Against Apartheid

Students protest University investments in South Africa

Bok’s open letters played an important role in the debate on Harvard’s South Africa-related investments.

According to Morton Keller, co-author of Making Harvard Modern, Bok was well aware of the moral implications of Harvard’s investments, but he also felt it his duty to protect the financial stability of the University.

“Derek Bok was very much double-minded about it,” Keller says. “Part of him responded favorably to the idea that there should be a moral dimension [to Harvard’s investment policy].”

“Part of him opposed it in the sense that his primary responsibility was to see that the University was affluent and solvent,” Keller continues. “And to get into the business of deciding what was moral and what was immoral in the way of investments was going down a dangerous road.”

The Corporation never launched full and immediate divestment, though it sold stocks in companies that did not contribute to anti-apartheid efforts, which included protesting to the government and training or promoting black employees.


“I don’t think it is correct to say that the Corporation changed its mind,” Bok, who led the Corporation in the late 1970s, writes in an e-mail. “We were asked to sell all of the stock of all the scores of companies which did any business in South Africa. We never agreed to that demand. We did decide to sell a few stocks, amounting, I would guess, to only half a dozen companies or so.”

Mansfield says that the University did realize its moral responsibility in its financial investments.

“They ended up accepting the premise of divestment advocates, namely that the University had a moral responsibility not to invest in companies that were complicit in apartheid,” Mansfield says.

“It certainly made our investment managers aware that they could be confronted with moral objections. I imagine that has remained,” Mansfield adds.

Whether or not this debate left a lasting mark on Harvard’s investment policy, the controversy did illustrate the passion of students for ridding Harvard of its ties to apartheid.

“I don’t believe that the dispute over South Africa substantially changed the University’s investment policies,” writes Bok. “The fact that we have had no comparable disputes about investments since then has more to do, I think, with the fact that no investment issue since South Africa has caught the attention of students nearly as widely or as intensely.”

—Staff writer Tina Wang can be reached at