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The Problem of Divestment

President Bok's Open Letter


Following is the complete text of President Bok's open letter. "The problem of the Divestment," which was released yesterday along with the Corporation Committee on Shareholder Responsibility's report on divestiture

*The University may occasionally sell the stock of a corporation because of a disagreement with its policies. Such action, however, is not taken to pressure the company into conforming with Harvard's views but occurs because the University does not wish to continue an association with a firm that fails to live up to minimum ethical standards and offers no reasonable prospect of doing so in the future.

On may 9, 1984 the Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility (ACSR) submitted a report on the subject of Harvard's investments in American Corporations doing business in South Africa. The Harvard Corporation's Committee on Shareholder reply to the ACSR report, agreeing with some of its proposals and disagreeing with other. I will not repeal all that is said in that reply. But I will express some thoughts of my own on the subjects of divestment, since it represents the point of greatest disagreement in this community concerning the response of the University to the injustices of apartheid.

Let me begin by making clear that this is not a dispute about apartheid or the record of the South African government. All of us on every side of the divestment issue agree that apartheid is a cruel and shameful form of racial exploitation that has no conceivable justification. Nor does this debate simply reflect a difference of opinion over tactics or money-though I do believe that the tactics of divestment will not succeed and that they would cost University money. At bottom this is also a dispute about the nature of the University itself and the ways in which it should and should not respond to evil in the outside would.

Harvard has taken a number of steps on response to apartheid. We have cast out ballot with care on shareholder resolutions concerning South Africa, often voting to urge corporations to subscribe to the Sullivan Principles, sometimes voting to have a company with draw entirely form South Africa. We have engaged in intensive dialogue with corporations to persude them to improve the quality of life outside the workplace for these employees, their families and nonwhites in general. A number of companies have taken such steps. We have also initiated a program to bring nonwhite students from South Africa to study each year at Harvard. Finally, I have helped to organize a nationwide effort of universities, corporations, and foundations which has brought over 300 Black South African students to study in colleges and professional schools across the country.

Many members of this community would like Harvard to take a different course and divest all of its stock in American companies doing business in South Africa. I have disagreed with this view, and I continue to do so. Much as I oppose apartheid, I strongly believe that universities should not attempt to use their political and economic views on other organizations and individuals beyond the campus. This is essentially what Harvard would be doing by divesting-boycotting the stock of American companies to bring the pressure of this institution to bear against them to have them cease doing business in South Africa.

My views on this matter are not casual; they involve the essential purposes of the University and the terms on which it exists and does its work in our society. Universities have the distinctive mission of promoting discovery, new ideas, understanding, and education. These activities depend on experimentation, self-expression, and the widest opportunity for debate and dissent. They require insulation form outside pressures that, would impose an orthodoxy of "safe" ideas or use the University for ends other than learning and the pursuit of truth. In this respect, the university is quite unlike other institutions, such as governmental bodies, which are designed to exert power over others and to be subject in turn to outside pressures form groups seeking to influence the uses of power in a democracy.

In order to protect the process of learning and discovery, Universities must maintain a reasonable autonomy in the conduct of their internal affairs. They must persuade the outside would to refrain form exerting pressure that would limit the freedom of their members to speak and publish as they choose. They must also preserve the freedom to select the best political activities and to set their own policies without external control save by the government in behalf of established public ends.

Today, these freedoms are generally respected in the Society. But this was not always the case. The autonomy of academic institutions was resisted for many decades by those who thought it too dangerous to allow universities of exist without some control over what was written or taught within their walls. Even now out freedom exists within limits. Like all Freedoms it has reciprocal obligations. We cannot expect individuals and organizations to respect our right to speak and write and choose our members as we think best if we insist on using institutional sanctions to try to impose on them those policies and opinions that we consider important.

