Upholding Consumer Sovereignty

Dear President Bok,

I write you as one of thousands of students concerned with Harvard's role in the larger society--more particularly, its continuing support for the immoral and illegal activities of the J.P. Stevens Company.

During one week last December, 1300 students signed a petition calling for a boycott of J.P. Stevens. The level of response in such a brief period demonstrates real and continuing concern for the plight of 44,000 Stevens workers.

Recent statements by members of the Harvard Corporation and yourself make it appear that Harvard University as an institution can be exempted from the responsibility of considering where it spends its money, and that "individual choice" should reign.

To conclude from this stance that no action need be taken is entirely unrealistic in the case of J.P. Stevens products. A student being consigned to a Stillman Infirmary bed is not in a position to demand his sheets not be Stevens-produced. Nor would anything but chaos result if athletes were to search piles of towels to avoid the Stevens ones. In both cases, moreover, students cannot escape paying for Stevens when they pay for these services.

These services are provided by the institution and not by individuals out of necessity; as you say, "universities must make collective decisions to carry out regular activities." Individuals can only express their choice to boycott through the institution's decisions. We must therefore ask Harvard to take some form of initiative in this area.

Harvard's current stance on the J.P. Stevens issue is morally irresponsible and dangerous to our school's principles for two reasons: (1) Money paid to Stevens is being used to finance the company's vicious anti-union campaign, while no money is being sent to the Stevens workers or the union. This represents real and active support for Stevens illegality. You argue in your letter that "we do not possess sufficient leverage to move large corporations." A similar excuse is used to downgrade the importance of voting: "Who cares? My vote won't change the results." On that basis could we excuse from moral responsibility those who freelyand knowingly voted for fascism in Germany? Similarly, our purchases are a vote, a selective preference for Stevens goods. The votes of the many churches, schools and hospitals behind the Stevens boycott would carry real weight with that company.

(2) Implicitly, in refusing to give students a ruling say over whether or not to boycott a product, Harvard makes a judgment that Stevens is not a serious enough issue. I do not make that charge lightly, because it is manifestly clear that many everyday decisions of the University represent decisions on moral, social and political matters larger than the narrowly-defined educational process. You mention in your letter the effect on the community of decisions to construct new buildings, as well as treatment of minority students and applicants.

Why are purchases for services any different, any less related to the tasks of the University? I believe you malign the moral seriousness of the problem faced by these textile workers. Very much to the point, Harvard's decision to allow students to opt out of paying for UHS abortions represents an institutional decision that this issue was serious enough to be put before the Harvard community. At the very least this approach should be pursued with the Stevens issue.

Recent discussions of moral responsibility in investments and purchases have neglected a very fundamental moral issue at stake here: How much control do people have over the conduct of institutions shaping their lives? I am sure you would agree that furthering respect for democratic decision-making is one of the most basic educational goals Harvard can pursue.

Not letting students, employees, and other members of the community have a say over the conduct of services provided to them flagrantly denies democratic principles. It also defies a principle individuals of any political persuasion can agree on: consumer sovereignty. Is Harvard that cynical about the brand of economics it teaches--to the neglect of what more than half the world's economists pursue--that it will refute daily that theory's fundamental assumptions? I am afraid that one of the most important lessons of the Harvard experience will be how far social institutions are from real democracy, and how little say the average consumer has over what he receives for his money.

I doubt this is the sort of education your letter is concerned to protect. I share your desire for the unfettered discovery and transmission of knowledge. Yet I fail to see how the University's free atmosphere would be damaged by a decision to make serious demands for a boycott open to a free and democratic decision by those who use and pay for the services! Your letter fails to note the distinction between purchasing products for services and the actual provision of education in the eyes of students. In the latter case, Harvard can perhaps be permitted to claim the right to set minimum educational standards.

Yet the Harvard Purchasing Department can make no claims to a clearer assessment of moral issues surrounding Stevens and Nestles purchases, nor can they decide whether students would prefer non-Stevens sheets at a few pennies more. By making quantity and quality alone the basis for purchases, and thus excluding the social and moral issues users care about, the University has gone far to repress "the reasoned expression of ideas and arguments." As you say, "universities that violate this social compact do so at their peril."

Indeed, encouraging free and democratic choice is the best justification for the Stevens boycott. Federal courts have found consistently that Stevens has "interfered with, restrained, coerced, its employees in the exercise of their rights...flagrantly, cynically, and unlawfully." Stevens fires union supporters, interrogates employees, discriminates against minorities and especially those who support the union--and, in the case of the Statesboro, Georgia plant, where the union won a representation election, carries through on the threat of plant closing. Where the NLRB, the federal courts and the union have failed, consumers like Harvard can very likely force the company to respect their employees' rights.

Finally, Harvard serves very noble educational goals in integrating students' social and moral concerns into its administration. For one, this encourages an awareness and discussion of social problems lying outside the campus. This goal cannot merely be pursued in the classroom, as the Institute of Politics and Phillips Brooks House attest. Second, your own writing laments the fact that labor interests play so little role on the campus: "Colleges and universities too have a role to play in the labor field that up to now has been largely neglected...meager contacts seem particularly striking when they are compared with the interchange that goes on regularly between the universities and the business community." (Labor and the American Community, p. 482). It is easy to understand this relationship when our money is used to support the most retrograde of American corporations.

In conclusion, I reiterate the feeling of many students: Harvard University does not serve society on a medieval model, remaining aloof from its conflicts and problems. I do not ask the University to decide unilaterally whether or not the Stevens boycott is the morally proper course. Rather, the most responsible position--morally, educationally, and administratively--is to allow students a meaningful say over how the services they use and pay for are conducted.

Andrew J. Kahn '80 is vice president of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee.