Freedom to disagree

Thinking critically about SRIC referendum is crucial to its long-term success

By Colin Bradley

In a Viewpoints column published in the Maroon’s April 15 edition, Kimberly Goff-Crews, our vice president of campus life and dean of students, challenged the University campus at large to remind itself of the principles of free inquiry and discussion on which it was founded and from which it derives its authority as a premier institution of higher learning. Her point is certainly a valid one; free discussion is always a praiseworthy ethos that one cannot be too careful in protecting. Yet I believe there is a side to the issue that Ms. Goff-Crews did not fully address.

For one, I think it is somewhat misleading to refer to this period as one of “relative quiet” in the realm of inquiry and discussion. There are countless student groups trying to raise awareness for a myriad of different issues—from relief efforts in Japan and Pakistan, to Palestinian rights, to the newly precarious situation of many University staff members, to gay and lesbian rights, to University investment policies (I’ll return to this last one).

Ms. Goff-Crews is certainly correct that there is no singularly popular and divisive issue that has enthralled the attention of everyone on campus, but to intimate that this is a period of “relative quiet” seems to imply that students are not trying to open any sort of dialogue. A passing glance at any bulletin board around campus reveals the exact opposite.

What is probably the most vocal campaign currently ongoing—and, for the sake of full disclosure, one with which I am personally involved—is the movement for the establishment of a Socially Responsible Investment Committee (SRIC) at the University. Students for a Democratic Society, and the more informal Students for SRIC, have gathered approximately 900 signatures on a petition that placed the issue of SRIC on the Student Government elections ballot this week. Those 900 signatures represent approximately 18% of the undergraduate student body. While, to be fair, a signature on the petition was not an expressed endorsement of SRIC, it was, at least, a call for dialogue on the subject.

The SRIC movement has a somewhat long and involved history, one with which many at the U of C are probably familiar, and which I will not recapitulate here. It is enough to say it is the descendant of some of those “moments of controversy” that Ms. Goff-Crews remembers (particularly the Darfur Divestment campaign). It is an issue that has long been present, and that has yet again risen to the surface of student activism—the force that Ms. Goff-Crews calls “the life of the campus community.”

Yet the call here is for dialogue, not monologue. There are at least two necessary participants in such a discussion. The students at this University have for too long been left to soliloquize on their worries, interests, and complaints. In yesterday’s Student Government elections, the student body expressed itself in one of the few channels which at least pretends to promise the possibility of mutual debate with the University administration (excluding the poorly-attended open forums—one case in which the student body consistently doesn’t hold up its end of the bargain).

If the student body’s endorsement of the SRIC referendum attracts the University’s attention, we can certainly anticipate the time-tested, knee-jerk response: The Kalven Report. Already too much has been written and said about the Kalven Report for me to contribute anything particularly novel here, but there is one bizarre happenstance I would like to point out. The Kalven Report was drafted with the intention of protecting all those lofty, oft-heralded virtues of freedom of discussion, as well as respect for dissenting opinion—the values praised by Ms. Goff-Crews in her column and by the University in all its public statements. Yet, despite the possible merits or demerits of this document, it is used today in a spirit very clearly at odds with its initial conception.

Today the Kalven Report serves not to protect open dialogue and the unpopular opinion, but rather to silence any arguments which challenge its principles. The Darfur Divestment campaign, and now the SRIC campaign, have challenged the principles of the Kalven Report repeatedly, only to be faced with the daunting challenge of arguing against what has come to be indubitable dogma. The principles of the report may or may not still be applicable: That is not the point here (though it is the topic of a much needed debate). The point is that, as long as the University treats the Kalven Report like the scripture of divine revelation of an inexorable institutional legacy, free discussion will be impossible. Without an open discussion of the Kalven Report itself, free inquiry as a general principle is dead at this University.

So now is the moment of truth: Will the University respond in good faith to the SRIC referendum, as prescribed by its mantra of free inquiry and amenable debate? Or will it draw the Iron Curtain of the Kalven Report, in a bizarre attempt to side-step a discussion by citing a document designed to foster an environment suitable for discussion? Or, even worse, will the student body’s call for dialogue be met with interminable silence?

Colin Bradley is a first-year in the College.