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IN THEORY, the Board of Overseers serves a useful purpose at Harvard University.
The concept is simple: a board of 30 Harvard degree holders, elected by Harvard alumni worldwide, meets every other month to check up on the University. Ideally, the Board represents the broad spectrum of talents--scientific, artistic or political--that Harvard is supposed to cultivate. President Derek C. Bok and members of the Corporation say they listen to the Board precisely because each of its members is an "expert" in one or two particular fields.
After last week's debacle over the divestment issue, however, it is quite apparent that Bok and other top officials are not even content to give the Board that small measure of influence over University policy. While they may solicit the Board's advice on some policy matters, it seems that Bok and members of the Corporation have little use for the Board on the most important and controversial issues facing the University.
HERE was the perfect example of how the Overseers are supposed to work: Harvard has some $139 million still invested in South African corporations, long the subject of campus and alumni debate. The fast-breaking changes in South Africa merited at least a reconsideration--if not a revamping--of Harvard's investment policy. But Harvard's officials, in Cambridge, had little perspective on just what to do.
Enter South African Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu--anti-apartheid leader and newly elected member of the Board.
Tutu's relationship to the other overseers was more than a bit tenuous. He had been nominated for the Board by an upstart activist group, and won despite earnest efforts by several Harvard officials to block his election.
But if there was one person who knew how best Harvard should react to the changes in South Africa, it was Tutu. Tutu won a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to help topple the racist South African regime, and had only days before spoken with South Africa's president, F.W. de Klerk.
The Overseers asked Tutu to speak about South Africa. He did, and said afterwords that Harvard should adopt a new divestment plan. Under his plan, Harvard would pledge to sell off its remaining stock unless South Africa followed up on its early reform gestures and substantially dismantled the apartheid system.
That, he said, was how Harvard could best advance the cause of freedom for South Africa's Blacks. Tutu said in a press conference later that he sensed "momentum" and "enthusiasm" for changing Harvard's policy towards south Africa.
But Bok, in an interview last week, said that no revision of divestment would be on the agenda for some time, barring even more radical changes in that country. A revision of such an "established" policy was simply premature, he said.
BOK'S reluctance to take up the divestment issue again is understandable. Bok last "opened" the issue for discussion a few years ago, culminating in the reaffirmation of "selective" divestment last fall. He surely has no stomach for rehashing a debate that has continued for the last 20 years.
And since the corporate exodus from South Africa has forced Harvard's investments there down to a paltry $139 million--peanuts to the South African government--Bok surely sees little reason to taking up the issue again.
But the last divestment debate was made in the context of a seemingly hopeless situation, among a group of corporate and political leaders who presumably had little understanding of what was really going on in South Africa.
Now, as the prospect for liberalization in South Africa has become real, it makes sense that the Board should follow the advice of its new resident expert.
If Tutu says that Harvard's voice counts, then Bok should make sure that Harvard uses that voice. And if Tutu says Harvard should divest, Bok should at least consider the final step of total divestment.
That he can dismiss divestment so cavalierly suggests distrust of Tutu and more fundamentally, of the Board of Overseers.
If Bok doesn't listen to Tutu now, what's the use of the Board?
Jonathan S. Cohn '91 covered the Board of Overseers last year.
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