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
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
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
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.