Harvard--Divesting of the Debate

When students stormed University Hall in 1969 demanding the abolition of the ROTC, the administration capitulated. But ten years later; with a tightened economy and a more sedate student body, the University has met student demands of a different sort with letters and reports, but no action. Frustrated by Harvard's success at defusing the potentially explosive South African investment issue, the Southern Africa Solidarity Committee (SASC) is setting its sights beyond Harvard Yard.

In 1977, the student group succeeded at raising the criticism and controlling the debate that climaxed when 3500 members of the University marched through Cambridge streets in the torchlight parade of the spring of '78. The heat from the march and from student opposition to Harvard's continued holdings of South Africa-related investments threatened to bring student dissatisfaction right into University Hall.

But last year the Harvard Corporation took the offensive in the debate over its investments. It issued a lengthy progress report on its case-by-case review of corporations in South Africa, rife with intracacies and obfuscations. President Bok's open letters, which called total divestiture unjustifiable and a threat to Harvard's academic freedom and financial longevity, gave the Corporation the appearance of concern and served to further anesthetize student opposition.

With the administration now in control of the divestiture debate, student groups are changing the focus of their protests. The SASC plans to join with other anti-apartheid groups and increase the scope of their activities to include the Boston area as well as Harvard. The SASC is branching out of Harvard because it "doesn't want divestiture to obscure the larger goal of corporate withdrawl," Matthew Rothschild '80, an SASC member, explains. Molly Nolan, associate professor of History, agrees. Any number of institutions are linked to aiding the South African regime, not just Harvard," she says.

In branching outside the University, the SASC may well feel it has come a long way since 33 blacks occupied Mass Hall in 1972 to protest Harvard's ties to Gulf Oil operations in Angola. Then, the issue of morality in Harvard's investment policy seemed as distant as South Africa itself. But the University publicly accepted the premise that moral and ethical issues should be recognized in University investment policy and established the Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility (ACSR), a 12-member committee of alumni, students, faculty and an administrator formed to deal with these considerations.


Student dissatisfaction with Harvard's investments re-emerged in the fall of 1977 when members of the SASC called on Harvard to divest of its holdings in banks loaning to the South African government and to urge corporations to withdraw from that country through shareholder resolutions.

Nine student groups claimed at that time, and many groups still maintain today, that Harvard helps to sustain the South African government and its apartheid system by investing in corporations active in that country. A demonstration of more that 1000 students on the Pusey steps, their march to Holyoke center, and confrontation with President Bok on April 24, 1978 started widespread student support for the demands of the student groups.

But three days later the Harvard Corporation issued a report rejecting student demands. Instead, the Corporation said it would review corporate practices in South Africa on a case-by-case basis and talk to the management of banks loaning to South Africa before divesting of its non-voting stock shares.

The student response to the Corporation report was overwhelming--a torchlight march by 3500 through Cambridge streets and a demonstration that cordoned off University Hall for a day. But President Bok and the Corporation defended their decision by asserting that divestiture would be ineffective in shaping corporate policy in South Africa. Instead, Bok said the Corporation would more effectively influence corporate proactices in South Africa by investigating those practices and voting as a shareholder. Bok also asserted the Corporation would not invest in banks that failed to take moral issues into consideration when making the loans.

The next fall, as members of the SASC circulated divestiture petitions, the Corporation encountered problems in implementing its policy as outlined the previous April. The Corporation noted that banks are reluctant to release information on their criteria for deciding whether to make loans. And it all but rejected a policy of initiating shareholder resolutions, saying resolutions requesting information were frequently justifiable, but those demanding action were often futile. December brought into question the effectiveness of the ACSR and its case-by-case review of corporations in South Africa. The undergraduate committee member charged the committee was undemocratic and tended to stall on the issues before it. The resignation touched off a University-wide call for the ACSR's reform. Bok refused to accept two structural reforms of the ACSR that would ensure the committee represented all areas of the University community and that its members are democratically elected.

The ACSR progress report on its case-by-case review in February reinforced skepticism over the committee's effectiveness. The committee noted the difficulty of collecting information on corporate practices.

The ACSR recommended that the Corporation send "forcefully worded" statements to recalcitrant companies rather than divest from these firmsas the April 1978 Corporation report indicated.

Faculty members spoke out against the apparent contradiction of the Corporation's policy. An open letter to the Corporation signed by 140 faculty members, after three successive debates on the University's South Africa policy, called on the University to adopt a graduated, five-step policy for corporate withdrawal.

The faculty petition emerged last spring despite President Bok's open letters calling divestiture unjustifiable and questioning the value of corporate withdrawal in light of the real interests of the majority of South Africans. Bok stated in his letters that by divesting of its holdings, Harvard would take a political stand, imperiling its political and academic freedom and undermining its financial stability. He also asserted that there was no evidence to show that corporate withdrawal from South Africa would benefit the cause of South African blacks.

The committee will re-examine its strategy for divestiture but will probably wait for the Corporation to make the next move on the divestiture debate--an indication of the Corporation's successful handling of the issue last year. "When the University comes out with stands likely to anger students, the SASC will take the initiative to channel that discontent," Anthony Brutus '77-5 claims.