November 30, 2010

A more courageous U of C

The University’s stance on investment policy and social values is ultimately contradictory

I’m sure almost every student at the U of C has listened to a brief history lesson from Dean Boyer, often referred to as the University’s “resident historian.” I recently read two publications by him that remind us of two very important documents in the University’s history—two documents that are all too easily forgotten by the student body at large and that present a debate which needs to be brought to the public eye.

The first document is a preliminary draft for a World Constitution written by, among others, President Hutchins and Mortimer Adler in 1948. The second is the Report of the Committee on the Role of the University in Political and Social Action, or more popularly, the Kalven Report of 1967. These two documents present two diametrically opposed views on the University’s responsibility to the world at large—an issue which is as relevant now as it has ever been in the history of this institution.

The World Constitution is exactly what the name entails—a fully formed constitution for a new world federation (seriously, I highly recommend you read it; see the Mortimer Adler archives online). Hutchins understood that after the role the U of C played in ushering in the nuclear age (it was the first home to the Manhattan Project), it had a responsibility to “unite the world.” As Boyer puts it, Hutchins and Adler “felt that their dual obligations as private citizens and public intellectuals mandated that they speak out on significant civic issues.” The second document strikes quite a different note. The infamous Kalven Report stands today as the primary document governing the University’s social and political policies. The Kalven Report essentially states that in order to protect the individual rights of faculty to voice opinions on controversial issues, the University itself cannot publicly take a stand in either direction. The report argues that since the University is a place for furthering knowledge, “it is not a lobby” and cannot “take collective action on the issues of the day without endangering the conditions for its existence and effectiveness.”

So how are these documents, over 60 and 40 years old, respectively, relevant to students today?

When the Kalven Report was published, it was not greeted warmly by students, nor is it greeted warmly now. The University’s inherent role in social and political communities is unavoidable—it shapes the thoughts of its accomplished alumni and conducts influential research in countless fields. More immediately, however, it has a significant corporate legitimacy. It has one of the nation’s largest endowments, and this money is invested all around the world. Billions of dollars in investments make an impact. The University cannot be neutral on this—its investments fund other firms which do take stands in either direction. But it is. Why? The Kalven Report.

There is an interesting paragraph which was excluded from the final draft of the Kalven Report. Drafted by Gilbert White, a member of the committee, it states that “in instances where the public significance is large or where the University’s influence is clearly strong it may appropriately…make inquiries.” What exactly does this mean? It means that when the University is faced with what will ultimately be termed “paramount social values,” it can and must act collectively.

But now the question arises: What do we consider a paramount social value? Surely not apartheid in South Africa; most certainly not state-funded genocide in Darfur; irreversible environmental degradation may be a social value, but it is definitely not paramount. Or so maintains your University.

One of the University’s primary modes of social and political influence is the investment of its endowment. Yet, since the University has resolved to take no stance on most political and social issues, it has no structure in place to consider the ethical implications of its investments. The current manifestation of this is a laundry list of questionable investments. But there is one situation in particular that I’d like to discuss here.

Consider an issue which the University has deemed a “paramount social value”: namely, environmental sustainability. To this end, the University has created the Sustainability Council and SAGE, two relatively visible and commendable groups on campus. But here is where the Kalven Report proves an impossible policy to maintain. The University, against all odds, has taken a stance on the environment—but it still has not understood that a neutral investment is impossible. Every step taken towards sustainability by University-sponsored groups (SAGE, Sustainability Council) is undercut, if not completely overshadowed, by the University’s investments in environmentally devastating companies like Arch Coal and Alleghany Energy, to name only a few. While we install new recycling bins and toilets with two options for flushing to conserve water, we also financially support companies that blow the tops off mountains and dump them in local water sources. So while the University interprets the Kalven Report to allow for taking a stance on the environment, it simultaneously interprets the same report to maintain ignorance over its investments—two mutually incompatible policies.

As long as the University interprets the Kalven Report to justify its hands-off investment policy, it will never be able to make any progress on those “paramount social values” which it has deemed important. Dean Boyer reminds us that a great university such as ours “should have the capacity, the courage, and the commitment to think about and to act upon the future.”

The University of Chicago certainly has the capacity. Many students, administrators, and faculty even have the commitment. But the courage is lacking. We are proud to prove that the U of C is not where fun goes to die, but it’s time we show that it is not where global citizenship goes to die. It is time we turn from the disaffection of the Kalven Era and return to the globally minded, courageous optimism of Hutchins and Adler and their World Constitution.

Colin Bradley is a first-year in the College.