April 11, 2008

City Council to U of C: Divest now

The Chicago City Council unanimously approved a resolution denouncing the University for its refusal last year to divest from companies with business ventures in the Darfur region of Sudan during Wednesday’s full-council meeting at City Hall.

Third-ward alderman and U of C School of Social Service Administration (SSA) alumna Pat Dowell spearheaded the resolution, which was approved by the City Council’s Committee on Human Rights last month. Forty of the 50 aldermen signed the resolution, and none voted or spoke against it.

“We as a body should send a message to this important institution in the city of Chicago that the city does not support their refusal to divest,” Dowell said in her address to the full City Council.

Tom Tunney, vice chair of the Committee on Human Rights and 44th-ward alderman, said the resolution does not mean the City Council will cease relations with the U of C, but that it is meant as a warning and a recommendation to reform the University’s stance on divestment.

“A resolution is basically an advisory. It doesn’t have the weight of an order, but it’s strong,” he said.

He said legislative bodies like the City Council often pass resolutions on issues they believe should be brought to attention.

“We send resolutions on the War in Iraq, a lot of things. Often times, other bodies will pass resolutions to bring awareness to an issue or sway public opinion. This resolution will be noted,” he said.

Geoffrey Stone, a U of C Law School faculty member, said the University should stand by its decision not to divest, despite the Council’s entreaties.

“First of all, I think the policy is right,” he said. “Second of all, I do not think the Chicago City Council should be making pronouncements about policy decisions made by the University of Chicago or any other university unless they are prepared to make laws.”

Vice President for Communications Julie Peterson, who attended a preliminary hearing on the resolution, said it is not likely that divestment by the U of C would cause any noticeable improvements on human suffering in Sudan, and furthermore that divestment could threaten the university’s environment of intellectual freedom and inquiry.

“We respect and appreciate the Council’s desire to take positive actions to try to influence the terrible situation in Darfur,” she said in an e-mail interview. “We do not agree, however, that divestment by the University of Chicago will have any significant impact on the situation there.”

Dowell did not entirely agree. “The University refuses to divest based on their core values of inquiry and their desire to not get involved in politics. However, the genocide in Darfur is more than a political issue,” she said to the full assembly.

U of C students lobbying against the administration’s decision recently brought the issue to the attention of local politicians. Several members of the campus chapter of Students Taking Action Now: Darfur (STAND), an activist group formed in 2006 to compel colleges and universities to divest from Darfur, and the SSA’s new chapter of STAND lobbied local aldermen and state legislators to support divestment. A meeting between Dowell and University STAND members prompted Dowell to draft the resolution, second-year SSA student and SSA STAND co-founder and co-chair Robert Elchert said.

Second-year SSA student and STAND co-founder and co-chair Jenna Harper said she traveled to the state capital of Springfield to lobby against the University’s decision and spoke to several state legislators who are interested in helping U of C STAND.

“It shows that it’s not going away. It’s over a year later, and there are still repercussions for the University,” third-year and campus STAND co-chair Kevin Koll said.

According to Elchert, STAND members are not trying to engage in confrontational tactics with the University but hope to show the administration that their decision is in opposition to basic social and political values. The passing of the resolution will give STAND members further credibility when approaching other politicians and community leaders in the future, he said.

“I don’t know what this will do for the relationship between the University and the City Council. It’ll be interesting to see how the University reacts to the official passing. Hopefully it will get their attention, if nothing else,” Elchert said.

However, Stone said that the U of C’s relations with the city of Chicago are not in peril. “I think generally the University and the city have great relations,” he said. “This just happens to be a point of disagreement, but disagreement is fine.”