February 23, 2007

University's divestment decision has major holes

In a recent issue of the Maroon, two articles, by Andrew Flowers and Zack Hill, offered opposing views on the University’s decision not to divest from companies financing Sudan’s government (“Did the University Make the Right Decision by Not Divesting from Sudan?” 2/13/07). Hill’s sarcastic argument does not provide an effective opposition to Flowers’s argument or to the decision of President Zimmer and the Board of Trustees. The holes in Flowers’s argument and some points in Hill’s, however, deserve to be taken seriously.

Flowers argues that “divesting implicitly [tells] the academic body what to think is right and wrong.” Echoing the affirmations of President Zimmer, this argument fails. Is the academic body pressured to agree with the actions of Zimmer and the Board? Further, if the University divests, would the ability to protest this action, or any other University position, be endangered? The argument of both Flowers and Zimmer seems to be that if the Board of Trustees and the President believe something, nobody else associated with the University has the ability to disagree. This is absurd and condescending. This entire divestment controversy—not to mention that surrounding the Uncommon Application—is testament to the freedom of the student body, faculty, staff, and alumni to oppose and to dissent. If the University’s investments have not prevented opposition, why and how should divestment?

Flowers further contends that to divest is to assert that divestment is the best way to combat the genocide, thereby preventing further, possibly more effective action. It is erroneous, however, to assume that taking one action eliminates the possibility of others. To combat crime, a government allocates a portion of its budget to increase the size of its police force. Does this prevent the government from using another portion of its budget to improve schools or create jobs to accomplish the same goal? Divesting neither prevents nor eliminates alternative political, corporate, community, or individual action. If he were to visit STAND’s website, Flowers would find that the organization understands this, advocating several initiatives to combat the genocide, including education, political pressure, letters, call-ins, lobbying, demonstrations, op-eds, publicity, fundraising, and, of course, divestment. Nowhere on the website does it call divestment more effective or more important than any of these other

Finally, Flowers challenges STAND to urge other, non-University bodies to divest from Sudan if they feel divestment is so powerful. STAND’s website, as well as that of its partner, the Sudan Divestment Task Force, shows that both organizations are doing exactly that: encouraging cities, corporations, and states to divest.

Where Flowers’s arguments fail logically, Hill’s falter stylistically. The sarcasm of the latter weakens points to be made against the University’s decision. Hill is right to question not why the University would reject divesting from companies financing Omar al-Bashir’s regime, but rather why it would invest in them in the first place. President Zimmer and the Board of Trustees have stopped short of defining the economic advantages of the investments, a potentially appealing defense to a University community with a highly renowned economics department and a significant undergraduate population majoring in economics.

Hill is similarly right on point to question the rejection of divestment in the name of inefficacy. President Zimmer’s memorandum contends that “the University’s holdings in targeted companies may on any day be nonexistent or de minimis.” The Chicago Tribune reports that approximately $1 million (about 0.02 percent) of the University’s $5 billion endowment is invested in companies operating in Sudan. In considering this sum, the University should recognize its capacity to influence peers. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching recognizes 4,670 post-secondary institutions in the United States. If each divests $1 million from the companies in question, the Sudanese regime would be denied $4.67 billion in potential assets, a value greater than the GDP of several highly impoverished nations. Such an outcome is uncertain and arguably improbable. However, divestment on a grand scale could provide incentive for businesses funding the Sudanese government to seek partners elsewhere, economically hampering the genocidal regime. As a prestigious academic institution, the University of Chicago is in a unique position to lead such a movement.

Of course, President Zimmer, the Board of Trustees, and Andrew Flowers contend that to divest would be to take a political stance, which is not the purpose or specialty of the University. This may be true, but it assumes that not divesting is not a political stance, which is simply untrue. If the University does not divest from these companies, it is continuing to invest in them, thereby funding the genocidal government. Is there a difference between monetary support and vocal political support? The stance of the Board and President Zimmer seems to be, “We don’t support the Sudanese regime; we just give them money.” In this light, the claims of neutrality espoused by supporters of the University’s decision prove empty.

In his concluding paragraph, Andrew Flowers insists that we should be asking, “What is the best way to stop genocide?” To me, the answer seems obvious: any way we can. Divesting alone will not calm Darfur; there is not one Gordian Knot–type solution to end the crisis. However, is denying money to the genocidal regime such a bad place to start?