Michel advocates discussion, social action

By Aviva Rosman

Bill Michel, assistant vice president for Student Life and associate dean of the College, discussed changes in the University, how he sees his role as an administrator, and the complexities of divestment from Darfur as a speaker yesterday in Rockefeller Chapel’s ongoing series “What Matters to Me and Why.”

Michel (A.B. ’92), an administrator here for 14 years, said that the University’s handling of the divestment decision was a testament to some of the change he has seen since he began his career at the U of C.

“Ten years ago, I am not sure there would have been as much discussion and debate on the issue at all levels of the University,” he said.

“I remember ten years ago, I was talking with a group that wanted to form a Women’s Center, and there was concern about creating centers. Today, we’re working to enhance support of students in a variety of ways, including the renovation of 5710 South Woodlawn [for the Office of Minority Student Affairs] and a new home for the Amandla Student Resource Center and LGBTQ [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, and Queer] Resource Center.”

At the same time, however, Michel acknowledged that the administration may not have been as effective as they would have liked in communicating their response to the U of C chapter of Students Take Action Now: Darfur (STAND).

“I am not one of the people that believes that the Darfur Fund was an attempt to placate members of our community who wanted us to divest; however, I think we could have initially communicated its purpose more effectively,” Michel said, referring to the $200,000 Darfur Action and Education fund established by the Board of Trustees in reaction to calls for divestment. “I think having the best minds focused on ending genocide is a great thing,” he said.

Michel said he has been personally wrestling with the implications and effectiveness of divestment. He said he has been looking at his own investments and his use of socially conscious investment funds.

Michel said he thought that the U of C, as an institution, made the right decision in not divesting.

There are many members of our community, he said, who are personally opposed to the genocide yet believe very strongly that the University as an institution should not take “political action.” Some even believe establishing the Darfur Action and Education Fund violates that principle.

“I believe in effective incremental change, the sort of changes that can lead to the creation of the diversity center,” Michel said. He added that the discussion on Darfur should be part of a broader conversation on socially conscious investing.

Fourth-year Miranda Nelson, who initially raised the issue of activism during the question-and-answer period, said one of the frustrations for STAND members is that they feel like the argument for divestment was made very well, and if they can’t achieve results by persuasion, then they might turn to other means.

Michel responded by saying he believes there should be a real discussion between faculty and students on both sides of the issue about the divestment.

“There are people who have real objections,” Michel said. “People who disagree are naturally less passionate about the issue, so it’s harder to get them to have a conversation. That’s something we need to work on.”

Michel frequently referred to his belief in social action, citing his work with the About Face Youth Theatre, a Chicago arts program for LGBTQ youth, and his involvement in the United Church of Christ. He also spoke about the importance of friendship and community in his life.