Profs Pledge To Back Sudan Divestment

Several faculty members said they would be more than willing to join an effort aimed at convincing Harvard to drop its shares in PetroChina, the oil stock linked to the Sudanese government.

Outside activists have called on the University to shed its stake in PetroChina (see story, page A1). But within the Harvard community, no professor has yet stepped up to take the lead.

In conversations and e-mail exchanges with The Crimson Friday and Saturday, faculty members cited an array of reasons for their inaction on the Sudan divestment front.

Some said they were too busy to launch the effort themselves or that they felt too ill-informed about PetroChina’s links to the Khartoum regime. Still others said that the impetus for a divestment campaign should come from students.

Professors have initiated divestment efforts in the past with varying degrees of success.

In the spring of 1979, more than 100 faculty members signed a petition urging Harvard to sell its stakes in companies that conducted dealings with South Africa’s apartheid regime. Ultimately, Harvard divested itself from about a half-dozen companies.

In 1990, the University sold its last holdings in the tobacco industry after a committee of faculty, students and alumni recommended that the University divest itself from cigarette firms.

But University officials rejected a petition signed by 94 faculty and staff in 2002 calling on Harvard to sell its stakes in Israeli companies to protest alleged human rights abuses against Palestinians.

Richard Wilson, the Mallinckrodt research professor of physics, was an outspoken critic of the Khartoum regime during its conflict with rebels in the south of Sudan. And he has volunteered to join the human rights group Christian Solidarity on a mission to the eastern part of the country—although the trip was postponed due to security concerns.

But Wilson wrote in an e-mail that “to craft a good divestment plan is not easy and is time consuming.”

“I am getting too old and I have so many other things to do,” said Wilson, who has been on Harvard’s faculty for nearly half a century.

Only one faculty member contacted by The Crimson, John Womack Jr., has said that he would flat-out oppose a divestment petition.

Womack, who holds the Bliss chair in Latin American history and economics, wrote in an e-mail Friday that “what’s happening in Sudan—as in some other parts of the world—is by all accounts awful.” But he said that “it’s not genocide, and it doesn’t threaten continental, or much less intercontinental, warfare.”

Interviews with other faculty indicated that Womack’s viewpoint was in the minority.

“My gut reaction is that if somebody took the effort of preparing a well-crafted petition, backed it up with some facts, and sent it out in the same way that the earlier [Israel-focused] divestment petition was sent out, a comparable number of people—maybe more—would sign this,” said George Moseley, a lecturer at the School of Public Health. “But that’s just my guess.”

“The Israeli divestment community would be overwhelmingly enthusiastic about any sincere effort to ease the suffering in Sudan by supporting divestment,” Assistant Professor of Neurobiology John A. Assad wrote in an e-mail.

If “students do make a sincere effort to push Harvard to divest from holdings in Sudan,” Assad wrote, “you will find no stronger ally.”

Professor of Psychology Patrick Cavanagh also urged students to initiate a petition, and said he would help bring “all the publicity we can generate” to any such effort.

Cavanagh and his family adopted two refugee children from the south of Sudan in July 2002. “Their experiences have taught us much about the horrors of that conflict,” Cavanagh wrote in an e-mail.

“Urging some organization to divest themselves…is a powerful tool that sends a powerful message, but  I don’t think you use it for any little problem that comes along,” Moseley said in an interview Friday. But, he said, “I do think the situation in Darfur deserves this.”

William Granara, professor of the practice of Arabic, said he wouldn’t start a petition—“only for the logistical reason that I’m not technologically advanced”—but added that he would support a divestment effort.

Yet he said that a petition would be unlikely to yield significant results.

“It’s not like a divestment campaign is going to accomplish anything,” Granara said. “The Sudanese government is going to do what it’s going to do.”

Others remained uncertain as to whether they would sign a potential divestment petition.

Professor of Philosophy Richard G. Heck Jr. wrote in an e-mail that “divestment was never intended as a knee-jerk strategy to be applied in all cases.”

“Of course, I am deeply concerned about the situation in Sudan,” Heck said, but he added that he would have to learn more about PetroChina’s involvement in the ongoing conflict before making a decision whether to sign a potential petition.

Paul F. Hoffman, the Hooper professor of geology, joined the effort two years ago to persuade Harvard to sell its holdings in companies with ties to Israel.

Israel and Sudan “are not parallel situations,” Hoffman wrote in an e-mail Saturday. “The problem in Sudan is essentially domestic; the Middle East problem is international,” Hoffman said. “This alone does not make the Sudan situation any more or less serious, but it changes the diplomatic landscape.”

But Hoffman also said that “a broad divestment campaign aimed at pressuring the Sudanese government might have a positive impact, as it did in South Africa.”

—Staff writer Daniel J. Hemel can be reached at