The obligation I perceive in no way inhibits individual members of this community from expressing themselves on issues such as apartheid of from engaging in political efforts to promote their views. Indeed, the right to act in this way is an essential part of academic freedom. There is likewise no reason why the University should not perform the function entrusted to it as a shareholder under our laws by voting on issues of social responsibility. The University may even communicate its views through discussions with the officials of companies whose stock it holds. But the line is crossed when a university goes beyond expressing opinions and tries to exert economic pressure by divesting stock or engaging in a boycott in order to press its views on outside organizations.

The more the University acts in this way the more it risks disturbing the implicit arrangements under which institutions of learning can continue to function with the freedom they need to carry out their essential mission. If Harvard insists on exerting leverage on issues we care deeply about individuals corporations, and other organizations are likely to exert economic pressure against us on matters they feel strongly about, such as the radical opinions of particular professors, or Harvard's positions toward ROTC, or the University's policies concerning involvement in covert CIA activities.

Every year, shareholder resolutions are introduced to bar corporate support to universities on grounds such as those just mentioned. These resolutions are regularly defeated because most shareholders are persuaded that corporations should not use economic leverage to influence the internal policies of universities. It would be unreasonable to expect such attitudes to continue if we begin boycotting products or selling shares to press particular policies on corporations and other organizations.

Some of the strongest proponents of divestment are not deterred by this prospect. Indeed, they have organized a fund to be given to Harvard only if it agrees to sell its stock in companies doing business in South Africa. I could not disagree more with this approach. Once we enter a world in which those with money and power feel free to exert leverage to influence University policies, we should not be surprised to find that universities have lost much of their valuable independence. Nor should we complain when we discover that those who wield the most power are not necessarily those whose policies are congenial to our own.

Critics may reply that I am putting the private interest of the University ahead of the plight of the Black majority that suffers under the heel of apartheid. In response, I would begin by resisting the charge that the interests just described are merely self-serving. In carrying out its tasks of education and research a university is performing public functions of great importance to society. The freedoms universities seek, like their buildings and endowments, are not private assets but resources essential to the accomplishment of a vital public mission.

In addition, I reject the suggestion that a policy against divestment will perpetuate injustice, since I see no realistic possibility that having universities sell their stock in American companies will make a noticeable contribution to ending apartheid or improving the lot of Black South Africans. Divestment can make a significant contribution to overcoming apartheid only if all of the following questions can be answered affirmatively.

1. will selling stock offer a significant chance of persuading American firms to leave South Africa? There is no indication that sales of stock will put sufficient economic pressure on the management of American companies to induce them to withdraw, since such stock will be purchased by others with no permanent economic consequence to the firm. Nor is there any evidence that the publicity engendered by sales of stock will lead companies to incur the losses by abandoning their South African operations. In fact, no American company has left the country because of the divestment actions taken by various states and municipalities over the past few years.

2. Is divestment a more effective way of inducing companies to withdraw than voting in favor of corporate resolutions to withdraw? There is no evidence to indicate that this is so. Neither divestment nor shareholder resolutions have caused any American company to withdraw, and neither tactic holds much promise of doing so in the future. Shareholder resolutions and dialogue with company executives have at least led to some tangible corporate actions to improve the lives of Black South Africans. Divestment has no had even this effect.

3. Even if divestment could somehow help persuade American companies to leave South Africa, would their withdrawal materially help in overcoming apartheid? In fact, if American companies left South Africa, it is virtually certain that their operations would be taken over either by local interests or by foreign concerns. Since the business would continue operating, it is no clear just how withdrawal would pressure the government into reforming the apartheid system.

4. Would corporate withdrawal, assuming it somehow occurred, contribute more to the defeat of apartheid than efforts by American companies to improve wages, employment opportunities, and social conditions of nonwhite workers? At bottom, this questions raises the difficult issue of how major social change can come about in a country like South Africa. Those who support corporate activity in South Africa argue that economic development will eventually undermine apartheid as the needs of the economy force the Nationalist regime to give more education, economic opportunity, and ultimately power to nonwhites. Proponents of divestiture believe that real change will never occur by evolutionary means, whereas the withdrawal of American companies could produce widespread unemployment and economic widespread unemployment and economic distress that would either force the government to institute reforms or lead to a successful revolution.

