Harvard is an extremely prestigious university, as anyone who comes here from Cedar Rapids, Iowa soon finds out. The high school cheerleader who spurned him in high school all of a sudden can't wait to see him over vacations, and the townfathers are happy to chat with him on Main Street.
And Harvard's prestige extends into more crucial matters. Professors here are accorded "seer" status, even when they turn out to be wrong. The slick newsweeklies typically chart a trend among young people by teeing off with the latest goings-on at Harvard. The Hotelworkers Union pension fund and the Jay Gould Foundation may have similar stocks tucked away in their protfolios, but if Harvard makes an investment, it is considered automatically sound.
But anyone who has been in Harvard Yard longer than the Crimson Key tour knows the adulation for this place is a lot of bunk. Most people, however, understandably do not recognize that omniscient, omnipotent Harvard is a product of ad agency hype; and the University's prestige affords radicals a toehold that can be exploited for progressive ends in not immediately evident ways.
"Social judo" was the late Saul Alinsky's memorable phrase describing actions aimed at applying leverage to the enemy's weak points to force social change. The 34 black students who occupied Massachusetts Hall one year ago today skillfully attempted to use Harvard's prestige to flip the university into aiding the cause of black freedom fighters thousands of miles away.
The ten members of the Pan-African Liberation Committee who began organizing in the late summer of 1971 faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles in their attempt to aid the freedom fighters in three African nations who had been waging decade long wars to push the Portuguese out of the continent. The struggles were an ocean away; they were not directly affected by the American government. Apart from enlisting in the liberation armies, how could PALC help the freedom fighters?
The PALC leaders, Randall Robinson and James Winston, hit upon an ingenious strategy. The Portuguese, regimes they said, were propped by the investment of American-based oli companies, who provided needed foreign exchange and in some cases made direct payments to the Portuguese military. Several companies were involved, but Harvard owned a large block of stock in one of them, Gulf Oil, and it was here that PALL decided to use some judo.
They planned a campaign designed to persuade or coerce Harvard to divest its 700,000 shares of Gulf stock. In the heightened tensions of the building takeover, the divestiture itself came to be seen as the crucial issue, as if Harvard's pulling out of Gulf would somehow cripple the company. This vision, a nice enough pipe dream, unfortunately was never part of the PALC strategy. The divestiture was nothing by itself; Harvard's share of total stock in the company, large as it was in absolute terms, only amounted to 0.3 per cent of Gulf's outstanding shares. If Harvard quietly dumped the stock on the market, share prices might decline briefly for a day or so, but no long-range gains would be made.
The divestiture was only half the strategy. PALC demanded that it be accompanied by a public statement explaining the moral considerations that had guided the move. Picture the situation: President Bok calls a press conference, which all the heavy papers and wire services attend because Harvard is so important, then Bok denounces Gulf, and announces that Harvard is selling all its shares. If the Hotelworkers divested their stock, the story would have had back page value, but Harvard's prestige gives the move added impetus--enough to catapault it into the national spotlight. Congress begins to take note of the situation (prominent black Representatives had already endorsed PALC), a national Gulf boycott is boosted, and the flacks in the Gulf public relations department start working overtime to smooth over the company's damaged image.
More substantively, Gulf bows to pressure and begins to initiate reforms in its African operations--reforms that help loosen the Portuguese grip. Other oil companies with African operations take note, wary of similar campaigns being mapped in their direction. The cause of black Africans fighting for their freedom is helped measurably--and all because Harvard is viewed as a miracle wonderland.
Does this scenario sound improbable? Then consider: Gulf became aware that PALC and its allies in Harvard-Radcliffe Afro were agitating about the issue. The Company got scared. Several days before Bok announced Harvard's decision on the divestiture question, Edwin B. Walker, Gulf's executive vice president, told Harvard the Company would make public certain details of its African operations called for in a proxy fight motion prepared by a coalition of church groups. Gulf therefore gave in on a measure that would have garnered something like three per cent of the vote. Why the concession? Because Gulf feared Harvard's prestige, either in a divestiture announcement or a simple vote at an open corporation meeting.
PALC and Afro's belief that Harvard could have been the fulcrum to help lever Gulf and eventually Portugal out of Africa seems well founded. With an eye toward triggering the initial move in the sequence--Harvard's public divestiture--the two groups quickened their organizing tempo last Spring culminating with the six-day occupation of Mass Hall. In the process, they skillfully orchestrated a campaign that included intelligible leaflets, reasonable demands devoid of shrill rhetoric, and a sensitive appreciation of the difficulty of informing the community on an initially obscure issue. When their campaign peaked with the occupation, picket lines numbering at times as high as a thousand, circled outside the embattled building.
Why then did Harvard refuse to divest? The basic issue of the dispute--Harvard's responsibility to apply pressure to aid black Africans --was conceded by the Corporation. This was the big shift, probably spearheaded by President Bok over the no doubt vehement objections of George F. Bennett'33, treasurer, who had successfully (and sincerely) argued in previous proxy fights that the University had no business meddling in corporate management. The necessity for Harvard to not only condemn but actively oppose certain actions of corporations in which it invested put Harvard clearly in the vanguard of universities as far as corporate responsibility goes.
This breath-taking policy change, however, was lost in the fray over the specifics of the Corporation's decision, followed as it was a scant 12 hours later by the Mass Hall takeover. Instead of endorsing the PALC-Afro divestiture proposal, the Corporation announced its own strategy: it had already pressured Gulf to make the disclosure called for in the proxy motion, and it would send an adviser to Africa to obtain first hand information on the specifics of Gulf's role there. It also asked Gulf to set forth a plan for the Corporation's further improving its employment training and overall management policies in Africa.
In sum then, Harvard agreed that steps should be taken to loosen the Portuguese grip on Africa, but it