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South African Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu's decision to step down from Harvard's Board of Overseers presents the University with both a loss and an opportunity.
Foes of apartheid have lost their most vocal critic of the University's continued investment in companies with holdings in South Africa. Since 1984, Tutu has criticized Harvard repeatedly for not fully divesting from companies that do business in South Africa. He even threatened to return his honorary degree to oppose Harvard's policy.
It's too bad that Harvard didn't heed his advice at the time. Recent history has shown that sanctions and divestment crippled the South African economy so vastly that the government had to move toward democratization. Harvard's partial divestment only hindered that process.
Now, divestment is not the central issue. As South Africa builds the fundaments of democratic rule and finds an acceptable plan for power-sharing between Blacks and whites, investment may be risky. Indeed, it is the ongoing violence and political upheaval in South Africa that forced Tutu to step down from the board in order to devote all his energy to the events in his home country.
But investment no longer provides the clear moral choice it once did. That's because it is no longer clear that starving South Africa of investment dollars is the best way to oppose apartheid, as it was just a few years ago. And Desmond Tutu deserves much of the credit for forcing South Africa to accept its current path.
Although Tutu's counsel will be missed, his absence should served as a reminder of the changes needed in the University's administrative structure. The nomination process to replace Tutu on the Board of Overseers is especially in need of reform.
Tutu was a special petition nominee of the pro-divestment group Harvard Radcliffe Alumni Against Apartheid when he was elected to the board in 1989.
He and two others were elected overseers without the approval of the Harvard Alumni Association (HAA), the group that largely controls the nomination process. After 1989, HAA changed the rules for overseers elections and no non-HAA-approved candidates have been elected since.
Now is the time to liberalize election procedures for one of the University's top governing bodies. HAA should not be allowed to continue its stranglehold on the overseer positions. Whopping donations and election to high public office should not be the main criteria for the right to influence Harvard's future.
Students are among those most affected by the board's decisions, and they should demand at least an advisory role in making those decision. President Neil L. Rudenstine, a former provost at Princeton, is familiar with this arrangement since students have held seats on Princeton's Board of Trustees.
Even last year's chair of the Board of Overseers, Franklin D. Raines '71 has said he is open to the idea of having a seat on the Board reserved for students or young alumni.
Desmond Tutu came to Harvard at a time when the institution badly needed his experience and views. We thank him for the contributions he made to University policy. And we hope more like him will be elected to serve.
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