Both these theories leave many questions unanswered, and it would be difficult to choose between them or to assert that either will prove to be correct. In response to proponents of divestment, it seems most unlikely that corporate withdrawal would cause an economic collapse, since other companies would presumably take over the operations abandoned by American firms. Even assuming that withdrawal did hurt the economy substantially, the question still remains whether this result would being about the end of apartheid or simply cause more suffering, Black unemployment, and repression. This question seems all but impossible to answer, proponents of divestment argue that Blacks and their leaders favor withdrawal of American companies. In fact some do, but others don't. In the words of the American columnist William Raspberry writing from Capetown. "If the Harvard students find the question easy, Black South Africans are by no means unanimously agreed."

In summary, divestment can have a constructive effect on South Africa only if we can answer all four of the preceding questions affirmatively. In reality, it is far from clear that one can give a positive answer to any of these questions. The likelihood that all four can be answered affirmatively is vanishingly small. Hence, I find no basis for concluding that universities will help defeat apartheid in South Africa by agreeing to divest. As a matter of principle, therefore, I see no reason for departing from the basic norms that define the role of the University in any society. Even apart form the special constraints on universities, I do not believe that we can know enough about the future of a distant country to insist to the point of a public boycott that American Companies will do more for Black South Africans by leaving the country than by remaining and instituting better employment and social conditions. And I find it difficult to support in good conscience a decision that would jeopardize resources given to us for educational purposes to pursue a strategy that neither furthers the academic ends of the institution nor offers a realistic chance of achieving its objectives.

Despite these conclusions, some critics contend that Harvard should divest rather than continue its practice of voting on shareholder resolutions and communicating with corporate managements because the present practice has failed to overcome apartheid or to close the gap in wages and working conditions between Black and white workers. This argument misconceives the current policy. The University did not adopt this policy because it felt that its actions-or any action that universities could take-would have a substantial effect on apartheid Harvard decided on this course of action in the conviction that it should vote shares as conscientiously as possible, even if the effects are only limited, and because of a strong belief in the principle that voting and communicating views are appropriate forms of behavior for a university while efforts to exert pressure thought boycotts and divestment are not.

Others who advocate divestment have suggested that the University's normal policies as a shareholder need not apply because South Africans is such a special case-the only nation that institutionalizes racial discrimination and practices it on a massive scale. Recognizing the enormities of apartheid, Harvard has gone beyond its normal practices by communicating directly with corporate officials to persuade them to alter their employment practices and by creating special scholarship programs for Black South Africans. But it is one thing to make efforts of this kind and quite another to disregard one of the University's basic principles, especially when such action is urged in pursuit of a strategy that no significant chance of affecting the course of events in South Africans.

Those who seek a more effective way of purring pressure on the Afrikaner government need not look far. Last year, for example, bills were introduced in Congress, and passed the House of Representatives to mandate fair labor Practices, limit bank loans, impsose export controls, and forbid all new American investment in South Africans. Whatever one may think of these bills, those who favor divestment must concede that such legislation would be a vastly more effective means of achieving their objective. Nevertheless I have not observed substantial numbers of persons on this campus working actively for the passage of these measures.

Other, critics take a very different tack and argue that we should divest, whether or not it will have any practical effect, because it is simply immoral to hold stock in any firm that does business in South Africans. This argument would have more force if Harvard owned stock in companies doing all or most of their business in South Africans. But that is not the case. The companies form which we are asked to divest typically do less than one percent of their business in South Africans. We do not invest in these concerns because of their South Africans operations: It would be more nearly correct to say that we invest despite those operations.

