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Harvard Divests | The Nation

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Harvard Divests

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On the morning of October 25, 2004, roommates Manav Bhatnagar and Ben Collins, both Harvard juniors, woke up to find a particularly troubling story in the campus daily, the Harvard Crimson.

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Sam Graham-Felsen
Sam Graham-Felsen was Barack Obama's chief blogger on the 2008 campaign. He writes and speaks on technology, politics,...

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"Harvard has invested millions of dollars in a Chinese oil company whose financial dealings with the Sudanese government, human rights activists say, have funded that regime's slaughter of its own people," the Crimson reported. Bhatnagar and Collins did their own research and confirmed that Harvard--second only to the Vatican among the world's wealthiest nonprofit institutions--indeed held $3.87 million in PetroChina stock.

The roommates sprung into action. They drafted a petition and contacted former activists from the South Africa divestment campaign waged at Harvard during the 1980s for advice. Bhatnagar stressed the need to distinguish their divestment drive from previous campaigns, hoping to engage in open dialogue with the university. "The South Africa campaign saw years of resistance from the university, and so the effort became very confrontational.... Those students stormed the president's office," says Bhatnagar. "Since genocide was such a clear-cut moral issue, we didn't think there would be a need for an adversarial campaign."

A few days later, they launched a website, calling on the university to immediately divest itself of its PetroChina shares. "Furthermore," the statement read, "we urge President [Larry] Summers to publicly state that Harvard will not invest in any corporation that conducts business with the Sudanese government for as long as Sudan is in violation of international norms of human rights." By that night, more than 100 students had signed the petition.

Bhatnagar and Collins bombarded campus group e-mail lists, and as word spread, hundreds more students and dozens of faculty members signed on. Armed with the petition, the roommates scheduled a meeting with Summers. They were impressed when Harvard's president--known for his defiant and often dismissive approach to student demands--agreed to consider divestment. "Summers gave it to us straight," says Collins. "He was up front about what he needed to know about PetroChina and its involvement in the Sudan. I left with the feeling that if we provided him with enough information, there would be no more room for excuses and something could happen."

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Meanwhile, Sudan-related activism was flourishing on campus. The Harvard African Students Association (HASA) began distributing green cloth patches and rubber bracelets reading NOT ON MY WATCH and raised $1,500 for the relief organization Doctors Without Borders. For HASA's president, Hillary Mutisya, the campaign was personal. A native of Kenya, Mutisya had befriended many Sudanese refugees who fled to his country during the civil war. Mutisya was encouraged to see how receptive so many Harvard students were to the campaign: "Most people here focus on their own lives. Africa is a distant place, very far away, rarely mentioned in the news. It was phenomenal to me that so many people were not only interested but wanted to march."

At the Kennedy School of Government, two graduate students and Sabine Ronc, a sophomore from Paris, started the Darfur Action Group (DAG, www.darfuractiongroup.org). The DAG benefited from the counsel of the Kennedy School's Samantha Power--the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Problem From Hell and one of America's pre-eminent authorities on genocide--and decided that divestment would be a central focus of their activism. Ronc coordinated numerous events with HASA, the Black Students' Association and Harvard Hillel, the Jewish student community. In February she and other student leaders attended a national conference on Sudan sponsored by the Holocaust Museum (www.standarfur.org) in Washington, where they met and shared strategies with 400 campus activists from ninety different schools.

Little more than a week after emerging from the conference, Harvard's newly energized student activists were stunned to find that the university had actually doubled its shares in PetroChina. "Tactically, it became clear that mere signatures weren't going to be enough to compel the university to divest," Collins says.

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