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Being human is having an opinion—and acting on it.

President Don Michael Randel offers his opinion on the necessity of taking sides, both as institutions and as individuals.
In Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, one of the characters remarks: “Sooner or later one has to take sides. If one is to remain human.” Said in the latter days of the French conflict in Vietnam and the beginning of the United States’ deep involvement, the observation has continuing relevance to us all, whether in war or peace. It has particular relevance to universities and their presidents.

At Chicago we have been guided since 1967 by the Kalven Report, which concludes with the view that “there emerges…a heavy presumption against the university taking collective action or expressing opinions on the political and social issues of the day, or modifying its corporate activities to foster social or political values, however compelling and appealing they may be.” The underlying principle is clear: to take a collective position necessarily intrudes on the individual’s right to hold a different position, a right fundamental to the nature of the institution.

What exactly do we mean by “social or political”? The implication is that we mean merely social or political. But one person’s merely political position is another’s high moral principle. Even without succumbing to the notion that everything is merely political, it is not so easy in everyday life to distinguish the merely political from what is genuinely a matter of principle or fact. The report, however, speaks of “paramount social values” that bear upon the institution’s activities and of circumstances that may “threaten the very mission of the university and its values of free inquiry” and may call for taking a collective position.

Clearly there are circumstances in which we must “take sides” as individuals and as a university. But fixing the boundary around those circumstances proves difficult. The University is sometimes accused of taking sides simply because it has refused to take a particular side. Sometimes the charge is of a lack of “balance,” because all sides of an issue are not asserted with equal force.

What constitutes taking sides? And does the wish to “remain human” help us to think about the sides we might take? Presumably, to take sides is to do something, though one of Greene’s characters remarks that “even an opinion is a kind of action.” Chicago is a $2 billion-a-year enterprise carried on by 26,000 people. Because of its economic and physical size, as well as its academic prominence, it does things every day that have social and political ramifications—whether it likes that fact or not.

These consequences are felt most immediately in the city in which we live. Do we not have a responsibility to try to make those consequences positive? Do we not have a responsibility to take sides against the social ills that blight some parts of the city, especially those closest to us? Doing so means taking certain initiatives as a university. It means working with certain political leaders to try to achieve certain ends.

For example, the University has worked closely with community and elected officials to extend the coverage of its police force into surrounding neighborhoods, to establish a charter school, to build new housing, and to stimulate economic development, all through direct investment of its own resources. Faculty members advise the Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Housing Authority on the substantial transformations being undertaken by those agencies. And the University makes a major effort to identify and work with qualified minority- and women-owned businesses, especially on the city’s South Side.

The Kalven Report remains a sound guide to our thinking and actions. But it does not—and cannot—preclude engagement with our city, the nation, and the world. We believe that ideas matter because we believe that ideas can change the world. Ideas inevitably result in taking sides. The challenge is to find appropriate sides to take. We cannot lapse into the belief that claiming not to take sides is in fact the same thing as not taking sides.

Which brings me to the life of a university president. A familiar complaint about people in my line of work is that we no longer take sides on anything, so eager are we to raise money and thus to avoid offending anyone ever. But nevertheless we hear from people who do not like our views, and I have been told that in becoming a president I gave up the right, even as a private citizen, to express certain opinions and to encourage others to hold them—for example to host a private fund-raising event off campus for a political candidate.

True, university presidents might be tempted to opine about things of which we know not. But surely no one wants university presidents who are not engaged in some way, just as universities must be engaged, in the creation of a greater good for humankind. Ignorance, suffering, poverty, and injustice surround us, and we must take sides against them and the forces that create them. The solutions are in fact political and not merely political. In this context, I shall hope to remain a citizen with certain responsibilities that turn out to be political. In at least this respect, I shall hope to remain human.



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