Throughout the 1970s, the University was engulfed in an intense debate over the moral implications of its financial investments in apartheid South Africa.
In 1979, protests also erupted over the dedication of a library at the Kennedy School of Governmen to an apartheid supporter and the rumored demotion of the Department of Afro-American Studies to committee status.
The unrest prompted the University to weigh the symbolic impact of pulling Harvard capital out of South Africa with possible financial losses. Some argued that Harvard ought to use its international stature to take an ethical position against apartheid and questioned the moral validity of the Harvard Corporation’s investment policy at the time.
“Apartheid was something that everybody was against. But the question was what to do about it,” says Harvey C. Mansfield ’53, Kenan professor of government, who participated in the 1979 Faculty debates about Harvard’s investments.
Many students and professors advocated divestment, by which Harvard would withdraw all its investments from corporations operating in South Africa. But others, including some University administrators, contended that Harvard could use its shareholder’s voice in corporations to promote corporate policies that benefited non-whites or corporate disengagement from South Africa.
Then-University President Derek C. Bok, who discussed the matter in two open letters to the University, remained skeptical that divestment was the proper action for the University.
Looking back on the turmoil of the 1970s, Bok, who is now a professor at the Kennedy School, writes in an e-mail, “In writing my open letters, I thought that it was incumbent on a Harvard president to explain in detail the University’s reasons for taking a position on an important moral issue, especially when the position was objected to by a substantial number of students.”
He adds, “the letters were not created to change people’s minds so much as to demonstrate that the University was a morally serious institution that took such issues seriously and had thoughtful reasons for its decisions.”
In spring 1979, students engaged in campus-wide rallies and a boycott of classes to protest investments in South Africa. Faculty members, meanwhile, put forth a strong effort to influence Harvard’s investments, debating the issue in two full meetings and writing an open letter urging the University to participate in anti-apartheid efforts. And after about a decade of unrest and debate, by the 1980s, the Corporation had gradually divested from South Africa.
DECADE OF UNREST
Since the mid-20th century, the South African Nationalist government had implemented an official policy of racial segregation and white supremacy, forcing over a million South Africans to move from urban to designated rural areas.
Bok vocally denounced this institutionalized segregation, supporting U.S. anti-apartheid efforts. Harvard professors also avoided ties with South Africa. But the Corporation’s holdings of stock in U.S. companies with plants and operations in South Africa prompted student protests throughout the 1970s.
In the spring of the next year, 1978, the Corporation rejected divestment from from South Africa in a meeting. In response, 1,500 students gathered in Harvard Yard, barricading Bok from his Mass. Hall office.
The Corporation responded, “we oppose divestment under normal circumstances not merely—or even primarily—because it costs the University money, but because it is an ineffective means of pursuing ethical ends.”
By the end of 1978, though, the University evaluated corporations for investments based on the benefits they provided nonwhite employees. This policy was proposed by the Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility (ACSR)—a committee formed in 1973 to advise the Corporation on ethical issues.