An untenable practice

A modern university’s operations are incompatible with the Kalven Report.

By Taylor Schwimmer

If there is one thing every University of Chicago student learns, it is how to critically analyze a text and make claims about its merit. Though Hum class usually has us focus on Plato and Genesis, recent events have spurred me to reflect on another document: the Kalven Report.

For those unfamiliar with the document, it is a three-page treatise concerning the University’s role in politics. The 1967 report lies at the heart of the heart of the debate over a Socially Responsible Investment Committee (SRIC). Last year, a student referendum supporting the creation of such a committee passed by a wide margin. However, University administrators and the Board of Trustees have yet to implement the idea, citing the report. Their argument, in simplified form, is that the report outlines a conception of the University of Chicago incompatible with the management of the endowment based on socially acceptable considerations, because it puts the institution at risk of partisanship.

Yet are we not already something of a political player already? The University already has a staff of lobbyists in Springfield and in Washington. It recently agreed to collaborate with aldermen to initiate $1.7 billion of new construction projects. To me, it seems like there is a disconnect between the University’s pursuit of these actions and the rejection of the SRIC.

So I decided to see if the University’s reading of the Kalven Report could be reconciled with my own. The report is readily available online and, to my pleasant surprise, written in clear, understandable prose. This makes the process of critical analysis much easier. In fact, the Kalven Report is stunningly clear: In no uncertain terms, it demands complete neutrality by the University. The report asserts that the sole instrument for fostering development is “the individual faculty member, or the individual student.” It goes on to conclude, “The mission of the University is the discovery, improvement, and dissemination of knowledge…it is not a lobby.”

While I strongly admire the neutrality that the Kalven Report strives for, I believe it sets up impossibly difficult criteria for the University to attain. The nature of the American political process in the 21st century necessitates that the University become an active advocate on its own behalf. The Kalven Report basically excludes this as a possibility and claims that the University can only resort to advocacy in rare times of “crisis.” The authors of the Kalven Report failed to predict that what they considered times of crisis could, to some extent, become the status quo.

To me, this poses a major problem with current University policy. I agree that the University’s current stance on the Socially Responsible Investment Committee is corroborated by the Kalven Report. My issue is that the University openly flaunts the principles of the report in a number of other circumstances—circumstances in which it has almost no other option.

For example, the University spent $338,500 on lobbying in 2009. According to the University of Chicago’s 990 filing, the money was spent on “direct contact with legislators, their staffs, government officials or a legislative body.” To put this figure into perspective, that is about the same amount as corporations like Warner Music Group spend on lobbying each year. The University lobbies both at the state and national level on a number of different issues, most relating to research grants and educational funding. A prominent example of the University’s lobbying efforts occurred in 2003, when changes to government research grant rules jeopardized $900 million of funding to Argonne National Laboratories. The University hired a lobbyist to work with legislators to ensure that funding was not disrupted. Few would dispute that this action was critical to the well-being of the University, but it is also clearly contrary to the Kalven Report.

The University’s lobbying efforts are just one of many activities that, though necessary, seemingly run roughshod over the Kalven Report. Even clearly laudable actions like the University’s recent deposit of $1 million to community banks seem to go against the intent of the Kalven Report. In making this deposit, the University builds critical rapport with the community. But it also leverages its financial wealth in a way completely precluded by the report.

The Kalven Report’s proscriptions are clearly prohibitive to a modern university. One wonders, then, just what purpose it serves. I am concerned that the University administration relies on the Kalven Report solely as a pat justification for actions with potentially unpopular explanations. I believe the response to the SRIC proposal is a prime example of type of behavior. Though I do not have inside access to the University administration’s internal deliberations, I imagine that they are concerned that such a committee might affect investment returns and thus in some way jeopardize further growth. This is a perfectly reasonable reservation, but also has the potential to be an immensely unpopular one. After all, such an admission might be construed as a tacit admission that the University values monetary gain over social good. In order to avoid this issue, the University trots out the Kalven Report and effectively ends the conversation. Regardless of how one feels about the issue, using this anti-rhetorical strategy is sub optimal.

Using the Kalven Report like this is intellectually dishonest. The university is using an appeal to a tradition that it does not even observe in order to gain credibility. The University clearly does not—indeed, cannot—follow the Kalven doctrine. In many ways I am sympathetic to the University. I understand that it faces a challenge in explaining the motivations for some of its actions. But it is painfully clear to anyone who actually reads the Kalven Report that the University’s current application of it is little more than lip service. I challenge the University to abandon the crutch of the Kalven Report. It has already done so in everything but name only.

Taylor Schwimmer is a second-year in the College majoring in public policy studies.