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A Very Polite, Very Firm 'No'

Bok and Divestment Activism

By Gregory B. Kasowski

Throughout the 19-year tenure of President Derek C. Bok, no issue has remained in the public eye so long as the University's refusal to divest completely from firms doing business in South Africa.

No issue has galvanized such intensive student protest. No issue has caused tempers to flare so high. And on no issue has Bok's distinctive ability to weather controversy been more apparent than in his handling of the divestment campaign.

Throughout his presidency, Bok has steadfastly resisted pressure from student protesters on the divestment issue, politely but firmly refusing to implement their demands.

While divestment activists note that Bok has generally been willing to listen to their opinions, he has shown an uncanny ability to avoid making concessions while appearing flexible.

But after 20 years in office, the issue has still not gone away, and, as Bok prepares to step down at the end of next year, critics now point to the ongoing controversy over South Africa as the principal black mark on his term of office.

"[Divestment] has been [Bok's] Achilles' heel," says Peter H. Wood '64, a member of the Board of Overseers who was elected on a dissident, prodivestment slate. "He's had a certainly admirable presidency. There just is no clear reason why he allowed this particular issue to become so divisive for the Harvard community."

Early Controversy

When Bok assumed his position atop the University in 1972, an ethical debate was already raging over Harvard investment in companies that did business in Southern African countries.

The initial conflict concerned University ownership of stock in Gulf Oil, which at the time had heavily invested in operations in Angola, then a Portugese colony. At the time, divestment activists argued that through its investment in Gulf, Harvard was supporting a regime that openly endorsed discrimination against Blacks.

These initial seeds of discontent quickly developed into widespread student protests in the early 1970s, culminating in a takeover of University Hall in the spring of 1972.

Peter Shapiro '74, who covered the Angola divestiture debate for The Crimson in 1972, says that these early demonstrations "were clearly a precedent for the divestment movement, this came well before the other issues."

And as concern over treatment of Blacks in Southern Africa continued to mount, so did the level of protest. More than 2000 activists calling for total divestment from South Africa staged a massive rally in the spring of 1978, culminating once again in the takeover of University Hall. The issue flared up once more in 1982, and again in 1986, with each successive protest focusing new attention on the issue.

And although Harvard's stance on divestment has clearly evolved on the issue, with the University now prohibiting investment in companies that do not adhere to the so-called "Sullivan Principles," Bok has constantly remained wary of succumbing to the demands of protesters.

"Harvard should be embarassed over South Africa," says Phillippe Bourgois '78. "I mean, the City of New York has already divested. It makes you wonder about academic leadership at Harvard when a bureaucratic body like New York City reacts more quickly. There is a clear lack of moral and ethical vision."

A participant in a later student demonstration outside University Hall in the spring of 1978, Bourgois says that Harvard needed someone inside the Corporation to stand up and voice personal convictions about apartheid instead of supporting the current policy.

"What worries me is that the University dealt with this bureaucratically," Bourgois says. "That's frightening. That's how some of the biggest tragedies take place, when no one takes personal responsibility. And Bok took a bureaucratic stance, he didn't take responsibility."

"I had known of Derek Bok as a nice person," Bourgois says. "But the issue here is that nice people have to take personal and ethical responsibility that goes beyond the bureaucratic duty to maintain order. It goes beyond a person's job and position."

`Part of an Establishment'

"To me, [Bok] was part of an establishment," says Kathryn T. Rice '79, a former president of the Black Students Association who acted as one of the principal spokespersons for the protesters who blockaded University Hall in 1978. "When I think of Derek Bok, I don't think of him as separate. I see him as part of an institution."

In retrospect, however, Rice says she has no feelings, "positive or negative," about the departing president-beyond a general sense that he was never receptive to the ideas of her companions.

Throughout his career, activists say, Bok has tried to appear concerned about divestment, while managing to ignore the bulk of their arguments.

"Was he favorable to our position?" Rice says "I'd say no and I don't think most Black students at Harvard think he was."

"I think he had a penchant for being flexible in style but completely rigid in his actual decisions on matters of division and controversy at the University," says Damon A. Silvers '86.

Bok, in contrast argues that he has given students ample time to explain their concerns over the issue, and that he has constantly tried to articulate the reasons for his opposition. The interests of the University, both administrative and ethical, are best served by the current policy, he says.

"[I have spent much time] trying to respond to students and discuss the issue with students," Bok says, adding that his position has been made clear through his "fairly detailed essays on the subject."

`A Thoughtful Manner'

"[Bok has] dealt with this in a very thoughtful manner," says Financial Vice President Robert H. Scott. "He hasn't made a knee-jerk reaction. Instead he's taken very seriously the institution's responsibility to society."

"It hasn't plagued him," Scott says. "The people who say that wanted him to take an action which he didn't take."

And several administrators and faculty members maintain that the true reason for the Bok's appearance of aloofness is that he has thought out the implications of his position more thoroughly than his critics.

"What must be vexing is having very earnestly looked at it and come to a certain position, and then to contend with people who have only looked at it superficially," says Baird Professor of Science Dudley Herschbach.

And while administrators predict that the University is unlikely to alter its current stance on South Africa, activists say that Bok's successor might be better disposed to address their concerns.

"It's hard to see how we could go further back," Wood says. "I think a new president could make divestment a prerequisite for the job.

"I mean, no one wants to have a uselessly divided Board of Overseers and an alienated student body. A new president might say, `Let's handle this quickly and responsibly.'"

Bourgois says that for many members of his class, Bok personally symbolizes the University's inaction on South Africa. His role in the controversy often comes up at class reunions and social occasions, Bourgois says.

"We joke that `isn't it nice we can use the issue of South Africa to not give money'" Bourgois says. "But it is something I can be proud of. I didn't just sit back on my ass. I thank God that I had the common sense to use the liberty of my college years to make a political statement."

And while the divestment campaign appears to have lost most of its momentum in recent years, several activists say that the movement remains a pressing ethical question for the University that will almost certainly cause problems for Bok's successor.

"I certainly hope the next president will be more responsive to the student input and their needs," says Evan O. Grossman '87-'88.

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