1984 Senior Gift Meets World Politics

The class of '84 placed its senior gift money in escrow until the University divested from Apartheid South Africa

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Amid a brewing global debate about how best to address the system of racial apartheid in South Africa, Harvard’s graduating classes in the mid-1980s sought to bring the issue closer to home. Beginning with the class of 1983, graduating seniors created an alternative fund to the traditional senior gift called the Endowment for Divestiture in an effort to pressure the University to divest its endowment funds from companies doing business in South Africa—a call that echoed the United Nation’s similar recommendation.

Unlike a traditional senior gift, in which graduating seniors donate to the University to support programs at the College such as financial aid, this new fund would remain in escrow until either Harvard complied with the students’ demands or the United Nations lifted its call for divestiture.

After almost 400 seniors signed the petition in support of the fund, in April 1983 the Undergraduate Council approved the creation of this alternative to the senior class’ traditional contribution.

According to Claude D. Convisser ’84, some seniors in the class of 1984 also chose to continue donating money to the fund in an effort to sustain pressure on the University to divest from South African companies.

“We’re not talking about a lot of money, but the hope was that it would call attention to the issue,” said Raine M. Figueroa ’84, Class Marshall.

“It would say ‘We’re the student body and we think your practices are unacceptable’.”

The withholding of this fund was one of many student responses to a larger moral quandary that had been contested on Harvard’s campus since a decade earlier.

CREATING AWARENESS

The issue of divestiture first arose as a major issue in the late 1970s when a group of students seized then President Derek C. Bok’s office in 1978 and later organized a torchlight procession through the streets of Cambridge to protest Harvard’s continued investment in South Africa. Approximately three thousand people participated in the torchlight parade, which was followed by a day-long blockade of University Hall.

“College students tend to be among the first to take a stand on issues,” Figueroa said. “A lot of people were persuaded by the argument for divestiture.”

The University’s ownership of stock in companies that conducted business in South Africa and the country’s status as an apartheid state continued to stir debate on campus well into the 1980s and attracted national media attention.

An Op-Ed in The Crimson in September 1985 reported that the University held about $430 million in South Africa-related investments. This amounted to about 19 percent of the $2.3 billion endowment.

Convisser remembers five to ten thousand people attending a rally in Harvard Yard with civil rights activist and Reverend Jesse Jackson as the keynote speaker in the spring of 1985.

While this rally supported the divestiture movement, there was no counter rally at the time opposing their demands. Convisser said the first visible protests on the issue began in the mid seventies after the Vietnam War came to an end in 1975.

“For the class of ’84, we were old enough to recall and be aware of the anti-war movement in ’69,” he said “We still had that consciousness that students can be active.”

But Convisser said that although there were students opposed to divestiture, there was no “acrimonious debate” on campus.

“There were certainly individual debates going on in the dining halls but no clash of protestors,” he said.

CLOSE TO VICTORY

The student-led push for Harvard to divest from companies doing business South Africa came amidst the country’s continued marginalization from the international community—South Africa had been barred from the General Assembly of the United Nations and was not allowed to participate in the Olympics. The South African government also faced other countries’ attempts to ban international trade with the state and it desperately needed loans from the International Monetary Fund.

Meanwhile, students at Harvard organized discussions, forums and protests to raise awareness and encourage divestiture from South Africa.

“There was a substantial number in the student body that felt passionately about it and I admired their conviction,” said Peter T. Gelfman ’85. “I think the movement was successful in raising awareness of the issue.”

One such event, a “Day of Dialogue” in December 1983, included over a hundred students in discussions on US involvement in the apartheid state. The idea of the event, which was cosponsored by the Harvard Race Relations Foundation, was first suggested during a hunger strike the previous spring to protest the University’s policy on divestiture. More than 19 undergrads and one professor fasted for a week to protest Harvard investments in South Africa. That same year, seniors established the Endowment for Divestiture, with the intention that Harvard would receive the money only when it divested. The end of the hunger strike in the spring of 1983 coincided with a meeting of the Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility (ACSR), comprised of students, faculty and alumni. The Harvard Corporation—the University’s governing body—controls Harvard’s investment portfolio, while the ACSR makes nonbinding recommendations to the Corporation on ethical questions concerning Harvard’s investment policies.

It was becoming more apparent that students’ protests were having an unprecedented effect on the University’s investment policies.

Reports from the meeting published in the Crimson confirmed that committee members acknowledge that the group’s subsequent decisions were influenced by the actions of students who fasted in support of divestiture.

The ACSR recommended that the Corporation use the Sullivan Principles, which provided humane guidelines for the operation of companies in South Africa, as a minimum standard for the endowment’s investment practices. At the same time, in 1983, 37 of the 39 companies in which the University owned stock had signed the Principles, but some divestiture proponents argued that not all of the signatory companies had actually lived up to the document’s stipulations.

The ACSR held a public hearing early in 1984 to ascertain the opinions of members of the Harvard community before voting on the issue.

According to Convisser, who was elected by the UC as an undergraduate representative to the ASCR, several hundred people were in attendance.

After a decade of heated debate, protests and hunger strikes, in May 1984 the ACSR voted narrowly in favor of recommending unilateral divestiture from companies that conducted business in South Africa. However, Harvard did not completely divest based on the ACSR’s recommendations. Instead, the Corporation subsequently chose a policy of selective divestment, which led to Harvard withdrawing investments from 15 companies. The Corporation argued that complete divestiture could do more harm than good for already marginalized black South Africans.

Still, some considered the divestiture movement a success because it encouraged Harvard to recognize moral responsibility when making investments.

“The attention that this issue received at Harvard and other university campuses contributed to the divestiture movement entering the mainstream of American political and economic thought,” Convisser said. “Student activity on university campuses was a major factor in bringing it into mainstream thought.”

According to Convisser, the money from the fund was given to Harvard in 1994.

“Those of us who were advocating for Harvard’s change in its investment policy still felt great affection for Harvard and are pleased that all eventually became united on this issue,” he said.

—Staff writer Brittany M. Llewellyn can be reached at bllewell@fas.harvard.edu

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