The point, therefore, must be that Harvard should stock on principle if it is tainted however slightly by the stain of doing business in South Africa. This is a troublesome argument. It suggest that morality lies in trying to avoid all contact with the wrongs of the world and that it is better to sell one's stock and simply turn away form the injustices of South Africa than continue working as a sharcholder to persuade companies to improve the wages and conditions of their Black employees.

We should also recognize that far more than divestment would be needed to sever all our links to South Africa. If it is wrong to hold stock in an American company doing a tiny share of its business in South Africa, one would suppose that it is also immoral to hold shares in the many companies that buy goods from South Africa or sell goods to it, since they too benefit, from the Sough African economy and presumably help to sustain it. One would also suppose that Harvard should not accept gifts of money derived in some demonstrable part form South African operations, since they would also be tainted. Accepting tuitions from South African students would likewise seom suspect; even tuitions form American student paid in part by dividends from companies doing business in Sough Africa could be questioned. In short, the ramifications of such a rigorous policy are far-reaching indeed.

Before we insist on such a drastic moral standard, we should ask ourselves not only whether it is practical but whether we are willing to apply it to our own lives. How many of us have examined the purchases we make to see whether they come from companies that do business in or with Sough Africa? How many students have inquired whether their tuitions are paid in part from the dividends of companies with a South Africa subsidiary? For that matter, how many of us have stopped buying goods or using funds that can be traced to Guatemala, EI Salvador, Iran, Uganda, or other countries where thousands of innocent people have been killed with no justification? The truth is that virtually on one follows such a policy or regards it as a feasible standard to follow.

Finally, some have argued that Harvard should divest because divestment is a particularly dramatic, affirmative way of expressing the University's opposition to apartheid as a system at war with our ideals of freedom and justice. Such people often stress the pervasive influence of Harvard on the society and argue that the effects of our divestment on world opinion could be substantial. My experience leads me to doubt this view. Harvard may command great respect for what it has accomplished in pursuit of its central mission of research and education; it does not have much influence, even with its own alumni, when it makes institutional statements on political questions such as corporate involvement in South Africa. Like it or not, the public knows that the University cannot claim any's special wisdom in expressing itself collectively on issues of this kind.

It is also important to note that Harvard has already stated its clear and complete opposition to apartheid on various occasions. In what respect, then, is divestment a more effective, more forceful expression of disapproval? Because it will contribute in some significant way to ending apartheid? We have seen that this is most unlikely. Because the stock of American companies in South Africa is peculiarly tainted? That rationale is also unrealistic. The argument that divestment will be a peculiarly effective gesture must presumably rest on the belief that divestment will cost Harvard money and thus represent a sacrifice which will revel the depth of our convictions.

This too is a highly questionable argument. Presumably, Harvard could also demonstrate its convictions by giving funds to the African National Congress or some other opposition group. Such a grant would certainly be a dramatic gesture and might well do more than divestment to further the struggle against the Nationalist regime. And yet, despite our revulsion toward apatheid, the fact remains that Harvard's resources were entrusted to us for academic purposes and not as a means of demonstrating our opposition to apartheid or to other manifest injustices and evils around the world. This is one reason why we have supported the expenditure of University funds to educate nonwhites from South Africa at Harvard but have opposed a policy of divestment.

In making these arguments, I am acutely aware of the contrary views expressed by those who strongly favor divestment. I respect their convictions, I hope that they will respect mine. It is never a pleasant task to disagree with others who care deeply about injustice. In the case of South Africa, the injustice is so monstrous that the heart aches for some opportunity to resist effectively. Nevertheless, such feelings cannot bring me to support a course of action that would force this University to deviate from its proper role, jeopardize its independence, and risk its resources in behalf of a dubious strategy that has no realistic prospect of success. As a result, having thought about the issues as carefully as I would, I continue to believe, as I did in 1978, that the arguments for divestment are not convincing and that Harvard should not adopt such a policy

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