Harvard President Derek Bok today waved off a call by student protesters to sell the university's $300 million in holdings in firms doing business in South Africa, saying it is a useless way to combat injustice and it would cost too much money.
The university should pressure companies in its substantial portfolio into improving working conditions for blacks in South Africa, not pull out of those firms financially, Bok said.
"Total divestment would almost certainly cause the university to divert millions of dollars in pursuit of a strategy that is legally questionable, widely disputed on its merits and very likely to prove ineffective in achieving its objectives." Bok wrote.
Harvard, which has an endowment of nearly $1.5 billion, has a long-standing policy against investing in companies profiting primarily from work in South africa because, Bok said, the nation's wealthiest and most prestigious university opposes "acquiring a continuing financial stake in the perpetuation of an immoral regime."
He added: "Divestment would also result in losses to the university that are hard to estimate precisely but would almost certainly run into millions of dollars."
Harvard's Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility estimates that brokeage fees to sell the university's shares could range from $5.7 million to $16.5 million.
Bok, who has spoken out on moral issues, made his remarks in his latest academic version of a "papal bull," a policy statement that often influences higher education leaders nationwide.
Today's statement was released at a time when striking students at Brandeis University have nearly shut that school with demands for divestiture.
More than 400 Princeton University students picketed and stayed out of classes Wednesday, and here students are gearing up to picket the Harvard Corp. meeting Monday.
Student Matthew Rochschild, of Harvard's Souther Africa Solidarity Committee, contends that divestiture would "significantly alter the public climate in this country by increasing the pressure on U.S. companies to withdraw from South Africa.
"In the context of the nationwide movement against apartheid, Harvard, as a leading academic and corporate institution, ahs more leverage than the mere stocks it owns," he said. Speaking out and divestiture, he said, carry "more weight than cheap words in a stockholders' meeting."
Bok, however, countered that "to make a fuss at shareholder meetings," as one professor was quoted as saving, is the best way to persuade the 350 U.S. corporations doing business in South Africa to "pay closer attention to the employment and social conditions of their non-white workers in South Africa.
"On the other hand, we are likely to accomplish nothing by selling our stock except to lose out status as shareholders and pass whatever influence we have to investors who care little or nothing about apartheid," Bok wrote.