fund that is, at one point, said to “contribute to greater understanding of the conflict in Sudan” and at another point is suggested to address a much more broadly defined goal, to “encourage creative and entrepreneurial thinking about University-based activities that will broaden knowledge and help prepare students…to advance human rights and the well-being of people around the world.” While we appreciate the University’s generosity in setting up a fund that may or may not go to Sudan-related projects, this is not what we asked for. The academic sector has been approached nationwide to do one thing—and one thing only—to help stop the genocide by divesting from the corporations funding it. Committees, conferences, and papers will do nothing to stop a genocide that is ongoing. Future research will have no effect on a tragedy that the world agrees is happening today.

The University’s choice of investments speaks not only to its values but in actuality, affects the lives of people around the world. President Zimmer and the Board of Trustees, although not state actors, find themselves in the rare position of possessing the power and the ability to make a profound moral statement in the ongoing discourse surrounding Darfur. They have the obligation to use this power to influence other universities and corporations to alter their investment policies. In this increasingly globalized world, it is essential for the University to consider its role as a moral actor beyond the Midway. By choosing not to divest, the University is as culpable as those corporations that directly fund genocide.

The University stated that it would maintain its “longstanding practice of not taking explicit positions on social and political issues that do not have a direct bearing on the University.” What the University fails to state is that it has taken a position on the genocide in Darfur; it would be impossible not to do so. Investment is support, and divestment is condemnation. There is no morally neutral ground.

The University nonetheless defends its investment choices, not for any pragmatic or economic reasons, nor because it is obligated to do so by the requirements laid out in the Kalven Report. We know this decision is not motivated by economic considerations because we are explicitly told that “the University’s holdings in targeted companies may on any day be nonexistent or de minimis.” We know this decision is not compelled by a formal policy requiring silence in the face of genocide because the University admits that the Kalven Report allows for divestment in exceptional circumstances. The University could easily have concluded that the mass extermination of 400,000 innocents qualifies as exceptional. But it chose not to. It chose, instead, to make a moral argument in defense of its decision to remain complicit in genocide.

One hundred and fifty years ago, here in Illinois, Abraham Lincoln faced Stephen Douglas in the debates over slavery. When Douglas refused to take a moral stand on the issue of slavery, instead appealing to the democratic process to solve the crisis, Lincoln saw the argument for what it was. It “is perfectly logical” to remain morally neutral on a question like slavery, Lincoln said, “if there is nothing wrong in the institution; but if you admit that it is wrong, [one] cannot logically say that anyone has a right to do wrong.” As Lincoln knew then, so we know now, that devotion to neutrality and “utter indifference” is the equivalent of complicity with injustice and “unqualified evil.”

The Board of Trustees’ decision is symptomatic of their disregard for the wants and aspirations of the community they claim to serve and of their lack of accountability to its members. The memorandum’s intimation that “those in favor [of divestment] comprise a clear minority of those involved in discussion” speaks not to the lack of popular support for divestment, but to the lack of diversity of those allowed to participate in those discussions.

Though only a few parties were involved in discussion, the student support for divestment was widespread throughout the undergraduate and graduate student populations, especially the Law School, Medical School, and Humanities and Social Sciences divisions. Some of the 110 faculty members who have officially lent their support to the campaign include such prominent professors as James Bowman, Mary Mahowald, and Eugene Goldwasser of the Medical School; Saskia Sassen, Dipesh Chakrabarty, and Moishe Postone of the Division of Social Sciences; Wendy Doniger of the Humanities Division; as well as the four department chairs and one dean. The movement for divestment from Darfur has been the broadest and most vocal expression of student opinion since the University dealt with the question of divestment from apartheid.

Although the University decided not to divest from South Africa in 1987, the Board of Trustees allowed a student-faculty delegation to address them at their meeting, and President Gray even publicly debated students and faculty about the merits and demerits of adopting a divestment policy. Since that time, the University has demonstrated an even greater disregard for community concerns. In the movement for divestment from Darfur, our request to send a joint faculty-student delegation to a board meeting to answer questions about the targeted divestment model was summarily dismissed. After repeated requests, administrators refused even to release to us the dates of Trustee meetings.

As President Zimmer acknowledged, this campaign successfully accomplished the University’s core value of “engaging the broadest range of perspectives” on divestment. But we must ask ourselves, what is the value of this free discourse held so sacred by the University if it does not lead us to adopt a humane and moral view of the world? What is the purpose of engaging this broad range of perspectives if the decision-making body of the University, the 49 members of the Board of Trustees, is not accountable to anyone?

The reality of genocide in our time is as tragic as it is undeniable. The horror of these crimes against humanity is only compounded and exacerbated by the fact that our University is complicit in genocide. Free inquiry and diversity of opinion are certainly laudable goals, but these principles neither imply nor demand that institutions of higher education profess neutrality in the face of atrocity. It is truly a rare moment when we are presented with the opportunity to make a powerful moral statement against injustice in the world. With its decision to reject divestment in Darfur, the University has squandered that opportunity. Its deliberate indifference to the massacre of 400,000 innocents amounts to a policy of tacit approval, and its choice to justify that policy in moral terms makes the decision all the more reprehensible.