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Moral Fences do not Make Good Neighbors


By Joseph F Kahn

WE REMEBER Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal as a bold initiative designed to fight the greatest depression this country has ever faced. We remember Edward M. Kennedy's trip to South Africa and praise his endorsement of strong sanctions on that country thereafter. We support Gov. Michael S. Dukakis and mayors and governors across the nation for divesting pension funds of stock in companies doing business in South Africa.

But when Derek Bok allots $1 million in University funds to finance student, faculty and staff activities to fight apartheid, respondents attribute the move to crude political motivations and preemptive maneuvers to dislodge Harvard's divestment movement. We call Bok inconsistent, accuse him of abandoning earlier stances on South Africa, ridicule the size of his fund, and question his morality. Students interested in South Africa claim victory for the divestment movement, mark Bok's move as a concession and a failure by the Harvard Corporation to justify its stand against divestment and dismiss the value of any such fund.

Why? The answer is simple. Students who believe in divestment claim a monopoly on morality. They believe, contrary to the edicts of democracy, that their solution to the South African problem is the only solution and are totally unwilling to compromise, rationally consider alternatives or heed evidence to the contrary. These students, on a mission from God, feel compelled to lambast any move to fight apartheid by the "establishment." Short of personally hiring a plane, flying to Pretoria, and splitting P. W. Botha's head with an Uzi submachine gun, there is virtually nothing President Bok can accomplish with full credit. Unless those who oppose divestment are ready to throw themselves entirely at the mercy of these inspired activists, then there is no hope for a better day in South Africa, activists say.

Divestment is not at issue here. But it is important to recognize that it is indeed possible to fight racial segregation morally and reasonably even without resting complete confidence in the transfer of stock holdings from one American investor to another. There are, suprisingly enough, ways for moral institutions to contribute to the fight against apartheid other than by slapping the wrists of American corporations.

President Bok, speaking for the governing Corporation, does not claim such a monopoly on morality. While he argues against total divestment in favor of educational, national and individual efforts to help solve the South African racial conflict and criticizes others who levy their efforts only in the investment arena, he believes reasonable people can disagree on the possible solutions. He recognizes the cogency of other views. His fund represents an offer to cooperate on the issue of South Africa, having realized there is room for common effort even given the radically divided positions of some activists and some administrators on this problem. At present, however, such cooperation is far from likely, and Bok has been branded yet again as an agile lawyer-type with concern only for protecting corporate finance.

The fundamental misconception involved in recent criticism of Harvard's position is that a response to the crisis in South Africa is either moral or immoral, either right or wrong. But there is no purely moral answer to the problem. Divestment protesters clearly respond to pressures and customs in their own lives and are not motivated solely by objective, philanthropic concerns. If this were not true, the protesters would undeniably place South Africa on the back burner and wage war, for example, against the government of Ethiopia, which is restricting the flow of famine-relief efforts to rebel-held areas in that country at the expense of millions. Bok similarly acts with intuitive and political biases, but his biases are neither stronger nor less moral than those who favor divestment.

BOK HAS DECIDED that while Harvard must have certain standards for investing its endowment, it must not commit funds used to support education for political maneuverings in this country. He has opted for educational and national programs to help fight apartheid. He has backed his beliefs with time and money, and used his prestige to forward programs at Harvard and nationwide. This effort, which has lasted throughout his 15-year presidency and has increased as the crisis in South Africa worsens, is at least as honorable as the efforts of students and faculty at Harvard who pressure him to divest.

But the onslaught continues. In one recent editorial in this paper, a writer ignoring the history of this issue at Harvard marked Bok's recent announcement as a virtual admission of defeat by Harvard and as a total contradiction of earlier stances. For the record, this is groundless.

The writer charges, first of all, that a forthcoming change in Harvard's investment policy (not investing in companies it discovers sell vital equipment in the enforcement of apartheid to the government) is a contradiction. The writer claims that Harvard had shunned, under its policy, taking a strong stand on apartheid, but that this latest investment requirement has "political" implications. The writer mentions that Harvard used to require companies in which it invests to abide only by the Sullivan Principles, which are incorrectly defined as standards of corporate conduct in the workplace and not in the public sector. In fact, Sullivan requires active participation in the political process, lobbying against fundamental aspects of apartheid. Harvard has denounced apartheid in this manner for years and recent efforts to improve this denunciation do not imply the opposite.

Secondly, the writer states that Bok's $1 million fund is again a contradiction of earlier statements. He claims that Bok's refusal "to wield economic power" against those Harvard dislikes is violated by the establishment of the fund, as it would be used to fight apartheid. Wrong. The purpose of the $1 million fund is not to wield economic or political power but to support educational and individual efforts. This is clearly different from using Harvard's multi-billion dollar endowment as a political bludgeoning device. Bok has never stated that Harvard cannot allow educational objectives to filter outside the University's gates. Bok has always claimed that supplying education to those in need is not only an option, but an implicit obligation of a modern university. Far from contradicting earlier statements, the $1 million fund complements his theory.

Others have and will continue to credit Harvard's stance on South Africa to political motivations. If such accusations are used to discredit all movements, then activism is dead. The activists' belief that they are at the top of the moral heirarchy encourages them to dismiss any other solutions to the South African problem as purely political and meaningless. This assumption of moral rectitude constructs an artificial barrier between different ways of dealing with South Africa. And it is this assumption which paralyzes the Harvard community and impedes any effort to cooperate and make a real, long-term contribution to the 22 million South African Blacks.

Given intense pressure on campus, in this country and abroad, it is inevitable that Bok should alter his stand to suit current conditions. He, as everyone else, responds to pressures, and rightly so. But the fact that he has formulated an educational and national stance which rivals that of any public figure interested in South Africa, and has devoted considerable funding to create a productive way in which Harvard can fight the segregation, deserves credit. We can quibble about consistency in the evolution of Harvard's policy. We can credit Bok's moves to national and local pressures. Or we can continue to artificially divide people who care about South Africa and to impair cooperation, but these are unproductive tasks.

If the issue is apartheid, then let's deal with apartheid. Bok has forwarded some proposals, others favor different ones, and the battle has continued for years. But there is no moral high ground here. There are only practical programs and opportunities for improvement. Harvard has the potential to make a serious, concentrated impact on South Africa given student and University resources; Bok-bashing accomplishes nothing and leaves this issue cold and dry.

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