October 12, 2020

The University of Chicago is Not Neutral

President Zimmer’s latest email feigns political neutrality, but his continual veneration of the Kalven Report is a bucking of responsibility.

Earlier this week, I received an email, as did all the members of the University of Chicago community, from President Zimmer. At first, I was relieved to find that the correspondence was a reprieve from the constant stream of coronavirus information that floods my inbox. However, as I began to read, I was frustrated, but entirely unsurprised, to find that Zimmer was once again trotting out the “Chicago Principles” and the Kalven Report to give himself and his administration cover under the guise of neutrality from any questions about their political priorities. In reality, the University is far from neutral and consistently takes political positions to serve its corporate interests.

President Zimmer laid out two views on the on the English department’s decision to only accept Ph.D. students “interested in working in and with Black Studies.”  One opposed to the decision says the “exclusive disciplinary commitment effectively represents a political test for admission;” the other defends it as “the natural exercise of the prerogatives of an academic department to make decisions about the choice of scholarly directions it wants to emphasize.” In his entire email, not once does he support the department’s decision or even go so far as to share the administration’s position on the issue. He even concedes that if the department’s purpose was to impose a political test on applicants, “this action would stand in direct opposition to both the Kalven Report and the Chicago Principles.”

The assertion that because the department's new policy is political it is wrong must be interrogated. A coalition of faculty recently went on a diversity strike against the University’s failure to address systemic racism. The English field has marginalized Black studies and scholars for a long time. A lack of diversity often harms epistemic work. The English department’s statement announcing its decision made it clear that its decision was intended to help address those problems: “we believe that undoing persistent, recalcitrant anti-Blackness in our discipline and in our institutions must be the collective responsibility of all faculty, here and elsewhere.” Even if those are political aims, they are necessary for the University to take given its role in perpetuating those problems. As the department’s statement said, “Our discipline is responsible for developing hierarchies of cultural production that have contributed directly to social and systemic determinations of whose lives matter and why.” However, Zimmer’s latter argument on the Kalven Report and the Chicago Principles should still be sufficient to end the debate. I do not understand why Zimmer would put out an email, acknowledge both positions, but not state the administration’s support for the English department. In fact, he did not even state the administration’s position on the issue. He resorted once again to the University’s narrative of neutrality.

President Zimmer seems to put the University’s alleged commitment to neutrality before anything else. The Chicago Principles, which I’m sure we’re all familiar with after various writing surface situations, emphasizes UChicago’s commitment to free speech on campus. The Kalven Report, which he cites and has driven much of his administration’s policy, recommends that the University remain neutral on social and political issues. It seems that Zimmer never misses an opportunity to stress the University’s commitment to neutrality. Yet, that neutrality is a myth.

This myth banks on one of the great fallacies institutions use to deflect responsibility: supporting and maintaining the status quo is somehow apolitical. Since the inception of the Kalven Report, the University has used it to justify continued investment in South African apartheid, fossil fuel companies, and companies with stakes in occupied Palestine. The administration claims it cannot change its financial allocations, as doing so would stake a political position. It is correct, in the sense that what an institution decides to put its money toward is inherently a political statement. Investing in polluters who are destroying our planet constitutes a political position. Despite all their appeals to neutrality, UChicago cannot escape politics. The administration must either change its investments or acknowledge it is willing to destroy our planet for profit; it cannot hide behind its reports.

To bring the conversation closer to campus, the University’s continued funding of the UCPD shows its misplaced political priorities. The way an institution, especially one with as direct an impact on a community as the University of Chicago, decides to spend its money is a declaration of its priorities and beliefs. The administration puts forth its position on social and political issues by choosing to continue to put so much money toward the UCPD while denying funds for more expansive mental health services and cultural centers.

Yet, the University says it is neutral. And, sure, the University is an honorable institution. The Kalven Report describes two instances in which the administration can intervene in a political debate. The first is when “the society, or segments of it, threaten the very mission of the university and its values of free inquiry. In such a crisis, it becomes the obligation of the university as an institution to oppose such measures.” If the University truly followed this principle, many of the prior complaints would have been addressed. However, the report also states issues may arise when the University “must act as an institution in its corporate capacity.” Finally, a principle with which the administration’s actions are consistent. Refusing to divest from fossil fuels, maintaining the strength of the UCPD, and refusing to negotiate with the Graduate Students Union serve the University’s interests as a corporate entity; continuing to invest in companies that are major polluters or operate out of occupied Palestine ensures their endowment returns remain steady; preserving the UCPD protects their property; refusing the GSU maintains their bottom line. The administration, despite what it says, cannot simply bifurcate the University of Chicago’s corporate and academic functions. Any issue that affects the University of Chicago-as-corporation affects the University of Chicago-as-academy, and vice versa. Yet, it is only in the interest of the University-as-corporation that the administration will take a stand.

The administration wants to only concern itself with politics when doing so is in its interest. Administrators create false dichotomies and narratives to accomplish this. Zimmer’s email is yet another example. Framing administrative stances as a matter of neutrality has allowed the administration to shift the topic of debate from its policies to whether or not a university should be “apolitical.” Instead of having to defend its choices, the University pushes the false narrative that it does not involve itself with social issues. Student organizers have done a great job of pushing the University on these issues, but we must continue to force Zimmer to address the harmful policies of the University and not allow him to divert our energies any further with fallacious talking points. The University of Chicago can no longer use a report from 1967, one written in response to students protesting the Vietnam War, to guide or justify its approach to political issues.

Max Servetar is a third year in the College.