On Tuesday night, U of C Divest presented a resolution to College Council that, if passed, will encourage the University administration to divest from companies that divestment supporters have identified as complicit in Israel’s human rights abuses in Palestine. It names 10 specific companies, including Boeing, Caterpillar, and General Electric, in which it suspects the University is invested. (The University has not disclosed this information.) By voting on this resolution, College Council representatives will be taking a stance it was not elected to take—enabling a small number of undergraduates to publicly align the entire student body with a particular position on an issue that divides this campus.
This is not the first time activists have used divestment as a strategy to draw attention to a cause. Despite pressure, the University refused to divest during South African apartheid or the war in Darfur, and President Zimmer told The Maroon last Spring that it is unlikely to divest from fossil fuel companies. In each instance it has cited the 1967 Kalven Report, which recommends institutional neutrality in the interest of promoting a diverse exchange of political ideas. Historical precedent strongly suggests that the University will not respond to protesters’ or College Council’s calls for divestment in this case.
Because the call for divestment will likely go unanswered, the potential College Council vote is a symbolic one. Symbolic does not mean unimportant, and the message of a yes vote—that the student body of a major American university condemns Israel’s relationship with Palestine in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank—could well have a greater impact than the withdrawal of the University’s relatively small investments ever could. This vote is not primarily a campus question about the University’s investments. Rather, it asks whether undergraduates will condemn the role Israel plays in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Regardless of our views on this question, we must ask whether this decision lies appropriately within the scope of issues on which the representatives were elected to exercise their judgment.
We elect representatives to College Council with the expectation that they will be making decisions that affect our day-to-day college experiences, not representing our understanding of the world. This was not always the case. When Bernie Sanders walked the Quad, Student Government sent telegrams to President John F. Kennedy with some regularity on issues of moment: during the Cuban Missile Crisis, SG called an emergency meeting to draft an expression of opposition to the decision to embargo the island. But College Council representatives of that generation were elected on an explicitly outward-facing political platform.
If students believe Student Government ought to represent their views on issues that extend well beyond campus, SG candidates’ views on such issues should be considered during election season. This did not occur in the election of the sitting College Council, and this Council does not have the authority to speak for the student body on Israel’s behavior, or other issues far from campus. This is not to say that an active and even vociferous debate on divestment, and on the University’s long-held and long-controversial stance on the issue, shouldn’t happen—that kind of discussion is what this University is for. However, until the majority of SG candidates run on platforms that are as much (if not more) about national and global issues as about campus issues—and can therefore claim to represent the political views of a majority of the student body—College Council should not be the venue in which we feign consensus on a prolonged and nuanced campus debate.
—The Maroon Editorial Board