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May 13, 2011

Zimmer pushed for SRIC answers at forum

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Students pressed University President Robert J. Zimmer for a direct response to last month’s referendum calling for a Socially Responsible Investment Committee (SRIC) in an open forum on Tuesday.

Conversation also touched on the recent decision to merge housekeeping and facilities services, the opening of the Mansueto Library, and improvement of services offered to students at the Student Care Center.

Zimmer told a contentious audience that he would be meeting with student representatives in upcoming weeks to discuss the SRIC. Zimmer, who did not say whether or not an SRIC would be created, said the Kalven Report and the University’s emphasis on academic freedom would shape the dialogue around the SRIC.

The forum was better attended than the previous quarterly meetings, with about 40 students in the audience. Many of them were part of the group that had pushed for the referendum calling for the SRIC,and spoke out on their stance.

“It’s not a simple question,” Zimmer said, when asked about the possibility of an SRIC. “There are certainly arguments on both sides. An interesting feature of it is how it fits into the nature of the culture of the institution and the nature of the way that institution operates.”

Asked to draw on his experience as provost at Brown University, where a committee for socially responsible investment was recently formed, Zimmer referenced the Kalven Report and the unique culture revolving around the University’s emphasis on free academic discourse. Zimmer said the University would not create an SRIC if it had the potential to “create a chilling effect on discourse.”

“Most will find that at Chicago, assumptions can always be challenged,” Zimmer said.

In March, student activists at Brown successfully convinced their administration to divest from HEI Hotels & Resorts, out of concern that the company engaged in anti-union practices. U of C students, inspired by the success at Brown, campaigned for the Board of Trustees to divest the University’s nearly $50 million in assets from the company.

But Zimmer defended the role of the Kalven Report in shaping University investment policy.

“I think it’s a mistake to say that the Kalven Report means that we don’t have any policy,” Zimmer said in response to a student who criticized the University’s investment decisions. He said academic discourse, not neutrality, is the main policy of the University.

Vice President for Student Life Kim Goff-Crews highlighted services provided by Student Government to foster a dialogue between students and members of the Board of Trustees. Goff-Crews pointed to student lunches with individual trustees as an opportunity for trustees to hear student concerns. Goff-Crews added that the idea of an SRIC had come up in several of these lunches.

Both Zimmer and Goff-Crews reassured students that dialogue regarding socially responsible investments would continue next year.

Students also asked Zimmer and Goff-Crews about retaining housekeepers after the University’s decision to merge housing and facilities services, but both administrators declined to comment because negotiations with housekeepers are ongoing. Both administrators also declined to comment when asked about the possibility of a level-one trauma center at the University of Chicago Medical Center.

Zimmer also spoke about the soon-to-be-completed construction of Mansueto Library, which will open on Monday.

“It has been a very important project for the University,” Zimmer said. “To build a library is a statement of the University’s value in research,” he added. Zimmer added that the new 265,000–sq. ft. William Eckhardt Research Center, which will be across from Mansueto Library, would be a “nice juxtaposition,” and reflected the breadth of the University’s disciplines.

Goff-Crews also used the forum as an opportunity to solicit student input on how the University could improve services offered at the Student Care Center.

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