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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

the death of divestment

For years, the divestment movement has been dying a long, slow death. A new shareholder report may finally seal the coffin.

By Gady A. Epstein

For the past 20 years, Harvard student activists have been calling for total University divestment from South Africa. Their message was loud, clear and unified: Harvard should have no business ties with a government of apartheid.

And for years, the student movement came up against what seemed like a brick wall: an administration that would not be bullied into a move that some thought might jeopardize the financial well-being of the University.

But things have changed in the last few years. As the South African government has moved away from apartheid, divestment activism on American campuses--particularly at Harvard--has died a slow, painful death.

An administrative report released this week indicates that the Harvard Corporation may soon abandon whatever small gestures it had been making towards South African divestment.

Divestment, it seems, could finally become an issue of the past.

Not a Monolith

Contrary to popular belief, Harvard's governors have not been monolithically and uniformly opposed to divestment. Actually, Harvard's policy has changed gradually over the years, approaching but never reaching complete divestment. The Corporation Committee on Shareholder Responsibility (CCSR), which sets University policy on ethical investment, has for years maintained a line of "selective divestment."

Harvard does not invest in companies with significant holdings in South Africa--generally, more than one percent of the company's total holdings--but it will continue to invest in companies that it sees as playing a necessary, positive role in that country, including some pharmaceutical companies.

Since 1988, Harvard has asked most of the South Africa-connected countries it invests in to leave that country.

Today, Harvard invests $148 million of its near-$6 billion in net assets in 21 U.S. companies with holdings in South Africa, according to a report released last week by the CCSR.

Advising the Corporation

The three-member Corporation committee of D. Ronald Daniel, Robert G. Stone Jr. and chair Charles P. Slichter '45 receives recommendations on South Africa investments from the Advisory Committee on Share-holde Responsibility (ACSR), a group of four faculty members, four alumni and four students formed in 1981.

Shareholders annually submit resolutions asking their companies to withdraw or cut ties from South Africa. On behalf of the University, the CCSR votes on these shareholder resolutions.

But the Corporation has always lagged years behind its more liberal counterpart, the ACSR. In 1984, the ACSR recommended complete divestment from South Africa by a vote of six to five. But the Corporation stood its ground on selective divestment.

Four years later, a joint committee of members of the Corporation and its junior governing board, the Board of Overseers, recommended in a report to the University that Harvard adopt a policy of generally supporting corporate withdrawal from South Africa. Since then, the CCSR has endorsed this policy.

But now, recent events in South Africa have signalled that the death of apartheid may be on the horizon, and the Corporation is once again in the familiar position of lagging behind its advisory committee.

The Changing Face of Apartheid

Back in 1971, when student activism on divestment at Harvard took shape, and even as recently as 1989, the issue was quite clear. The all-white South African government oppressed and discriminated against the Black populace, muffling their cries for equality, subjugating them in the work place and segregating them in public institutions.

In the last 12 months, though, the South African government has released anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela after 27 years of imprisonment, lifted the ban on the African National Congress and repealed several major apartheid laws, including the Group Areas Act, the Population Registration Act and the Separate Amenities Act, which segregated all public facilities.

Student Interest Fading

In the wake of these recent events, the student calls for complete divestment have faded substantially, and now, the CCSR's advisory committee for the first time have expressed a majority opinion that some companies should not be asked to withdraw from South Africa.

Those members in the majority argued that some companies could serve a positive role in a post-apartheid South Africa. Under this reasoning, the advisory committee voted against urging the withdrawal of Colgate and International Paper from South Africa.

The Corporation committee chose not to follow the advisory committee's recommendation, voting for the withdrawal of these companies, but it said in its annual report, released last week, that it will reconsider the issue next year.

The CCSR also supported resolutions calling for the withdrawal of Baker Hughes, Gillette and Borden, and voted in favor of two resolutions calling on General Motors to cut all ties with South Africa.

In maintaining its current position of endorsing withdrawal, the Corporation argued in its report that a change in policy might send the wrong message: that enough has been done to end apartheid.

The lag between the two committee raises interesting questions about which group holds the progressive line.

"Whereas in previous years the ACSR has always seemed to be more liberal than the CCSR," says ACSR member Anton N. Quist '92, "The views about the sanctions issue are turning over so rapidly that you can't say which of the two is the more liberal."

While the issue of divestment may be more clouded now than ever, what is clear is that for the next several years, University policy on divestment will be in a state of uncertainty.

"The South Africa issue is really in limbo," Quist says. "It's even harder than before to vote on these sanctions issues when we don't exactly know what the effects will be."

As a result, there is no consensus on the divestment issue. On the advisory committee, some members firmly believe that sanctions should remain in place until South Africa is on an irreversible road to ending apartheid.

Others think that the best way to encourage the ongoing process of reform is to lift sanctions.

Change is Possible

Quite conceivably, the ACSR could reverse its majority position, as there will be at least six new members this year.

"It will be really up to us this year...to decide what our turning point will be," Quist says. "We'll either stick to our guns [on divestment]...or decide that sanctions have done enough."

As for the CCSR, it is unclear whether events in South Africa will compel them to close the gap witht the ACSR.

"The Corporation is constantly reviewing what its polices are," says Elizabeth A. Gray, secretary to the CCSR.

"The time may be coming when even the CCSR will change its mind," Quist says.

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