Killing an Issue


A FUNNY THING happened the other night up at South--or, Cabot--House when President Bok went up there to officially announce the name change at a fancy dinner with students. As the last of the chicken legs and scalloped potatoes were being washed down with while wine, Bok got up to give a fairly standard talk on some of his concerns.

The president addressed most of his pet concerns, such as pre-professionalism among undergraduates and why we shouldn't be so fixated on getting into a Big Name law school. Then he opened up the floor to questions from the group of about 200 students in the dining hall.

A few people asked Bok nice questions about topics he had just covered in his dessert-time homily, and others asked him mean questions about whether the University was really serious about developing a Women's Studies program.

Then someone in the crowd told Bok that she had given a written question to Cabot's co-master. Ann C. Wacker, and asked him to respond to it.

"Oh, you, I was hoping we wouldn't get to that," Bok said, explaining to everyone that it was yet another question about Harvard's investments in companies that operate in South Africa.

AN AUDIBLE GROAN rose from the room. A real grown. People all around the dining room reacted with annoyed exasperation. Bok patiently went through the response he first articulated in 1978 and which he has revised and republished a few times since--namely that Harvard serves its moral obligations better by working within a company to change its policies rather than by dumping its stock and its power for moral persuasion along with it.

"We are not going to divest," Bok said flatly as he neared the end of his answer and moved to field an innocuous query about how and whether Harvard should encourage religion in the College community.

South African divestment as an issue has run out of steam lately, and the relationship between Bok's answer and student reaction to the question goes a long way toward explaining why. If President Bok and the Corporation, the ruling body that oversees how Harvard banks its $2.6 billion endowment, have been hoping to make the issue die ever since the heated demonstrations of 1978 and 1979, they have found the right way to do it--by being honest.

To be sure, there is no way Harvard's administration can have avoided thinking about divestment. Student activists have almost invariably staged demonstrations each April. Last year's highly visible establishment of the Endowment for Divestiture, an escrow fund set up as an alternative to the Class Gift Fund that will go to Harvard only when the University divests or when the United Nations rescinds its call for corporate divestiture, drew about $18,000 in donations and garnered national publicity.

Indeed, Harvard has made some strong steps in the South Africa issue like the 1980 unloading of Citicorp stock after that bank made a direct loan to the apartheid government, and helping offer scholarships to Black South Africans to come to the U.S.

But Harvard has also made it clear that divestiture simply won't happen--ever. And so-the issue seems to have died, not just at Cabot House, but across the campus. Certainly there is bound to be some marching and chanting this spring--when the ACSR meets and the weather gets warm--and the Endowment for Divestiture will likely get another $10,000 or $15,000 this spring.

Regardless of what happens, however, nobody can realistically anticipate that Harvard will divest. Bok and other administrators have made it clear that they won't. It might make students feel good to protest, and give money to a bank account which will, no doubt, sit accumulating interest for 25 years until it gets turned over to a charity, as the bylaws of the Endowment for Divestiture dictate. But nobody's kidding himself into thinking that the protests are actually being heard, because Harvard is being honest: they aren't being heard. And a movement faced with that intransigence--albeit thought-out intransigence--doesn't have any future at all. In fact, looking at the way Cabot House reacted, maybe it's already dead.