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:: Photography by Jenny Fisher, '07

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Response to Darfur

photo: response to darfurThe conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region, where 400,000 people have died in what the U.S. government describes as genocide, has been discussed on campuses nationwide. At Chicago, conversations this fall considered potential University responses to this dire situation. These conversations revealed both a lack of consensus on the efficacy of divestment or other economic boycotts and a belief that the University could best contribute by responding from its special competency and sponsoring individual and collective analyses and actions by faculty and students working to confront the issues. In February President Robert Zimmer announced that he had established an initial fund of $200,000 to underwrite faculty and student work “that will broaden knowledge and help prepare our students—through real world experiences and scholarly work—to advance human rights and the well-being of people around the world.”

The creation of the fund, the first of its kind among the nation’s colleges and universities, is intended, Zimmer told the Magazine, “to underscore the seriousness with which the University takes the situation in Darfur and its belief in the time-tested truth that the University’s greatest social contribution is made through the efforts of its faculty, students, and alumni, in the context of the rigorous analysis and inquiry for which Chicago is known.”

Some universities have chosen to address the Sudan situation through divestment. Chicago’s different approach is founded on its long-standing practice, formalized with the 1967 Kalven Report, of contributing to social and political issues through the support of the work of its faculty and students and otherwise“not taking explicit positions on social and political issues that do not have a direct bearing on the University.”

The campus chapter of the national group Students Take Action Now: Darfur (STAND) argued that divestment fit into the Kalven Report’s “exceptional instance” clause, cases when “the corporate activities of the University may appear so incompatible with paramount social values as to require careful assessment of the consequences.” The group made that argument in protests, meetings, and a petition to the board—signed by 1,500 students, 110 faculty, and the Kalven Committee’s last surviving member, professor emeritus of history John Hope Franklin.

At its February meeting the Board of Trustees completed its consideration of the divestment issue, ultimately voting not to divest Chicago’s holdings (estimated at less than $1 million of direct investments). In its vote, the board adhered to the report’s guiding principle:“A university has a great and unique role to play in fostering the development of social and political values in a society.” Interviewed in the February 8 Chicago Tribune, Zimmer said: “Our position is that for the long run, the great contribution we make to the political landscape is to provide this umbrella of open, free inquiry. That is not a position of neutrality or a position of taking no political stand. That is our political stand.”

Chicago STAND leaders were quick to voice their disappointment. Writing in the February 6 Chicago Maroon, Michael Pareles, ’07, and Aliza Levine, ’09, noted the University’s “generosity in setting up a fund,” then added,“[T]his was not what we asked for. ... Future research will have no effect on a tragedy that the world agrees is happening today.”

But in the February 9 Law School Faculty Blog, Geoffrey R. Stone, JD’71, the Harry A. Kalven distinguished service professor of law, argued that the antidivestment decision is not a sign of neutrality but rather a call to individual action: “Those who demand divestment want the University to make a statement about what is morally, politically, and socially ‘right.’ ... The role of the University is not to ‘decide’ such questions, but to create and nurture an environment in which we may freely and openly debate them, without fearing that the University has already resolved them on our behalf.”