Six months ago an obscure Arkansas community group with a catchy name wrote President Bok to ask for Harvard's help in a fight against what will be the largest coal-burning power plant in the United States.
The Arkansas Community Organization for Reform Now, which calls itself ACORN, sought Harvard's help because Harvard is the largest single stockholder in Middle South Utilities Inc. Middle South is the holding company that owns Arkansas Power and Light, the utility building the 2800-megawatt plant.
ACORN asked Harvard to "assess all the potential economic and environmental ramifications this plant has for the entire state of Arkansas" and, more specifically, to ask AP&L to install additional sulfur dioxide emission controls on the plant's four 750-foot smokestacks.
The Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility, which has been handling ACORN's request since November and issued a report on it this week, has been proceeding cautiously on the matter all along. Harvard is not, after all, accustomed to taking public stands on non-University issues.
So it seemed altogether fitting that the ACSR's report started out by saying that Harvard, as a university, should not take a public stand on the plant, and then went on to make its most definite statement in a footnote.
The footnote, which said AP&L should consider experimentally using extra sulfur dioxide controls as soon as the plant's first smokestack is built, was good news to ACORN and its supporters here, who were effusive in their praise of the report.
The ACSR also asked AP&L to "re-examine its plans with respect to the problem of its plans with respect to the problem of sulfur dioxide and other emissions" from the plant.
But despite the widespread joy surrounding the ACSR's decision, there is still some question about what good the ACSR's recommendations, if the Corporation carries them out, will do.
An AP&L official said this week that if the utility gets the kind of message from Harvard that the ACSR suggested, "It seems to me the logical position is to thank them for their consideration and say we think we're in a position to do without" the additional pollution controls.
Unless AP&L has a sudden change of heart, it looks like the plant, which will be well within legal emission limits without the extra controls will go on as planned.
Last spring was the first proxy season for Harvard's fledgling two-tier shareholder responsibility organization, and the Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility and the Corporation Subcommittee on Shareholder Responsibility moved slowly, voting on relatively few proxy resolutions.
This year the wheels seem to be better oiled, and both the advisory and Corporation committees have been moving at a much faster clip than they did last year; the ACSR has voted on 34 resolutions in four meetings, and the Corporation subcommittee voted on the first 26 of those this week.
Some tired old political labels seem to apply well to what the two committees do. Most proxy resolutions advocate policies more liberal than those of corporate management. They are usually directed at conventional liberal causes: equal employment, non-involvement of corporations in politics and withdrawal of corporate operations from South Africa.
The difference between the ACSR and the Corporation subcommittee is that the subcommittee is more conservative. It usually goes along with the ACSR's recommendations, but when it doesn't, it usually opposes resolutions the ACSR has asked it to support.
This week the subcommittee opposed a solid two-thirds of the resolutions it considered, going along with the ACSR's recommendations on 16 resolutions while taking different stances on ten.
Among the resolutions the Corporation subcommittee supported were two that call on corporations to withdraw their operations from Namibia, a colony forcibly controlled by the Republic of South Africa.
In asking Phillips Petroleum and Warner-Lambert to leave Namibia, the subcommittee followed a precedent it had set last year in votes on resolutions directed at Phillips and Continental Oil. The Namibia stand has been the subcommittee's strongest in favor of a proxy resolution, although it has been less amenable to other Southern Africa resolutions.
The subcommittee opposed, for example, a resolution calling on Gulf Oil to disclose information about its operations in the Portuguese colony Angola, saying Gulf had already disclosed enough Angola information.
The subcommittee remains, in the end, more often on the side of management than the liberals who write proxy resolutions.