Overseers President Urges Alums: Vote `With Care'
Divestment Slate Charges Letter is Inappropriate
The president of Harvard's Board of Overseers, in a letter sent last week, urged all alumni to consider "with care" three pro-divestment graduates' bid for seats on the 30-member governing body.
Meanwhile, the three graduates--part of a group calling itself "Alumni Against Apartheid"--yesterday responded with charges that the letter was inappropriately included in the official election mailing sent to the 190,000 graduates who vote for the board.
Saying the pro-divestment slate is the first to campaign actively for a specific issue, overseers President Joan T. Bok '51 said: "The issue at stake is not one that should be resolved casually or decided by a small minority of Harvard graduates."
"If the Board of Overseers were to become a body made up of members elected primarily to press a particular policy, it would be a very different Board than it has been heretofore," Joan Bok said in her letter.
Bok, who is no relation to President Derek C. Bok, could not be reached for comment yesterday.
The letter was included with a statement detailing Harvard's position on South Africa-related investments in the mailing of ballots to alummi. Harvard opposes divestment, supporting instead a policy of "intensive dialogue" to improve working conditions for Blacks employed by American corporations.
The board meets six times yearly to approve policy decisions by the six-man Harvard Corporation, the other University governing board. Members are elected for three-year terms, and election results will not be released until Commencement.
"We consider the letter [by Joan Bok] to be inappropriate and undemocratic. The Board of Overseers is supposed to be administering this election in a fair and impartial manner. In a democratic society, the people administering the election don't instruct the voters how to vote, why or for whom," said "Alumni Against Apartheid" candidate John T. Plotz '69.
Plotz, who is a deputy public defender in San Francisco, is joined on the pro-divestment slate by Gay W. Seidman '78 and Kenneth H. Simmons '54.
The three candidates were self-nominated by petition and received the endorsement of South African Anglican Bishop Desmond M. Tutu in a January 10 speech at Harvard.
Overseer candidates are normally selected by the alumni office, and their election is not usually contested by an outside slate.
President Derek Bok said yesterday that Joan Bok wrote the letter on her own initiative. "The letter points out the issue involved in this election and that it is an important issue," the president said.
In her letter, Joan Bok asks alumni to consider the proper role of the overseers, and how best that role can be fulfilled. She states that the board of overseers "does not have powers to set policies for the investment of Harvard's endowment" and that its mission "has been to encourage the University to maintain the highest attainable standards as a place of learning."
Derek Bok said this year's overseers election does not constitute an alumni referendum on divestment because, he said, in the past very few alumni have cast their ballot for the board.
But, said Seidman: "We don't think Harvard's [investment] policy reflects what most alumni think should happen." She said that Harvard "has been looking for a middle ground in what has become a highly polarized issue."
Plotz said the overseers denied his slate the opportunity to put foward their own views on divestment.
"We consider this interference in the election process to be especially egregious in the context of this election because the "Alumni Against Apartheid" were denied the opportunity to give an adequate presentation of our views to the electorate," Plotz said.
"I resent the implication that the three of us aren't concerned with other issues in education because we are all deeply involved," said Seidman, a graduate student in sociology at the University of California at Berkeley.
Divestment activists at Harvard also denounced the action yesterday.
"By putting the resources of the University at the service of a particular list of candidates for the Board of Overseers, Ms. Bok, the board as a whole, the alumni office and, most importantly, President Bok have shown their fundamental lack of respect for one of the few ways the University community has to express their opinions," said Damon A. Silvers '86, a student prodivestment leader.
Tina E. Smith '83, founder and trustee of the Harvard Endowment for Divestiture, said: "The University must be very nervous or else they would not have had Joan T. Bok write this letter."
"This is the only avenue for alumni opinion on divestment" to be expressed, Smith said.