April 11, 2006

Bucking trend, U of C will not divest from Sudan

Despite mounting national and local pressure, the University of Chicago, which indirectly holds equity in companies considered by other universities to be complicit in the Darfur genocide, will not divest itself from these holdings.

On Friday, a letter was delivered to the administration by a group of students requesting an investigation into the University’s investments and a declaration of divestment. The University is in the process of crafting a response but would not comment on its content or when it should be expected.

To date, Brown University, Dartmouth University, Harvard University, Stanford University, the University of California, and Yale University have all divested their endowments from Sudan to varying degrees. Amherst College, without any investment in Sudan, stated its intention to avoid such investments in the future. Illinois, Louisiana, Missouri, New Jersey, and Oregon have all divested their public pensions; 11 other states have legislation pending approval.

Not in our name

As of now, the University does not hold direct equity in any of the companies identified as being complicit in the Darfur genocide. According to Securities and Exchange Commission filings, the University last held a company, the Swiss ABB Ltd., which was unanimously censured by the U.S. Congress last September for its actions in Sudan.

Most of the University’s endowment is in indirect holdings determined by outside investment managers.

“We do have very small holdings [in identified companies] that are held by our investment managers, but not in our name,” said Peter Stein, chief investment officer and vice president of the University.

Over the past year, an association of U of C students has attempted to raise awareness of the situation in Darfur by hosting talks on campus and fundraisers for humanitarian aid.

Currently, students are exploring the possibility of launching a Students Take Action Now: Darfur (STAND) chapter on campus, which has proved instrumental in getting other universities to divest.

On Friday, the students from The Giving Tree, Students for Human Rights, Amnesty International, and Students for Global Public Health sent a letter to the administration “requesting an investigation of the University’s investments…a declaration of divestment from companies with direct business ties…[and] a declaration that the University would not in the future invest in such companies,” according to Anyu Fang, a fourth-year in the College and a coordinator of the campaign, in an e-mail.

The greatest humanitarian disaster of our age

The story of the Darfur genocide can begin with the 1989 military coup that brought The National Islamic Front (NIF) regime to power in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital. The regime deposed an elected government and abandoned a nascent peace agreement with southern Sudan. For the next 20 years, the NIF participated in a large civil war with southern Sudan.

In response to an insurgency of African tribal groups in the western Darfur region of Sudan, the NIF has led a campaign of ethnic cleansing since February 2003. The campaign has largely been funded by oil revenues and carried out by militias of nomadic groups, called the “Janjaweed” (warriors on horseback), supported by the NIF.

While the death toll remains uncertain, the United Nations Mission in Sudan estimates that at least 70,000 people have been killed and 2.1 million have been displaced since 2003. Eric Reeves, a Sudan activist and English professor at Smith College, estimates at least 400,000 dead, with tens of thousands more to die every month in the approaching, drought-prone rainy season.

“It is crucial that students know because it is the greatest humanitarian disaster of our age,” said Lila Umhau, a second-year in the College and a co-founder of Justice For Darfur, a student group now part of Amnesty International. “This is just as important as apartheid South Africa. Things like this are still going on.”

Broke the heart of the regime

Although former U.S. President Bill Clinton signed economic sanctions on Sudan in 1997, the international community has not pursued large-scale military or economic action against the Sudanese regime.

In order to bring pressure to end the genocide, those concerned have turned to the model of divestment, used successfully against the apartheid government of South Africa in the 1980’s and early 1990’s.

Seeking ways to combat the apartheid regime in South Africa without military intervention, the international anti-apartheid struggle developed the strategy of reducing investment in firms and industries complicit in apartheid.

Divestment “was resisted by university establishments and the corporate world,” said U of C professor John Comaroff, a scholar of South Africa. Although many U.S. universities did eventually divest in South Africa, the University of Chicago did not.

Divestment “really gave encouragement to the struggle in South Africa,” Comaroff said. “The African National Congress and others were all deeply encouraged. [Secondly], it actually weakened the regime. In retrospect, members of the apartheid government say that it had a tremendous effect in that it persuaded banks to not give loans.”

According to Comaroff, however, the Darfur case is different from South African apartheid. Although “the sanctions broke the heart of the regime at the end,” divestment relates to “contingent historical conditions,” he said.

South Africa was an important ally at the end of the Cold War, and its conclusion greatly decreased its strategic importance, making South Africa’s government more sensitive to the shock of divestment.

Very few sources of pressure

Meanwhile, Sudan has no such strategic importance to the United States. With U.S. sanctions in place since 1997, American companies cannot operate in Sudan.

“There are very few [other] sources of pressure on the Khartoum regime,” Reeves said. “Divestment is one of the few possibilities to bring significant economic pressure on Darfur.”

Some activists, however, still believe that divestment can go a long way towards ending the Khartoum regime. Sudan, classified by the World Bank as ‘severely indebted,’ is one of the world’s most indebted nations.

Sudan “cannot service that debt even with oil revenues,” Reeves said. “It requires ongoing commercial and capital investment from these companies.”

None of the implicated companies, 26 in all as identified by divesting universities, are American. Four of the companies—ABB Ltd., PetroChina, Sinopec, and Tatneft—were condemned for their actions in Sudan by a unanimous censure vote of the U.S. Congress.

Proponents of divestment believe that it is only with commercial support that the Khartoum regime is able to carry out its genocide.

“Oil is a critical source of revenue and an asset of paramount strategic importance to the Sudanese government,” the Harvard Corporation said in a statement at the time of its divestment from Sinopec, a Chinese oil firm involved in Sudan.

Reeves and a Brown University press release both detailed the desired effects of a divestment campaign.

Divestment will lead to a drop in stock prices of the companies, leading some to suspend their operations. Decreased operations “will slow the growth of operations of other such companies,” according to Brown. “The resulting slow-down in economic growth and in growth of government revenue will encourage the Sudanese government to change its behavior.”

Critics of divestment argue that ending foreign direct investment in Sudan may do more harm than good, holding that companies in Sudan provide much-needed infrastructure maintenance and income to all Sudanese.

However, Dartmouth trustee Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate in economics, said, “In this case, I see little or no development benefit to investment [in Sudan from these companies]; but I do see enormous human and economic costs.”

A climate of openness

The University traces its policy back to the 1967 Kalven Report, a statement “on the University’s Role in Social and Political Action,” in response to students protests of the Vietnam War. The report was written by a committee led by Law School professor Harry Kalven Jr., a leading liberal thinker and authority on the First Amendment.

“The mission of the University is the discovery, improvement, and dissemination of knowledge,” states the report. “The instrument of dissent and criticism is the individual faculty member or the individual student. The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic

“The neutrality of the university as an institution arises then not from a lack of courage nor out of indifference and insensitivity. It arises out of respect for free inquiry and the obligation to cherish a diversity of viewpoints.”

The Kalven Report guided the University in its decision not to divest from apartheid South Africa. It has also guided the current Board of Trustees to not divest from Sudan.

“The University of Chicago has adhered to this policy for some 40 years, and it has helped to make it the paradigm on intellectual freedom in American higher education,” said Geoffrey Stone, Law School professor and Kalven’s former student and colleague.

However, the Kalven report does allow for administrators to make social and political decisions about University investments “in the exceptional instance, these corporate activities of the university, may appear so incompatible with paramount social values as to require careful assessment of the consequences.”

“Exceptional instances” have been defined by the University to be only those that directly threaten its mission of education.

“The Kalven Report acknowledges that there are rare exceptions to this commitment to neutrality, particularly when it is necessary to represent the immediate interests of higher education itself in the larger arena,” Stone said.

Administrators and the Board of Trustees hold that the ideal of academic freedom outlined in the Kalven Report is relevant to the situation in Sudan.

“The University’s job is to provide a climate of openness,” Stein said. “We do not believe it is the University’s place as an institution to speak for the individuals in it.”