“Did you build this?” asked one man.
“Yes, we did,” answered the other.
“Are you going to take it down?”
“No, we’re not going to take it down.”
"Either you take it down, my friend, or we will.”
The year was 1986. Yale University President Bart Giamatti was on his way back to his office from a birthday lunch when he stumbled upon Mike Morand, a student leader of the anti-apartheid movement on campus. With the help of their beloved chaplain, William Sloan Coffin, Morand and other students had built two formidable shanties on Beinecke Plaza, not unlike the ones black South Africans inhabited under the brutal apartheid regime.
“Winny Mandela City,” named for the wife of dissident Nelson Mandela, was the iconic expression of a longer battle waged by students, campus workers, and other local activists to get Yale to divest the reported $300 million it held in companies doing business in South Africa. This sum, put together with New Haven’s recent hosting of the Northeast Anti-Apartheid Conference, garnered Yale international attention. “We would like to thank you, the students and workers of Yale University, for your efforts to isolate the racist regime of South Africa and put pressure on the transnational corporations which have been giving support to that white minority government,” read a message from the African National Congress. “Economic sanctions are our last chance for reasonable, peaceful change in South Africa,” declared Bishop Desmond Tutu. “I call upon the trustees of the Yale Corporation to make the moral decision.”
Yale wouldn’t have been the first institution to cut its ties with the apartheid regime. Already over forty other universities, seventy national and local churches, and a number of municipal and state legislatures (including Connecticut’s) had partially or fully divested. In September of that year, Congress passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act over President Reagan’s veto—the first such foreign policy override in the twentieth century.
But neither Giamatti nor Yale got the message. Though several large protests and scores of arrests kept the students’ shanties alive until 1988, the University hewed to a bankrupt strategy of “constructive engagement” with the South African regime. Before apartheid fell in 1994, Yale never fully withdrew its holdings.
This was the same Yale whom the New York Times once described as “the first university to abandon its role as passive institutional investor.” We should expect Yale and its non-profit peers to rise above the corporate profiteering and partisan plutocracy that control the global economy, and to maintain their exceptional endowments by doing good for the world.
So they can, if students have anything to say about it.
In these heady revolutionary times, students across the country have fought to preserve the public benefits of American schools and universities. At the University of California, 30-plus percent tuition increases and pay raises for millionaire regents have been met with massive student occupations and demonstrations. In Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio, graduate teaching assistants and high school and university students have helped lead fights against school privatization and labor repression. And at Yale and other wealthy universities, irresponsible investment has sparked coordinated action reminiscent of the apartheid era. This time, students have joined in solidarity to push our boards of trustees to stop investing hundreds of millions of endowment funds in HEI Hotels & Resorts.