Divestment through history’s lens

By Timothy Stewart-Winter

History suggests that the University of Chicago’s refusal to divest from Sudan represents a failure of moral courage. The immediate context of the decision, of course, is the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Darfur. In response to this crisis, an increasingly well organized movement of Americans has demanded, with considerable success, that universities, state governments, and other major institutional investors commit to sell their holdings in corporations that do significant business with the Sudanese regime of Omar al-Bashir.

The University cited in its decision a 39-year-old internal document known as the Kalven Report that sharply restricts the University’s involvement in social and political issues. In so doing, it disregarded the counsel of the only surviving member of the committee that authored the document, world-renowned historian John Hope Franklin, who late last year declared, “I have no difficulty in concluding that divestment is consistent with the core values of our report and the mission of the University.”

Beyond this, the University has bucked an unconventional social movement seeking a change in the response of the American government and major institutions to genocide. The word genocide, referring to the destruction of a people, has had a controversial career since its coinage in 1944, but there is wide agreement today that the convergence of ethnic, political, military, environmental, and social factors in Darfur warrant energetic intervention on the part of the world’s rich and powerful.

The movement for intervention in Darfur is the effect of a growing body of knowledge about the recent past. In her book, A Problem from Hell, Samantha Power, now of Harvard’s Kennedy School, argues that not only during World War II but several times since then the United States has had the knowledge and resources, but lacked the political will or moral courage, to stop prolonged episodes of mass killing. Power argues American leaders, with some exceptions, have generally acted out of self-interest rather than out of humanitarian concern.

“When innocent life is being taken on such a scale and the United States has the power to stop the killing at reasonable risk,” Power writes, “it has a duty to act.” As Congressman Charles Rangel declared when he was arrested in 2004 in front of the Sudanese embassy in Washington, “We acted too late to save millions of Jews during World War II. We didn’t act at all when hundreds of thousands of innocents were slaughtered in Rwanda. We have the opportunity now to stop a genocide, and we must act.”

In the face of this increased public attention to American obligations in cases of genocide, the University has aligned itself instead with the notion of “neutrality.” Officials say divestment is a “symbolic” gesture, unlikely to affect the situation in Sudan. Law professor Geoffrey Stone writes on his blog that the University is right to reject calls “expressly or symbolically to proclaim ‘right’ moral, political, or social positions.”

This represents a remarkably narrow understanding of the decision’s context—and of history. True, there is debate about whether American university divestments contributed directly to the downfall of apartheid. If so, the effect was very minor. But a very clear line can be drawn between the “shantytowns” built by protestors on many American campuses in the mid-1980s and the United States Congress’s 1986 adoption of sanctions against South Africa over President Reagan’s veto. Today, as then, as in Rwanda, the administration in Washington has declined to intervene meaningfully.

The University is already involved in a non-neutral fashion in geopolitics and economic relations. The choice facing the University is not whether to be neutral, but whether to join many of its peer institutions—Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Penn, Columbia, Dartmouth, Amherst, and Swarthmore—in responding to the public’s demand for divestment.

When I asked for his view of those institutions’ decisions to divest, Prof. Stone replied that Chicago’s decision represented a “deeper commitment to academic freedom.” David Greene, President Zimmer’s new vice president for strategic initiatives, suggested that discussions at these schools were conducted “without the full complexity that was represented here.”

But this University is more deeply committed than its peers, not to academic freedom, but rather to a historically specific, ideological concept of “neutrality.” It is a curious stance for an institution that gave us Reaganomics, the atom bomb, and so many troubling responses over the decades to the arrival of blacks to the city’s South Side.

It should come as no surprise that all of the University’s highly distinguished specialists in African history and all of the present and past directors of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture signed the STAND petition in favor of divestment from Sudan.

We must continue to press for fuller explanations of the University’s decision, and to ask that it be revisited.