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Give Them What They Want

Brass Tacks

By Joseph F Kahn

PRESIDENT Derek C. Bok sat in his Massachusetts Hall corner office late last summer pondering how Harvard could possibly respond to the escalation of violence in South Africa that had taken the lives of hundreds of Blacks. How could it contribute to the welfare of Blacks without encountering the massive opposition associated with any of Harvard's efforts to maintain connections with the apartheid state?

Issuing an open policy statement in the beginning of the school year, Bok outlined what he thought was the answer. In the largest South Africa-related education/exchange program ever promoted by an American university, he committed $1 million to a variety of initiatives to aid South African Blacks--the most prominent of which was an internship program involving students from all of Harvard's schools.

Without altering Harvard's commitment to "constructive engagement," "affirmative action," or whatever the proper euphemism may be, Bok thought the inclusion of students in a seemingly unobjectionable program would blur the divestment/anti-divestment distinction and create the opportunity for cooperation between administrators, concerned students and faculty.

He was dead wrong.

THE INTERNSHIP PROGRAM has become a public relations nightmare for the university and is arguably the most widely criticized of any of Harvard's ties to South Africa. Before admistrators have even managed to compile a final list of South African institutions--schools, universities, and foundations--agreeing to take interns, Harvard students, faculty members and several top Black leaders in that country have expressed their opposition to the program.

Especially given the criticism leveled last week by Bishop Desmond M. Tutu and the Rev. Allen Boesak--widely recognized leaders of the very people the university intended to aid by sending interns--it seems likely that Bok will now have to scrap the program, at least as currently conceived. And while administrators may avoid such an embarassing conclusion to their prized project by waiting out criticism and proceeding slowly on the internships in the future, Harvard has clearly lost this round in the continuing battle to win credibility for its engagement-oriented position on relations with South Africa.

Meanwhile, the student divestment group, the Southern Africa Solidarity Committee (SASC), can chalk this one up as one of its greatest victories. Initially, SASC released a lengthy report which, although to a certain degree based on preliminary information, exposed several serious problems with the internship program. The group showed that Harvard had acted rashly on President Bok's plan, without consulting top Black leaders in South Africa about either the value of the program as a whole or of the institutions to which Harvard might send interns.

The impact of the SASC report became obvious after an intensive follow-up campaign convinced a number of key faculty members and Black South African leaders that the internship program must be re-evaluated. The significance of the controversy, however, goes well beyond the score card between SASC and Harvard and has highlighted fundamental problems with Harvard's attitude toward politically sensitive issues.

Under Bok, Harvard has tried to use its financial and educational influence to bring about constructive change in the United States and abroad. Nevertheless, in the grand tradition of isolation he has naively maintained that the university should not compromise its preeminent commitment to graduating educated men and women.

And whether willingly or not, Harvard has been pulled into the midst of political controversies. Under the watchful eyes of activist faculty members and students, nothing this $3.2 billion university stands for can or will be interpreted without political reference.

THE PAST DECADE has shown, if nothing else, that investments in South Africa-related companies involve a political statement about that country. The past few months have shown that education similarly does not escape political categorization. The increasingly, but understandably, inflexible consensus of Blacks in South Africa has treated each gesture by foreign countries and institutions with the utmost scrutiny. There is no longer room for compromise and moderation; violence has made such positions untenable.

As Bishop Tutu has so clearly stated, it is time for the leaders of the majority population to take control of their own destiny. And every overture from concerned parties must now conform to their struggle for freedom, as outlined in their own words--not by a university on the other side of the world.

In South Africa Harvard has been and, if it follows its current policy, will continue to be on the wrong side of the political spectrum. If Harvard is to help Blacks, as it claims to desire, it must invest only in companies Blacks approve of and supply interns only to institutions that Blacks wholeheartedly support. If told that no interns and no investments support the interests of Blacks, then divestment and disengagement are the only options.

The internship controversy should once again encourage Bok to ponder Harvard's role in the world from his secluded post in Mass. Hall. A letter released from his office late last week only reaffirmed his long-held stance--a stance which, in light of recent events, has clearly proved inadequate. Bok surely realizes that every time Harvard enters the national or the world arena, it accepts a burden of political responsibility for its actions.

However, Bok must also agree that such responsibility at least requires the recognition of effective democracy at Harvard--of allowing for the regular input of opinions from students and professors into university policy. Above all such responsibility requires a firm commitment to widely accepted standards of moral rightness and political freedom.

As President Bok continues to testify before Congress and issue policy pronouncements in an attempt to influence a modern world, claims about the university's independence from political obligations lose their credibility. It is time for Harvard to leave behind the concept of education in isolation and accept the responsibilities accompanying its expanded role.

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