November 9, 2007

Activists submit new proposals to Admin

Student representatives of the Social Justice Coalition (SJC) were cautiously optimistic after presenting several proposals for University consideration at a meeting with senior administrators Tuesday, although they expressed dismay when the University appeared still unwilling to budge on its politically neutral investment policy.

SJC representatives were pleased about steps taken on three of the five proposals that they presented: sustainability, financial aid, and campus diversity. On financial aid there have been “massive steps forward,” said SJC member Stephanie Bell.

SJC comprises more than 30 activist student groups on campus. Kim Goff-Crews, vice president and dean of students; David Fithian, secretary of the University; and Bill Michel, assistant vice president for student life represented campus administration.

The main point of contention at the meetings was a request by student activists for a formal response to the proposals they put forward. According to Bell, SJC has been attempting to solicit some sort of statement on the issues from the administrators for nine months. Fourth-year SJC member Grant Gordon said that if the administration declines to respond again, it will be a de facto rejection of the ideas.

In an interview Thursday, Michel said it was likely that the administration would provide a written response to the students.

Bell said that many of the proposals involved the U of C’s involvement in larger social issues, including altering the method by which the University makes investment decisions.

Last year, the Board of Trustees rejected vocal calls to divest from companies in business with the Sudanese government, arguing that the Kalven Report, a Vietnam War–era document, precluded University involvement in political issues.

This year, students called for the creation of a committee promoting socially responsible investment made up of students and faculty. The committee would create a series of non-binding principles, which the U of C would use to guide investment decisions.

Administrators seemed to offer little support for such a committee—a change, Bell and Gordon said, from last year, when administrators had indicated that they would be open to exploring the idea.

“[It’s] going to be a harder fight than we thought it was going to be,” Bell said.

Bill Michel said that students may have misinterpreted his statements about investment last spring, creating the impression that a shift in policy had occurred.

According to Michel, last year he told students that the Board had carefully considered how to best approach possible U of C investments in companies in Darfur, and that students may have interpreted this as being a more general statement about a change in how the Board thinks about investing.

“I didn’t mean that there had been a shift,” he said.

SJC also called for increased student representation on the Board of Trustees, proposing the installation of four student members: two from the College and two from the graduate division. Each member’s term would last two years, although they would only have a vote on the board for one of those years.

“Obviously we aren’t hoping to overthrow the Board of Trustees,” Bell said.

On that issue, SJC received the brush-off that members had anticipated, she said. Michel said that the Board of Trustees thinks in terms of the longest possible view, while students tend to have a shorter view since undergraduates only have four years at the U of C.

David Greene, University Vice President of Strategic Initiatives, who met with students last year about divestment from Darfur, said that students may have a smaller set of interests and a different outline than the Board’s, whose purpose is to take a long-term view—sometimes of a scope exceeding even those of administrators.

SJC members said that, with the exception of joining union members in protesting ongoing contract labor negotiations, planning protests over other issues would be premature. Students in SJC are “on the side of exhausting all possible options” before protesting, Bell said.