February 13, 2007

Was the University's decision not to divest from Sudan right: In defense of the University

When the University administration announced last Friday that they were not going to divest from corporations linked to the Sudanese government, many reacted with disgust. I, for one, support the University’s decision and the efforts of President Zimmer and the Board of Trustees to reach out to students during their deliberations.

Let me preface my defense of this position: I abhor what is taking place in Darfur and hold the international community responsible for not intervening, and as an intern for the Human Rights Program, I consider myself a human rights activist, I sincerely believe, however, that University divestment as a means to stopping genocide is activism gone awry.

Taking an official stance on this issue—however “obvious” and well supported by the student body—would hinder open discourse and alienate those with opposing opinions, however rare and egregious they may be. By divesting, a university is implicitly telling the academic body what to think is right and wrong. A university’s goal should be to foster an environment with the liberty and resources that allow professors and students to come to such conclusions on their own.

More importantly, we must clarify what exactly the University would be standing for if it chose to divest. The act would be a condemnation of the genocide in Darfur, clearly, but it would also be an endorsement of a specific mechanism or method for trying to stop the genocide: divestment with the hope of bankrupting the Sudanese government’s funding of the genocide. This is a crucial point, one that Students Taking Action Now: Darfur (STAND) and many other pro-divestment advocates miss. STAND assumes divestment is the only way a university can make an impact on the situation in Darfur. Putting aside the argument for political neutrality, maybe there are other, better ways to stop genocide that members of the University community are pondering. But if an official University policy of divestment were to take effect, it would create an environment where those ideas aren’t given equal footing. So all this talk of “my university is complicit in genocide” misinterprets the administration’s rejection of divestment as indifference, when in reality it’s just that—rejection of divestment to preserve an atmosphere where much scholarship about genocide can occur. That’s the reason the administration has chosen to promote a $200,000 fund for studying other methods to combat the problem. Given the University’s mission, this policy seems most appropriate. It is a way to engender a community active in stopping genocide while not endorsing one single idea of how to do so. STAND should lobby other non-University bodies to divest if it feels divestment is so powerful.

Thus, the question isn’t “is genocide something the University tolerates?” but instead, “What is the best way to stop it?” What about those who worry of the long-term economic impacts divestment would reap on Sudan? What about the few iconoclastic scholars who believe the link between the janjaweed and the Sudanese government is exaggerated? This is where the role of a university comes in: not to assume what the best plan is and act on it, but to create an open environment for the creation of an optimum solution. Other action-oriented, non-academic bodies have a greater onus for then acting on the solutions we cook up. State governments or corporations, for example, have divested, and rightfully so, but their culture is not one where the free exchange and criticism of ideas is paramount. Maybe my “humane and moral view of the world,” to quote STAND, abhors genocide but thinks that divestment is not wise. Where is my place at this institution if it were to divest? I need my ideas to be supported by an environment of neutrality.