Sunday, February 04, 2007

Politics at the University of Chicago

The University of Chicago, once again, is refusing to divest from Sudan investments, citing the Kalven Report, a late 1960s policy that has been distorted beyond recognition. The original idea of the Kalven Report was that the university, as an institution, should not express positions on public policy. Although the Kalven Report includes a clear exception for actions that the university takes, the Kalven Report has been used to reject divestment from South Africa in the 1980s, and even to prohibit membership in the Workers Rights Coalition (because refusing to buy from sweatshops is a political stand). The U of Chicago finally gave up its silly objection to the WRC, but the divestment stand keeps going.

Chicago's approach is guilty of hypocrisy. After all, the university has no problem taking policy stands (and even hiring lobbyists) when it profits from doing so. And the theory of academic freedom behind the Kalven Report is fundamentally flawed. According to the Kalven Report, the university collectively should be banned from taking policy stands because it might infringe upon the rights of individuals to dissent. However, this is simply not true. The institutional stands of a university in no way prevent individuals from expressing a different viewpoint.

However, the U of Chicago is at least setting up a fund for student and faculty work on the Sudan, which probably is more important than divestment. But divestment is a symbolic move, and symbols do matter, as the South African divestment movement proved. The University of Chicago needs to reverse the Kalven Report, or at least change its interpretation of it, and allow collective political action against evil in the world. In the false name of protecting individual academic freedom, the Chicago trustees are violating the rights of people to pursue collective action.

UPDATE: The University of Chicago's Oriental Institute is citing a ban on political events as a reason to prohibit a student group from using its auditorium for a speech by Richard Perle. When will this silliness end?

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