Harvard Divests

Harvard Divests

Students succeed in making the university pull out of a Chinese oil company funding slaughter in Sudan.


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.

“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.”

* * *

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.

Matt Mahan is not the sort of person the mind conjures up when trying to imagine Harvard’s student-body president. The product of a Jesuit high school with a strong emphasis on social justice, Mahan was not content to limit his influence to putting more frozen yogurt machines in dining halls. A committed activist who had been outspoken in support of janitors’ rights and the fight against global AIDS, Mahan had drawn the ire of various members of the student government who believed the president’s role was to improve student life.

Mahan’s involvement with the Darfur campaign began during the 2004 graduation ceremony, where Kofi Annan served as keynote speaker. Mahan e-mailed thousands of students and alumni and urged them to participate in a rally calling for the United Nations–which had not yet labeled the situation a genocide–to act. When Mahan returned the following fall for his senior year and second term as president, he attempted to pass a student-body resolution calling for divestment, but he was disappointed when the bill received no support.

In February Mahan became a vocal leader in the divestment campaign. Furious that Harvard had doubled its PetroChina holdings, Mahan called Brandon Terry, president of the Black Men’s Forum. In an open letter in the Crimson, Mahan and Terry called for seniors to boycott Senior Gift, the annual endowment drive in which students are expected to begin the cycle of “giving back” to Harvard. “As we approach graduation and grapple with what our legacy to this University will be, we must question if continued inaction will place us on the wrong side of history,” the letter read. “This is a crucial opportunity to show that we are leaders for a more just world, and will not tolerate our money and name being complicit in genocide.”

The letter caused immediate controversy, and after some consideration, Mahan and Terry modified their plan to create Senior Gift Plus (www.seniorgiftplus.com). Under this plan, if Harvard did not divest, student donations would go directly to the Carr Center for Human Rights at the Kennedy School. But even Senior Gift Plus was too abrasive for a large portion of the Harvard community. Mahan believes that the entrenched power of the Senior Gift Committee–whose members had been prepped for months by university officials to act as, essentially, flacks for the university–was responsible for much of the negative reaction. “What made it tough,” Mahan explains, “is that there were 150 Senior Gift collectors who had roommates and friends behind them. Meanwhile, many members of the Senior Gift Committee were also Crimson editors, one of whom wrote the opinion piece coming out against us. It was a very underhanded and politically savvy operation.”

But Mahan’s presence and the Senior Gift controversy generated just the kind of media buzz Collins and Bhatnagar were hoping for in the wake of their campaign’s setback. Thousands of students were visiting the Senior Gift Plus website, and hundreds more signed the petition. Mahan began devoting all of his time to the campaign. “I was working on this eight hours a day. I couldn’t go to class, couldn’t work on my thesis,” he says. “We were having meetings at 10 or 11 at night, and thirty people would show up. This kind of enthusiasm was unprecedented in my experience at Harvard.”

At the campaign’s peak, leaders of forty-five different student groups had signed on in support of Senior Gift Plus and divestment. Not only had Harvard’s progressive community–which, Mahan says, is generally quite fragmented–come together but conservative students, many of them from Christian student groups, had joined the fold as well. Collins was amazed by the coalition. “It really hit me that this was a unique convergence of student groups,” he says. “I think it really speaks to the transcendent moral power of the issue. This is an easy one–a genocide everyone knows about–and there was a concrete way to fight it.”

In March the United Front for Divestment (UFFD)–a newly formed coalition of every student group engaged in the campaign–learned that the Harvard Corporation’s Committee of Shareholder Responsibility would be holding a meeting on April 4.

The UFFD immediately began organizing a demonstration to be held outside the meeting, and members knocked on virtually every undergrad’s door to drum up support. On the morning of the meeting, the first day back from spring break, UFFD members marched into Harvard’s residential dining halls. Lawrence Adjah, the president of the Black Students’ Association, boomed out a heartfelt message summoning other students to join the protest. By the time they reached Harvard Yard, around 300 students, dressed head to toe in black, stood in silence as the shareholder meeting took place.

At 10:30 AM, as the meeting commenced, the Harvard Corporation released an online statement: The university was planning to sell its PetroChina shares. “This decision reflects deep concerns about the grievous crisis that persists in the Darfur region of Sudan,” the statement read. “Oil is a critical source of revenue and an asset of paramount strategic importance to the Sudanese government, which has been found to be complicit in what the US Congress and US State Department have termed ‘genocide.’ ”

When Adjeh read the announcement out loud, the students rejoiced, and several of them broke down in tears. But some, like Mahan, were concerned that their demands had not been fully met. “It was a beautiful moment to see the promise of collective action realized,” says Mahan, “but I began to wonder, What about the other companies?” He stresses that until Harvard discloses all of its Sudan-related investments and makes a commitment to divest from those as well, the divestment campaign will continue.

Harvard’s divestment from PetroChina is nonetheless a major and unprecedented victory. Samantha Power said it was “the first week that anything tangible has been done that would cause the Sudanese government to think twice about their genocidal campaign.” And coming from Harvard, with its immense symbolic stature, the decision to divest could cause a “snowball effect” at universities across America. Movements are already progressing at Boston College, Boston University, NYU, the University of Pennsylvania, Stanford, Swarthmore, Tufts, Williams and Yale, and Harvard’s organizers are being flooded with e-mail inquiries from activists eager to launch their own campaigns.

Back at Harvard, divestment activists are extending the fight beyond the university. The next step is to convince states to divest from the hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of Sudan-related stocks held in public pension funds. The website of this national campaign, started by students from Williams College working with Harvard activists–www.sudandivestment.com–prominently displays the message: “If not us, who? If not now, when?”

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