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Over 1,500 Harvard students and affiliates have signed an online petition since Monday night calling for Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS) to allow undergraduates to donate leftover BoardPlus funds to support peacekeepers in the Sudanese region of Darfur.
The organizers of the petition will meet with the HUDS chief this afternoon to ask that undergraduates have the option to contribute the money to the Genocide Intervention Fund (GIF), which provides logistical support to troops monitoring the shaky year-old cease-fire in Darfur, where government-supported militias have killed tens of thousands of residents.
The petition, the brainchild of Thomas D. Hadfield ’08 and coordinated by the Harvard Darfur Action Group (HDAG), had garnered 1,642 signatures from undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, and staff as of 11:30 p.m. last night.
Undergraduates on Harvard’s meal plan receive $50 per semester of BoardPlus, which can be used at 11 HUDS-operated restaurants on Harvard’s Cambridge and Longwood campuses. Unused BoardPlus dollars expire at the end of each school year, prompting many undergraduates to rush to spend the excess money each spring.
Currently, BoardPlus money left on students’ accounts rolls back into HUDS’ coffers and is used to offset food prices the following year, HUDS Executive Director Ted A. Mayer said in an interview Friday.
Mayer said he was “open” to the possibility of donating leftover BoardPlus money to charitable causes but added that the decision ultimately is up to the College administration.
Hadfield said that when he initially presented his plan to Mayer last Wednesday, Mayer was “hesitant.”
But Mayer’s reaction “exceeded our expectations prior to the meeting,” said Rebecca J. Hamilton, a joint degree candidate at Harvard Law School and the Kennedy School of Government (KSG) who helped organize the petition. “It could be very easy for them to put it in the ‘too-hard’ basket,’ to say ‘no’ without giving it any thought.”
Hadfield said that while he realizes the proposal would divert funds from HUDS’ budget, he thinks addressing the situation in Darfur should trump this fiscal concern.
“I think it’s worth the net cost to the University to foster a spirit of giving and to encourage students to sacrifice that extra piece of pizza to support a peacekeeper in Sudan,” he said.
‘A PROBLEM FROM HELL’
Hadfield came up with the idea to donate extra BoardPlus money to the GIF during a student-faculty dinner last month with KSG Lecturer Samantha Power, who led his freshman seminar and has written a Pulitzer Prize-winning book on the American response to genocide.
At last Wednesday’s meeting with Hadfield, Mayer said that he would need to be convinced that the GIF is supported widely by undergraduates before considering the proposal.
“I can’t say ‘yes’ to everything, and I don’t want to be in a position to determine what’s most important to students,” Mayer said.
The organizers hope that this effort will lay the groundwork for future opportunities to donate leftover BoardPlus money to a variety of charitable causes, Hamilton said.
HUDS is already involved in several local community service initiatives, providing—by its own estimate—nearly 11,000 meals a year to Massachusetts residents who are facing hunger.”
The GIF was launched last month by students at Swarthmore College aiming to raise money to provide logistical support and materials—but not weapons—to the 2,000 African Union peacekeepers in Darfur. Senators Sam Brownback, R-Kan., Jon Corzine, D-N.J., and six members of the U.S. House of Representatives have signed on to the fund’s effort.
Hamilton, the co-founder of HDAG, said that the group has already raised $6,000 for the fund.
The death toll in Darfur from violence, disease, and famine since civil war erupted in the region in February 2003 is estimated to be as high as 400,000 by some experts.
The Bush administration and Congress have declared that black Muslim Darfur residents are the victims of genocide. But critics of the administration say the U.S. has not done enough to protect villagers from government-backed Arab militias.
“If this BoardPlus thing comes off, then two of the only tangible things that have been done for Darfur—writ large—have happened at this university,” Power said.
Last month, Harvard sold its shares of stock in the Beijing-based oil company PetroChina after months of pressure from activists who criticized the company’s ties to the Sudanese government. The move made Harvard the first major institutional shareholder to divest from PetroChina since the Darfur crisis erupted, according to activists.
HDAG’s petition can be found online at www.harvardinvest.com.
—Daniel J. Hemel contributed to the reporting of this story.
—Staff writer Katharine A. Kaplan can be reached at email@example.com.
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