November 14, 2006

Divest from Sudan, now!

Genocide is the greatest atrocity committed against humankind. The word—genocide—has been repeated so many times in speaking about Darfur that it is easy to forget what it stands for and to start thinking of it as term thrown around simply to make us feel guilty. Perhaps if we called it by its full name—the systematic extermination of an entire people, the rape of women, the abduction of children, the destruction of villages and ways of life—perhaps then we, as citizens, as intellectuals, as leaders in our community, would recognize more fully that we must act to bring genocide to an end.

As a University, we bear an additional responsibility: to protect the institution’s core values. Principle among these is that diversity of thought in an environment of open intellectual inquiry fosters greater knowledge. Genocide, by definition, seeks to destroy these values by eliminating an entire people, a culture, a society. If only considering the threat to our core values, the University must act in any way it can to stand up against genocide. By divesting from Sudan, the University reaffirms its commitment to our core values and values of humanity—that no matter how small or indirect, the University’s investments will not finance genocide. Beyond its role in ending the genocide in Darfur, divestment also presents an opportunity for the University to engage in the process President Zimmer discussed at his inauguration: to use our enduring values as a living guide for confronting one of the greatest challenges of our time.

At this moment, facing the ongoing genocide in Darfur, the most effective tool available to the University is divestment from companies that are financing the government of Sudan. The University has a unique privilege that individual faculty members and students do not: that its actions can help bring the genocide to an end. Where the University leads, other institutions will follow (the states of California and Rhode Island cited the University of California and Brown University, respectively, as models for their decisions to divest billions from Sudan). Together, these divestment efforts have already pressured companies like Royal Dutch Shell, Xerox, and 3M to limit their support of Sudan to humanitarian aid. Feeling the threat to its economy, the Sudanese government has spent millions advocating for the end of the targeted divestment campaign. The Sudanese government has scorned international diplomatic efforts. However, it cannot ignore the growing threat to both its economic lifeline and the financial support for its genocide.

Beyond its crucial role in ending the genocide in Darfur, divestment provides the University with an opportunity to become a leader among academic institutions. Until now, the University has accepted that taking an institutional stance necessarily chills open intellectual discourse by discouraging dissent. Thus, any stance taken by the University must be “worth” the cost it imposes on openness. Rather than taking this cost as given, however, the University can demonstrate that it is possible to use divestment as a catalyst for fostering inquiry and debate. Where other universities have treated divestment as an end to speaking out against genocide, this University can use divestment as a beginning to challenge the profound intellectual corruption existing in higher education on the issue of genocide.

Facing the need for urgent action in Darfur, divestment is currently the best response available to the University. Using this tool does not, however, preclude examining whether there are other, more effective actions that we can take in the future. The University has already chosen this course to defend its core value of diversity by, for example, signing on to the amicus brief supporting affirmative action and sponsoring charter schools in under-resourced Chicago neighborhoods. There is wide controversy surrounding both affirmative action and charter schools, but the University chose to take the best available actions rather than wait for intellectual accord. And though there may be chilling costs to these decisions, scholars at the University of Chicago continue to produce critical research on both affirmative action and school choice.

As it has with affirmative action and charter schools, the University can and should encourage its diverse intellectual community to apply the principles of academic rigor, inquiry, and discourse to the critical questions of this era: Why in the post-Holocaust world does genocide continue to occur? And, what actions can citizens, leaders, and institutions take to end genocide in our time? With boldness of thought and courage of action, we have the opportunity to make true the words spoken over a half a century ago: never again.