Monday, January 01, 2001

Fortress Chicago

[reposting an old article of mine from the U. of Chicago Free Press, originally published May 2001.]

Fortress Chicago
By Timothy Donaghy

The University of Chicago has, over the course of its 110 years, staked out a reputation as an intensely academic and scholarly institution: an austere ivory tower, not without a certain conservatism, but devoted to the ideal of “academic freedom”. This devotion is articulated in the 1967 “Kalven Committee: Report on the University’s Role in Political and Social Action” (online: This brief, three-page document has formed the ideological basis for every University action since, and President Randel has recently reaffirmed its importance to the University. In a sense, the Report has been the Administration’s last line of defense against student and community demands, from the South African divestment campaign to current struggles over sweatshop apparel. Yet, despite its singular importance, the average U of C student has probably never heard of the Kalven Report.

The committee, headed by Professor Harry Kalven, was formed in February 1967 by then President George W. Beadle to prepare a “statement on the University’s role in political and social action.” That “statement” was a ringing defense of free academic inquiry, coupled with the observation that, while the University should support a great diversity of viewpoints, it should itself remain neutral whenever possible. In their words, “the university is home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic,” and the university is “a community which cannot take collective action on the issues of the day without endangering the conditions for its existence and effectiveness. There is no mechanism by which it can reach a collective position without inhibiting that full freedom of dissent on which it thrives.”

But in the real world the university does take collective action every single day. For example, the University invests its endowment in various sectors of the economy, the University contracts with corporations like Barnes & Noble and Citibank to provide the student body with textbooks and banking services, and the University hires and writes paychecks for thousands of employees. In each of these dealings, the collective University has very real impacts upon people, and upon the “issues of the day”, that cannot be sidestepped by simply proclaiming neutrality. Although the Administration would not like to admit it, investing millions of dollars in irresponsible corporations or purchasing licensed collegiate apparel made in sweatshop conditions by Mexican workers, does have an impact on people’s lives and is therefore an inherently political act. This goal of complete neutrality is lovely in principle, but is not an excuse for the University to avoid responsibility for the consequences of its collective actions. The University has used the Kalven Report and this ideal of neutrality as a fig leaf to mask the political decisions it does make on a routine basis.

The Report does tentatively mention the possibility of university activities being “incompatible with paramount social values”, and that this might require “careful assessment of the consequences.” This carefully worded paragraph describes a possible justification for the university adopting a collective stance. However, this is seen as an “extraordinary instance” and indeed the University has been historically unwilling to act, even on issues that are clearly of paramount social value.

During the 1980’s there was a movement in the United States led by Randall Robinson, and supported by the African National Congress, to boycott and divest from corporations that did business with the apartheid regime in South Africa. The divestment campaign gained a lot of momentum on college campuses across the country. Between 1977 and 1993 over 100 colleges and universities, including Michigan State, Columbia, Minnesota and Stanford, decided to drop some or all of their South African investments, many citing the need of universities to develop ethical standards governing their investments. This pressure from American activists was a major factor in isolating South Africa from the international community and eventually bringing down the apartheid government. The University of Chicago, citing the Kalven Report as a guiding principle, did not divest from corporations doing business in South Africa, presumably to avoid making a collective political decision.

More recently, the nationwide student movement against sweatshop labor has compelled over 70 colleges and universities to join the Workers Rights Consortium (, a non-profit organization for monitoring and verifying compliance with University-chosen Codes of Conduct in the apparel industry. Furthermore, many other schools have joined the Fair Labor Association (, a similar, although corporate-dominated, organization. Despite four years of pressure from student activists in the Anti-Sweatshop Coalition, the University of Chicago has joined neither, again citing the Kalven Report and the need to refrain from making political decisions. During last year’s debates on joining the WRC, University General Counsel Arthur Sussman stated, “to join with other institutions to support a 'proper' code of corporate behavior would be inconsistent with the Kalven Report." (Chicago Alumni Magazine, June 2000)  In recent discussions with President Randel and Dean Turkington, the Coalition was informed that the University would not join either the WRC or the FLA since “we as a university do not join things”, and that to do so would violate the academic integrity and free choice of the individual members of the university.

Furthermore, even within the narrowest definition of the word "politics", the Kalven report principle that the University should not endorse political positions, no matter how popular, has not been strictly followed. For example, a University regulation specifies on which days the United States flag will be raised in the main quad. A pacifistic scholar who does not recognize the legitimacy of Memorial Day, for example, is, by any reasonable reading of the Kalven Report, implicitly censured by the University when it mandates that the flag be displayed specifically on that day.

Most other American universities do not take such an extreme stance as that outlined in the Kalven Report. For instance, at this past weekend’s “Global Labor Justice Conference”, Robert Durkee, the Vice-President for Public Affairs at Princeton University, voiced criticism of the Report, saying “we must set our own houses in order” and that global labor issues are “not simply academic issues.” In fact, many American universities have managed to achieve the ideal of academic freedom, while still recognizing that the university has responsibilities beyond the academic sphere. The distinction between political involvement and academic freedom is by no means as binary as the Kalven Report claims. However, in a few instances the University of Chicago’s position has influenced other colleges. Administrators at McMasters University and, recently, the University of Rochester have both quoted the Kalven Report in formulating their policies on divestment and the Workers Rights Consortium.

Ultimately, the ideals that lie behind the Kalven Report are very admirable. The University should certainly keep as its primary goal “the discovery, improvement and dissemination of knowledge.” But we need to recognize that to truly achieve this lofty ideal of neutrality requires providing answers to difficult moral and ethical questions about our relationship to the rest of the world. Neutrality is certainly not achieved by a default acceptance of the status quo. These difficult questions must continually be brought up for debate among the entire academic community, rather than relying on “tradition” or some musty thirty-year old document to guide us.

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