With quiet resolution, President Derek C. Bok has resisted the demands of protesting students, alumni and community members who want the University to divest of its $416 million in stock in companies that do business in South Africa.
Bok's position has exhibited flexibility from time to time. He has divested of stock in individual corporations which did not supply Harvard with requested information on its operations in South Africa, and he has endorsed Congressional efforts to bring sanctions against South Africa. His critics view these efforts as token gestures, an effort to shift the focus of attention away from Harvard's enormous holdings in companies that do business in South Africa.
Increasingly clear is the nature of Bok's personal agenda as he struggles with the ethical dilemmas raised by the University's investment policies. Bok seems committed--above all else--to preserving the power structure that gives him and his six white male cohorts on the Corporation almost complete control over the University. Since setting up shop in Massachusetts Hall in the wake of his predecessor's inability to handle student protests, Bok has carefully consolidated his power and built up his own administrative structure. That administration has seen the power of the student protest movement erode, the development of an impotent student government that is an object of ridicule, and a return to a more paternal pattern of government.
Such manuevers may have cleared the way for Bok's numerous successes and his smooth administrative style. He has seen the University through 15 years now, through a transformation that has left him as the institution's top official, as more of a successful CEO than the head of the society of educated men and women. With the appointment of a low-profile dean of the faculty, Bok has reaffirmed that he will stand conspicuously at the forefront of the University's accomplishments.
While Bok may be committed to an end to apartheid, his primary allegiance lies with the preservation of the centra, relationships of authority that have characterized normal life at the University during his tenure. Carefully and deliberately Bok wants to insure that he and the Corporation alone will have a hand in guiding the University's investment policies. Divestment for him is a test of his ability to maintain control of the University. Caving in to student and alumni pressure would merely set a dangerous precedent.
The other issue that Bok has to wrestle with is Harvard's leadership position. Preeminent among American universities, Harvard's decisions are subject to nationwide scrutiny within and without the academic community. Its highly prized reputation, faculty, facilities, and $3.8 billion endowment make the University a trendsetter. Harvard spells headlines.
Whatever you decide to do regarding divestment, Bok certainly wants to keep the University divestment policy--the private purview of the big seven--out of the spotlight.
What Bok has, now, however, is a reprieve with the summertime, the small band of activists who have set up a propaganda factory outside his office are gone. The alumni are off sailing, fishing, working on their tans.
Much more important, the University of California has divested of its $4 billion of South Africa-related holdings and taken the nationwide limelight for its actions. A similar move by Harvard now would not make so many waves.
Taken as a whole, with its campuses stretching from Berkeley to San Diego, the U.C. system more than rivals Harvard for preeminence in the American academic world. The divestment, in monetary terms far more significant than Harvard's would be, was also a tough political choice, as U.C. is a public institution.
With the decisions of other large bodies, including states like Massachusetts and California, to divest, the passage of stringent sanctions by the House of Representatives and serious consideration of similar measures in the Republican-controlled Senate, increasing public concern for the plight of Black South Africans, and the general repudiation of constructive engagement, the time is ripe for divestment. The moral imperative to take such a step remains strong.
Bok can resolve his administrative dilemma over divestment. In the hot quiet summer and in the wake of the U.C. divestment Bok can quietly do the same. He should do it because it's the right thing to do and he can do it without endangering his carefully nurtured administrative control of the University.