TOWSON, MD., MAY 4 -- The University of Maryland, which had resisted three years of students' antiapartheid protests, made an abrupt turnabout today, tentatively deciding to divest the $11 million it holds in companies that do business in South Africa. The Finance Committee of the university's Board of Regents voted 5 to 0 in favor of divestment, essentially ensuring that the full board will follow suit when it considers the issue next month. Today's vote drew cheers and applause from dozens of students who had toted placards to the meeting by bus from College Park, the largest of the university's 11 campuses, where pro-divestment demonstrations have intensified this spring. "I had tears in my eyes," said Stephanie Stockman, a geology graduate student who was one of a dozen students arrested in the first major antiapartheid protest at College Park in 1986. "Three years ago, even last year, I thought I would never see this day," said Stockman, president of College Park's Graduate Student Association. "I think it is remarkable. It is something that is long overdue," added Shawnta Wilson, a junior who is president of the campus' 350-member South African Coalition. The coalition has organized several rallies this spring and built a "shanty" on the campus' main mall to symbolize the plight of black South Africans. Until today, the university's regents had refused to put the divestment question to a vote, despite students' repeated appeals for them to do so. But the board's sentiment changed, students and university officials said, as a result of escalating student pressure, new board members who took office when Maryland's university system was reorganized last summer, recent signs that the state government favors divestment and a growing list of universities that have made similar decisions. Calling South Africa's racial policies "morally corrupt," board member Roger Blunt said that divestment would put pressure on a government that is "incompatible with freedom of inquiry, freedom of speech, freedom of association -- actions inherent in our university system." Two committee members suggested that the university consider actions against South Africa in addition to divestment, urging students to suggest further steps. The divestment coalition said that 108 of the country's roughly 3,000 colleges and universities have divested their holdings in firms doing business in South Africa. According to the Investor Responsibility Research Center, a Washington nonprofit group that monitors investment practices, roughly a third of the 140 U.S. universities with the largest endowments have sold their holdings in companies with ties to South Africa. In moving toward divestment, Maryland is acting later than other campuses where students have protested South Africa's racial policies, according to Jennifer Kibbe, a research analyst at the center who specializes in South African investments. University divestments began in the early 1980s, peaked about two years ago and have tapered off since then, she said. At Maryland, the $11 million invested in companies that do business in South Africa accounts for about a quarter of the school's $45 million endowment. A university's endowment consists of funds, primarily from private donations, that are invested for future use. The policy approved today would replace rules adopted in 1985, which allow the university to invest in companies with South African connections as long as the firms adhere to the so-called Sullivan Principles, a set of voluntary human rights and fair employment practices for firms that operate in South Africa. Under the new policy, the university would sell off its holdings in all companies with direct or indirect ties to South Africa by Dec. 15. The university also would prevent any new investment of endowment in such firms and would require the divestment within six months any stock in such companies that is donated to the university. The university's investments in companies with direct ties to South Africa include NCR Corp., Caterpillar Tractor Co., Timken Co., Mobil Oil Corp. and E.I. DuPont De Nemours & Co. Mobil officials confirmed last week that the company plans to sell its South African holdings.