Why Now? Why Divestment?

The Big Picture

Divestment became the hot political issue at campuses all over the country this spring. Several hundred students at Columbia blocked the doors to a main campus building for three weeks in April. At Cornell, students set up a shanty town in the main quad, vowing to camp out until the university divests its South Africa related stock. Students temporarily occupied buildings at Tufts, Rutgers, and University of California at Berkeley, and on April 4 Berkeley called a "National Student Strike Day," asking students nationwide to boycott classes and conduct anti-apartheid protests.

As May rolled around, oldtimers were openly comparing 1985 to 1965 and the budding civil rights movement on campus that soon exploded into the anti-war movement and the violence of the late sixties.

Harvard protesters, who escalated their activities this spring as well, say a number of factors made 1985 ripe for protest. Increased media coverage of apartheid--and of Black resistance to it--fueled student hatred of the white minority regime. While students may have known something about the system, activists say, this was the spring that the injustices there jumped off of news pages and TV screens.

As students have became increasingly outraged at apartheid, they have reacted by escalating opposition to university investments in companies doing business in South Africa. While the situation in South Africa has been portrayed as more and more abysmal, Harvard's responsible shareholder approach to improve the situation there seemed, to students, to be a poor approach to reform.

"Harvard is first and foremost an educational institution the purpose of which is to inquire for truths. Nothing runs more counter to this ideal than supporting a country that operates on lies, on slavery and genocide," says Black Students Association Vice-President Anthony A. Ball '86.


Harvard argues that its policy for dealing with its South Africa-related investments is ethical and sound, and is the best approach the University can take to improve the lives of Black South Africans. The University requires its portfolio companies with South African operations to sign Sullivan and Tutu principles, which call for reforms in the workplace and active opposition to apartheid laws.

Students say that the escalation of the divestment movement on a national scale this spring has inspired them to increase pressure on Harvard to divest. Divestment will only ultimately be effective on a large scale, they say, and Harvard's divestment could get the ball rolling at other universities.

"We're not, as we're often accused, advocating divestment that would occur in a vacuum. Harvard's divestment would be a drop in the bucket, but no one could disagree that once you have a whole lot of drops in the bucket, it tips over. Harvard can't shirk its responsibility to play a part along with individual church groups, cities, and universities that are moving toward divestment," says Ball.

What Else?

But while divestment activism reached new heights this spring, the campus was silent on a raft of other issues that in another time would have filled the streets with shouting demonstrators. With the exception of a brief spell of protest against Reagan's proposed budget cuts in student financial aid and U.S. involvement in Central America, students here were silent.

Vice President and General Counsel Daniel Steiner '54 raised a similar point in his response to students who staged a full-day sit-in in April at the headquarters of Harvard's Governing Boards. "It is ironic," he wrote, "to have students in at the office of the governing Boards during the very week when President Bok is trying to shape national policy about student financial aid, South Africa and other important issues."

Moreover, from recent polls and interviews, it appears unlikely that the current divestment movement has as large a constituency as the movements of the early and late sixties. A recent Crimson poll found a wide divergence of opinion on the issue of Harvard's investment policy, with only a third of the students polled, favoring complete divestment by Harvard of its South Africa-related companies.

But students are hoping that divestment activism this spring broke the ice and that the atmosphere on campus next fall will be a more generally politically charged one.

"The divestment movement this spring has succeeded in raising activities and the general awareness about political issues to a level that hasn't been seen in several years. The general excitement across campus about the divestment movement, we hope, will change people's attitudes about political activism. Hopefully people will transfer some energy to other issues like Reagan's Central American policies, Harvard's atrocious labor relations, and sexist attitude toward hiring and treatment of female faculty," says Evan O. Grossman '87