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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Painted Into a Corner

BRASS TACKS

By Victoria G. T. bassetti

PRESIDENT Derek C. Bok has painted himself a Jackson Pollack, and a bad one at that. With dribblings of paint here and open statements there, Bok has retreated slowly from the onslaught of students protest and created a mess. It is certainly no masterpiece--never to be hung in a museum, even the Sackler.

Of course, Bok's delaying tactics could work. With a few more months and a little more civil war in South Africa, he may never have to worry about divestment again.

But before the situation in South Africa outstrips the University's ability to make a meaningful comment on apartheid, students must keep Bok on his toes.

Bok still argues that ridding Harvard of its South Africa-tied stock would be inconsistent. There are many other systems of oppression in the world. If Harvard takes a stand on South Africa based on loosely defined moral grounds, it may logically be charged with inconsistency if it does not take a stand on other countries.

But the University already has taken a few moral stands on the South Africa issue: the Corporation, which runs Harvard's investment portfolio supports the Sullivan Principles for American companies providing guidelines for equality in the workplace in South Africa. Now, the Corporation has set upa $1 million fund to help Black South Africans and members of the Harvard community in their attempt to fight apartheid.

It is a strange argument that Bok is making. If we verbally oppose apartheid, toss out $1 million, support the Sullivan Principles, then why can't we take the next step and divest?

Bok suggests in his most recent open statement that one reason why we cannot take the final step is that the majority of firms in Harvard's portfolio do less than one percent of their business in South Africa; thus, he asks, what is the moral principle that condemns those small investments, especially when the amount Harvard receives in dividends is so minute?

The point, however, is not that divestment would be penalizing those companies so much because they do have investments in South Africa as that this is the only kind of moral statement left open to the University in the wake of recent developments in South Africa.

Blacks certainly know there are American investments in South Africa, and those companies stand symbolically as tacit U.S. support for apartheid. They know America is doing very little to help them end apartheid. Divestment by Harvard would carry far, ring clear that some Americans do not favor doing business in a racist country once it became clear that those businesses were doing very little to ameliorate apartheid's burden.

To illustrate his small money argument Bok presents the problem of eating Kellogg's Corn Flakes in his open statement. Kellogg's, he points out, has operations in South Africa as does IBM, Ford and Exxon. Should students stop eating Corn Flakes and taking jobs with IBM if we follow the principles that call for divestment?

This certainly, is a moral quandary for corn flakes lovers, but is it a reason not to divest, is it really what troubles Bok about the issue? In essence, Bok is telling us that until he can figure out whether he should ask students to stop eating corn flakes, he will not sell Harvard's South Africa-tied stock. I'll make a deal with him. I will gladly give up breakfasts of corn flakes if Harvard divests.

BY REFUSING to make a clear moral stand for divestment Harvard is defending a flimsy position. It is saying, "We are only responding to the situation mildly because we do not find it morally compelling. We're only a little bit worried about South Africa. Really we'd rather not have to worry about it." Unfortunately, moral neutrality in this world is not as clean as saying "we're Swiss" and putting up a big red cross on the roof of Massachusetts Hall.

The University's mild moral tone has taken the shape of Harvard as mediator, attempting to get companies with South African investments to enforce the Sullivan principles.

Adherence to the Sullivan Principles as Harvard's investment policy is also taking a moral position. It is saying that the means to effectuate change in South Africa is through quiet, slow talk. Given the situation in South Africa, this approach appears terribly naive. The most companies which adhere to the Sullivan principals can do is provide equal working conditions for Blacks; they will not ever provide fundamental human rights. They cannot stop bloodshed, and that is what's at issue today.

Students are asking the University to make a stand where the moral filth of South Africa has been recently demonstrated to be as loud as a gunshot. Only the Rev. Jerry Falwell still has questions about South Africa.

The point is that Harvard should not flatly reject morality because it is afraid it would have to be consistently moral or that it would have to be broadly moral.

The world is a big bad morass of moral dilemmas. There are many oppressive countries on the globe, and Bok is afraid he may have to start analyzing investments in Russia. But the broadness of such an issue should not paralyze Harvard with fear. Few countries are as blatantly immoral as South Africa. And there are fewer situations where Harvard has such a chance to make a clear, effective moral stand.

South Africa, so to speak, is a hot topic, and Harvard's voice would be heard as a true moral gesture in keeping with what the situation there calls for. Students are not asking for a silly gesture, but they are asking for a gesture powered by the backround in which we are acting--the recent imposition of martial law and escalating violence. Divesting from Russian-tied companies would be a silly gesture right now because the jury is still out on U.S. relations to Russia and the benefits of interdependence between the superpowers. The book has been closed on South Africa for Harvard.

This is the first of two parts.

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