February 21, 2008

A culture of free inquiry

Over a year ago this month, newly inaugurated University of Chicago president Robert Zimmer made two important announcements that have raised concerns about core principles. On February 2, the Office of the President revealed that, in spite of the demands made by a broad-based campaign for divestment, the Board of Trustees voted to maintain financial involvement in companies linked to the ongoing genocide in Darfur. Five days later, Zimmer announced the creation of the Graduate Aid Initiative to improve funding for incoming doctoral students in the humanities and social sciences, and eventually, the Divinity School. Although apparently unconnected, both of these developments reveal the University’s prioritization of market calculations over its own values.

Ironically, a commitment to the University’s fundamental values was supposed to lie at the heart of both pronouncements. Referencing the 1967 Kalven Report, Zimmer warned that divestment from the “crisis in Sudan” would compromise our “institutional culture that promotes and preserves free inquiry and the expression of the fullest range of perspectives.” Several days later, Zimmer lauded the new initiative as a way to “ensure that doctoral students in these programs are among the most generously supported in all of higher education.” These stated concerns masked both past failings and continued inaction.

Our investment in companies complicit in mass murder and ethnic cleansing did not become public knowledge until a group of students brought this reality to our attention. While subsequent activism engendered rich debate on campus, Zimmer’s announcement cast a moral stand for human rights as a threat to the very exchange of ideas this activism had fostered. If anything, the past year has shown us that it was the president’s announcement that has most threatened this institutional culture by silencing free inquiry, rather than encouraging it, particularly in regard to the University’s investment practices.

Similarly hollow rhetoric was used in the original unveiling of the Graduate Aid Initiative and its offer of full tuition, health insurance, a $19,000 annual stipend, and two summers of $3,000 research support. Unlike its peer institutions, the U of C did not include current students in its new funding plan. Instead, this initiative ignored the systematic underfunding of current graduate students, with roughly half of us getting by on less than $12,000 in stipend support. While the University’s own calculations place the annual cost of living at $26,080, nearly a quarter of current graduate students receive $5,000 or less in aid.

Those graduate students who have been able to make up the difference by relying on savings or taking out loans unwittingly demonstrate how graduate education remains a distant dream for those without similar privileges. Meanwhile, those of us who work a second job unrelated to our research often find ourselves relegating the “life of the mind” to a part-time pursuit.

Surprisingly, the ability of graduate students to contribute to the University’s mission through our scholarships is even further circumscribed when we work as its teachers and research assistants. Although these jobs are vital to a culture of free inquiry, salaries have not increased in eight years and they still do not come with standard benefits like health insurance. Where a survey of peer institutions found a range of pay rates, the average of $5,868 is well above the $1,500 for teaching assistants at this university. An instructor position pays only $3,500 per quarter. Teaching is essential to the University’s mission and is described as part of graduate professional development, but it is a job that graduate students cannot rely on to make ends meet. And much like the immorality of the University’s investments, there was little discussion of this issue until a group of students began to demand change.

While the steps announced Thursday by Provost Rosenbaum are a step in the right direction, they do not directly address the issues of underfunding and underpayment. Rather than bringing about equity in stipends, “slots for cash” places the responsibility on departmental decisionmakers, long the drivers of funding inequity. And instead of taking decisive action to bring teaching pay up to the level of our peer institutions, plans for change have been further delayed.

Four decades ago, the Kalven Report stated that the “great and unique role” of the University of Chicago lay in “fostering the development of social and political values in a society.” It is a role that is carried out by faculty, students, and staff in their scholarship and their political activism. Today, it is clear that a transformation of values is needed at this institution as much as in the world outside of it. For it will not be possible for us to have an ethical and collegial academic community that positively impacts the world around it unless this university places its “core principles” ahead of market values.

Anjanette Chan Tack is a second-year doctoral student in the sociology department. Toussaint Losier is a second-year doctoral student in the history department.