Sittin' Pretty


"Bok doesn't seriously consider things unless he feels that not to do something would create more hassle than to do something."

--Professor of Law Alan M. Dershowitz. Harvard Crimson, June 29, 1984

DERSHOWITZ was talking about honorary degrees, but his dictum holds true for President Bok and the Harvard Corporation's decade-long approach to Harvard's $580 million invested in South Africa-related companies. While protesting that their convictions and opposition to divestment are firm, Corporation members have slowly but steadily accommodated students, faculty, and alumni pushing for Harvard to sell its stock in companies that do business in South Africa--but only when they have pushed hard.

Last Wednesday 45 students staged a non-violent teach-in in the offices of the Harvard Corporation at 17 Quincy Street. Their action was an appropriate response to the Corporation's continued indifference to the concerns of a community dedicated to free and open discussion and pursuit of the truth. Unfortunately, there is no mechanism to ensure that students, faculty, alumni, and staff have input into the Corporation's decisions. The ACSR, the only institution related to the Corporation with any presense of representing community concerns, has served only as a lightning rod to deflect criticism from the Corporation itself. In such a situation--a situation where the rules are stacked against quiet, respectful debate--civil disobedience is an important way to force those in control to consider seriously the concerns of those who are without franchise.

There is, of course, a fine line between civil disobedience and civil disorder, but the protesters at 17 Quincy Street were careful to stay on the right side of that line. They did not attempt to disrupt business, and they left peacefully at 5 p.m. as they had promised. By their presence they focused attention on the Corporation's insulation from the University community and demonstrated that there is a concrete as well as a moral cost to Harvard's continued inaction on the South Africa issue.

One of the bases of civil disobedience is taking responsibility for one's actions, so it is unfortunate that the students at the sit-in did not volunteer their names--despite the fact that the University did not formally demand their bursar's cards. Nevertheless, they acted publicly and have said they will come forward to face disciplinary action. There is no doubt the University will hold them responsible for what they did; this is only fair. Yet who, but these same students, makes Harvard University face up to the consequences of its actions?

Fourteen years ago Harvard did not have a policy on shareholder responsibility; the positions the University has since taken are a direct response to constant pressure. In 1972 the Harvard Corporation formed the Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility. In 1979 the Corporation actually voted its stock in favor of one of its portfolio corporations leaving South Africa because the company would not disclose information about its operations there. In 1981 the University announced it would no longer invest in companies that do more than half their business there and would continue intensive dialogue with portfolio companies that are not signatories to the Sullivan Principles. However sincere the Corporation's moral justifications for these moves, it is clear they have come because protests, sit-ins, and heightened debate have made the Corporation's position too uncomfortable to hold.

This spring it has once again become difficult for the University to stand fast on the divestiture issue. Hoping to preempt growing student dissatisfaction by showing that their policy of intensive dialogue works, the Corporation divested from a company that was unwilling to prove that its operations in South Africa are ethical. Later President Bok endorsed national legislation calling for economic sanctions toward South Africa--the day before more than 5000 students gathered in Harvard Yard to demonstrate against the University's investments in companies that do business in South Africa.

THE HARVARD CORPORATION is concerned with the effects of its investments in South Africa because 13 years of community have made it impossible to ignore the issue. The upsurge in protest this spring has been important--it has made the University pay the price for its ambiguous and ineffective policy.

Given the chance, the Corporation will bend, waver, and equivocate until and unless students, faculty, and alumni give them no choice but to act on the South Africa issue. When students and faculty gather in Harvard Yard, when alumni give money to the Endowment for Divestiture, the Harvard Corporation listens. When students bring the issue directly to the Corporation offices, they listen harder.

As long as Harvard activists continue to act non-violently, and take responsibility for their actions, their protests will provide the force to push Harvard farther down the road to a responsible investment policy. When there is no one to force the Harvard Corporation to listen, respectful arguments are not enough to convince them that they are wrong. We have to convince them that to do something would be less hassle than to do nothing at all.