Board of Trustees Discusses Divestment, Ellison Letter with Students

The students selected by the undergraduate liaison to the Board of Trustees had the opportunity to engage directly with Board members about issues affecting the student body.

By Vivian He

Nine students and four trustees had a closed meeting on Thursday to discuss fossil fuel divestment and Dean Ellison’s letter condemning trigger warnings and safe spaces. 

It was the first installment of Student Government’s Student Perspective Series (SPS) initiative, which organizes quarterly forums for students to engage with trustees on campus issues.  

Kenzo Esquivel, the undergraduate liaison to the Board of Trustees, selected the students who attended the meeting. 

Three representatives from the Stop Funding Climate Change (SFCC) campaign spoke on the divestment issue. 

Esquivel, who was present at the meeting, said the dialogue on fossil fuel divestment focused on the Kalven Report’s clause regarding “exceptional instances.”  

The Kalven Report was a 1967 report commissioned by the University that recommends political neutrality on social and political issues. The University board has declined previous requests for fossil fuel divestment by citing the Kalven Report.  

However, the Kalven Report includes a clause which reads “instances will arise in which the society, or segments of it, threaten the very mission of the university and its values of free inquiry. In such a crisis, it becomes the obligation of the university […] to oppose such measures.” 

In their dialogue with the Board, SFCC representatives focused on this ambiguity in the clause and raised concerns over the lack of clear definitions in this consequential report.  

Claudia Fernandez, a coordinator for SFCC, said that the Board members present at the meeting explained that the Kalven Report relies on precedence instead of definite protocols. Therefore, there are no clear-cut delineations, and situations are examined on a case-by-case basis.  

According to Fernandez and Kosi Achife, a class of 2020 student representative also present at the meeting, Trustee Thomas Cole said that the “exceptional instance” clause would only be applicable in an extreme situation. He gave the hypothetical of a United States President threatening to fire all professors in the country with certain political associations, as a situation that would likely fulfill the clause as it signifies immediate impact on the University community.  

Cole did not respond to a request for comment by the time of this article's publication. On Friday, he wrote in an e-mail, "The Student Perspectives Series got off to a great start. The discussion was thoughtful and engaging, and the trustees present certainly gained important insights from the conversation that we will share with the rest of the board."

“Some [board members] were interested in discussing the efficacy of divestment and, to be honest, some seemed more interested in stalling the conversation or steering the conversation away from UChicago’s support of the fossil fuel industry,” Fernandez wrote in an email.  

As the dialogue pivoted to Dean Ellison’s letter, the Board members primarily listened to the opinions of the student representatives.  

“I think [the Board members] came into [the conversation] being aware of the ways in which the letter could have been better executed,” Esquivel said.  

Kosi and Jahne Brown, another class 2020 representative, described the two dominant concerns they raised during the meeting.  

“A lot of people agreed, at least in our class, that the issues around the letter came from the fact that the administrators seemed to have a different understanding of these definitions [of “trigger warning” and “safe space”] from a lot of us,” Brown said.  

Students also questioned the motivation behind this letter. Many, including Achife, thought it to be a publicity stunt to strengthen the University’s brand.  

“They were pretty shocked,” Achife said on the Board members’ reactions to concerns over the letter being a publicity move. 

Student Government, Campus and Student Life, and the Board jointly started the SPS initiative. It provides the first opportunity for students to directly communicate concerns to the Board.  

“[Thursday’s] meeting with the Trustees and student representatives was both enlightening and productive,” Michele Rasmussen, dean of students in the University, wrote. “The students and trustees look forward to continued dialogues on a range of topics that are important to students.”

This article was updated on November 4 at 3:10 p.m. to include Cole's comment.