Twisting History


To the Editors of The Crimson:

When President Bok lent his "personal support" to Senator Kennedy's bill to limit U.S. corporations' investment in South Africa, he took the opportunity to laud Harvard's own policies on South African investment. According to Bok"...much of $635 [the Kennedy bill] parallels the policies Harvard has developed as a shareholder in firms doing business in South Africa. As does your bill, we have consistently opposed bank loans to the South African government or its subsidiary organizations."

Unfortunately, this is almost the opposite of the truth. In 1982 the Harvard Corporation proposed investment guidelines under which Harvard would encourage banks to loan money to the South African government for "humanitarian" purposes. Only massive community protest, and a unanimous vote of the Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility (ACSR, forced the Corporation to back down.

The real story was well told by Patrick Flaherty, a graduate student member of the ACSR, in a Crimson article March 3, 1982. Harvard's policy of divesting from banks making direct loans to the South African government had been adopted as a limited concession to student demands for total divestment in 1978. In 1980, this policy compelled the Corporation to divest $50 million in Citibank debt securities after Citibank joined a consortium loan to the South African government. Harvard's action became the focus of press attention which embarrassed both Citibank and South Africa.

Shortly thereafter the Corporation, at the urging of Citibank, attempted to alter their policy to permit such loans. Rebuffed by the ACSR in 1981, they tried again in 1982. Their proposal stated that "Harvard will encourage all banks with which it does business to make humanitarian loans...Harvard will encourage foreign banks which have supplied the bulk of South Africa's credit needs in recent years to make humanitarian loans...the contemplated change offers greater hope of spurring expenditures that benefit non-white South Africans than does the current policy." (Harvard Gazette, Feb. 19, 1982)


A Corporation representative suggested to the ACSR that this proposal was a "minor" change--in fact, it would have reversed the entire thrust of the bank divestment policy. The proposal also specifically denied any cause-and-effect relationship with the Citibank loan experience; however, Corporation member Hugh Calkins told the ACSR that the Citibank loan served a "worthy" purpose. In fact, over half of the Citibank loan money went to finance forcible eviction and relocation of Black and "colored" South Africans.

The Corporation's argument for their proposal sounds familiar today: "Mechanical divestment offers Harvard no positive levers to influence banks to lend in a socially responsible manner...It is a costly means of expressing our disapproval."

At ACSR hearings on the issue, hundreds of students packed the hall to denounce the Corporation's proposal. The ACSR voted it down again, and the Corporation finally gave up their attempt to gut the bank loan policy.

Perhaps President Bok's self-congratulatory rewriting of history may lead members of the Harvard community to question his present motives in refusing to divest, or even to discuss or debate investment forum.

As an alumnus of the Class of 1969, I have seen little change in Harvard's approach to the divestment issue over sixteen years. At our tenth reunion, my class officially voted to support divestment and deplored the "intransigence" of the Harvard Corporation on the issue. At our fifteenth reunion, we voted to reaffirm this position. Unless current members of the Harvard community can bring sufficient pressure to bear on President Bok and the Corporation, we may be reaffirming it again at our twentieth--if the racist government of South Africa has not fallen by that time. Jonathan M. Harris '69