February 3, 2009

Zero degrees Kalven

The University’s recent push for sustainability is in direct violation of the Kalven Report.

With the University’s endowment sinking faster than a cement-shoed gangster in Lake Michigan, the administration is going to be forced to make some significant budget cuts. It should start with a position that should never have existed in the first place: the office of the director of sustainability.

I am sure that Ilsa Flanagan, who was appointed in November, is a fine director of sustainability. But that the administration now considers environmental sustainability part of its mission is a blatant violation of the Kalven Report––the same document that President Zimmer uses as justification for some of the administration’s more unpopular decisions.

Now, Zimmer’s affection for the Kalven Report has earned it a bit of dislike among many groups of students. (Had he tried to use it to justify the switch to the Common Application—God knows how, but I’m sure he could have done it––we probably would have seen students burning the report in front of the Administration Building like Vietnam-era draft cards.)

But the report is in fact a remarkable document––one that espouses a philosophy of education that few other universities have articulated so well or defended so forcefully. That philosophy, in a nutshell, is this: Universities are homes to ideas, but they do not themselves hold ideas. The purpose of elite, liberal-arts universities like the U of C is to nurture ideas of every type, including ideas that directly contradict each other. That’s why the U of C has simultaneously been home to people like Milton Friedman (a raving capitalist) and the faculty of the Humanities Division (raving left-wingers).

But in order to encourage such diverse thought, the U of C itself cannot take positions on controversial issues. To do so discourages the very type of individual inquiry that is paramount to the U of C’s purpose.

Of course, this does not mean that the U of C should be so morally blind as to follow IBM’s example and sell punch-card machines to Hitler. But the issue at hand has to be extreme, the Holocaust being the usual comparison. And the University has to be able to take action that can substantially affect the issue––otherwise, its gestures will only be symbolic, which is the very type of action the Kalven Report prohibits.

We could argue about whether the destruction of the environment is tantamount to genocide. An economist might be able to produce figures showing that air pollution, for example, has led to millions of deaths.

But such research would hardly be definitive. Indeed, it would be the very type that is supposed to be debated and argued (sometimes ad infinitum) in the academy.

And in any case, I doubt that putting a helpful “Eco-Tip of the Month” on the University’s sustainability webpage will make Al Gore declare victory in the war against climate change.

(“Running low on Flex Dollars? When you go to Hutch, you can save 10 cents on a drink by bringing a reusable bottle or mug.”)

Yes, it’s nice to see that the dorms saved a little bit of electricity during Battle of the Bulbs. And I suppose it probably can’t hurt that various new buildings on campus are being designed to high standards of energy efficiency, since energy-efficient buildings will save the University money in the long run.

But the fact remains that there is nothing the University can do by itself to substantially alleviate climate change. All that such efforts will do is divert money from research budgets, faculty salaries, and student financial aid, as well as alienate faculty and students who share the belief that the environment is not in danger—an incorrect belief, in my view, but not one worth institutionally condemning.

In the past, the University has realized this, and has never made a serious effort to put the environment first. When one environmental group released a “report card” of American universities’ sustainability efforts in 2007, the U of C earned a D+. Later that year, when the University signed the Illinois Sustainable University Compact, campus activists heralded it as a turning point––but a closer reading of the agreement shows that the University only agreed to goals that are so vague as to be nearly meaningless, such as pledging to “promote more sustainable transportation options” or “reduce carbon emissions on campus.” Reduce carbon emissions by how much?

The University should return to this prior paradigm. It is not the U of C’s role to save the world—it is the U of C’s role to educate the world. And when students and faculty go to lobby Congress and the U.N. for stronger environmental protections, I’ll be there.

Andrew Alexander is a fourth-year in the College majoring in chemistry. He is a member of the Maroon Editorial Board.