Harvard's Role


THE ALTERNATIVE to the majority position has already been stated recently in these pages. We have not changed our fundamental opposition to the above opinion, but we feel direct refutation of its key contentions is necessary.

First, the majority opinion completely ignores Harvard's primary role in society. The University exists to further education and research. Complete, blind divestiture would harm this basic mandate in two ways. It would entail certain short-term and near-certain long-term damage to Harvard's endowment, a source of anywhere from 11 to 42 percent of the yearly budgets of Harvard's 10 faculties. In addition, such diminished financial security would go hand in hand with diminished intellectual autonomy. Divestiture would expose the University to exactly the same kind of sanctions from donors and other supporters (primarily the federal government, an institution which Harvard is currently, and quite rightly, accusing of excessive paternalism in its dealings with the University). A major change by Harvard towards portfolio activism would give individual donors and supporters far more justification to demand that Harvard toe some ideological or political line in return for contributions.

But the majority opinion even fails morally, notwithstanding its contention that morality must be the only guide in this issue. Consider the two arguments at the heart of the divestiture argument: a) that Harvard can send a moral signal to the nation and the world conveying the fact that pressure, through disinvestment, on South Africa will further the lots and aspirations of the oppressed majority in that country, and/or b) that Harvard's divestment in and of itself will have the practical effect of directly harming the apartheid regime through loss of capital.

The second point is easier to refute, simply by virtue of its absurdity. Harvard's sale of stock in corporations which do any part of their business in South Africa (and the bulk of the firms under discussion, including IBM, GM, Ford, and ITT, do a minuscule amount of business there) will be welcomed gladly by a myriad of investors around the world, who will snap up the stocks and never consider the moral heinousness of apartheid. And South Africa itself would like nothing better than to have all stock in companies operating within its borders owned by silent and uncaring investors.

By contrast, we believe Harvard's current policy, if applied consistently and in good faith, provides both the possibility of long-term economic and political benefits for South African workers through implementation of Harvard's moral guidelines and a publicity value far out pacing that of a one-time "washing of the hands." Each time Harvard divests of a company which shows no signs of changing, the issue will be discussed anew, something that will never happen after complete divestment. And working for the implementation of such guidelines, primarily the Sullivan and Tutu principles, is not inconsistent with the University's primary mandate. In fact, pressing firms to adopt basic standards--of workplace decency and equality is entirely consistent with the University's role as an educator and is far different from an inflexible and indeterminate attack against all these firms, which would ignore any attempt individual firms might be making to further the cause of oppressed South African Blacks and "coloreds."


The failure of divestment to cause direct harm to apartheid is inextricably linked to its failure to make a truly effective symbolic statement. The symbolic value of divestiture would consist of a "headline splash" one time, and one time only. Furthermore, the absurd selectivity shown by divestiture advocates is truly appalling. If Harvard were to divest of all stock in companies which profit from profound "evil." It might be reduced to holding only domestically-chartered savings and loan stock. Everything from stock in companies which deal with the Soviet Union. Chile, EI Salvador, and Iran (among many others), or make nuclear and other response, to U.S. Government securities issued in the last five years (which largely financed the military buildup), would have to go. This isolationism ad absurdam would serve no purpose whatsoever other than to provide a moral salve to distant and insulated Harvard students and faculty members.

Harvard's current policy, if pressed resolutely, is clearly superior to complete divestiture. It protects the incredibly and security of the University as an instruction of education and research. Without contradicting this prime mandate, it also holds out a measure of hope for Blacks and "coloreds" in South Africa to again basic workplace dignity, economic parity, and eventual political justice. While these goals may be only marginally furthered by concerned American involvement. They will not be furthered at all by a fruitless and pious and spasm of divestiture by precisely those American institutions which South Africa's Nationalist government would be happiest to ignore.