Kalven Report doesn’t justify the University’s decision not to divest

By Daniel Benjamin

Would divesting from Sudan amount to the University deciding that it is its “place as an institution to speak for the individuals in it,” as Chief Investment Officer and University Vice President Peter Stein claims (“U of C Will Not Divest from Sudan,” 4/11/06)? Stein seems to think that the impetus for such an action would be the inclinations or perspectives of U of C students and faculty who support divestment.

Stein puts forward that it is not the University’s “place” to make its investment decisions based on the political tendencies of its constituent members. The argument is rooted in the Kalven Committee’s “Report on the University’s Role in Political and Social Action” of 1967. The Kalven Report correctly and convincingly argues that it is inimical to the University’s purpose to advocate social or political change. The Report says that the University “is not a lobby” and should not “take collective actions on the issues of the day.” Taking any collective position in a case where reasonable people can disagree (and most cases fall under this category) would come “at the price of censuring any minority who do not agree with the view adopted.”

Donating money to a political candidate or divesting from a company with a controversial human rights record would then be clearly out of bounds because both are rooted in a political judgment on which reasonable people differ.

But consider the case at hand. The Khartoum government, through the Janjaweed, is carrying out ethnic cleansing on the non-Arab people of Darfur. The crimes of Khartoum are so significant that the United States Congress—hardly on the vanguard of human rights—declared the conflict genocide and condemned a handful of companies in which the University invests.

I don’t feel a need to argue at length that the conflict in Darfur is genocide, or that the genocide is an unqualified evil. We take the latter point for granted, and the factual record makes the first point unambiguously clear. One can certainly remain politically neutral and still oppose the Khartoum government’s actions. Continuing to provide economic support for the Khartoum government is akin to supporting Nazi Germany with full knowledge of the Final Solution.

The Kalven Report makes some limited concession to the possibility of an “exceptional instance” in which “activities of the University may appear so incompatible with paramount social values as to require careful assessment of the consequences” [emphasis added]. Doesn’t economic support for genocide constitute such an incompatibility, necessitating divestment? And if not, what on earth could the Kalven Report have had in mind?

I should be careful to make clear that there is a deep and substantive difference between choosing whether to support a political candidate and whether to divest from Sudan, beyond a matter of more or less consensus on the moral rightness of the issue. Choosing not to financially support a political candidate that the majority of the University greatly supports has no moral cost. We would not be complicit in genocide by allowing a fantastic political candidate to fail.

It may not be wrong for the University to fail to stop suffering and death, but for the University to cause suffering and death, directly or indirectly, is certainly wrong. Divesting from Sudan would not violate the Kalven Report; it would instantiate the necessary exception that the Report itself delineates.