February 2, 2007

Divestment decision to come next week

[img id="80149" align="alignleft"] University President Robert Zimmer made a surprise appearance at a student protest on the steps of the Administration building yesterday, promising activists who support the U of C’s divestment from Darfur that the Board of Trustees would have a decision “within a week.”

The “read-in” protest drew over 40 members of Students Taking Action Now: Darfur (STAND), a campus organization that has argued that the U of C should withdraw money from investment accounts linked to companies that do business with the Sudanese government.

STAND organizers led chants decrying the amount of time that the Board of Trustees has taken to decide whether divestment would violate existing policy requiring institutional political neutrality.

Protesters also sat on the steps reading books in a jab at what they called the administration’s suggested “academic answers to genocide,” which include holding conferences and talks on the issue.

Initially, the group was excited simply to draw a sizable crowd on a day when temperatures hovered around 10 degrees below freezing. When Zimmer appeared, protesters began to think that their efforts were finally paying off.

“The Board has been taking this very seriously, been involved in a lot of discussions, and we’ll get back to you very soon,” Zimmer said to the crowd. “I know it’s been a long time, but I’m happy we’ll be able to respond soon.”

Zimmer said the trustees would conclude their deliberations and come to a decision on divestment by February 8.

“We consider this a huge victory for the campaign,” said Michael Pareles, co-chair of STAND. “Our first goal was a deadline for them to decide, and now with that, we just have to make sure they make the right decision.”

Still, some of the protesters doubted whether the administration would stick to Zimmer’s timetable, while many worried that the University would choose not to divest.

“I’m really surprised but glad President Zimmer showed up and actually said something,” said third-year Kara Boulahanis. “But I’m a little skeptical, honestly. We already had one date that a decision was supposed to be made by, and the University just doesn’t seem to care about this as much as students and staff do.”

Pareles stressed the importance of divestment. “If the administration and Board of Trustees choose to remain invested in genocide…it will be a loss for everyone,” he said. “It won’t just be a defeat for the people of Darfur, it will be symptomatic of a greater problem at our University—the lack of transparency with which University affairs are run and the complete disregard that this administration has for the concerns of students and faculty.”

Recently, activists were encouraged by a letter of support written by John Franklin, a former U of C history professor. Franklin is the last surviving member of the committee that produced the Kalven Report, which is the document that outlines University guidelines for political action. Franklin wrote that his understanding of the committee’s recommendations would allow for the University to take action in the “exceptional instance” of genocide in Darfur.

STAND leaders hoped that Franklin’s letter, in addition to an online petition that they say 1,500 students and 110 members of the faculty have signed, would force the trustees to confront the issue.

But the administration has so far remained non-committal, with Zimmer emphasizing the importance of intellectual neutrality on campus as recently as two weeks ago.

“Even though we’ve all been freezing out here, it still feels worthwhile, and I’m glad we did it, since it seems like a decision will finally be made,” Boulahanis said.