Time Capsule: Colleges Debate South Africa Divestment

Between 1985 and 1986, a campaign to divest from companies doing business in apartheid-era South Africa took hold across the nation. Now, 27 years later, the 5Cs are taking inspiration from the movement’s strategy in their fossil fuel divestment campaign.

Trustees at both Pitzer College and Claremont Graduate University were the only colleges among the 7Cs to divest from companies doing business in South Africa, according to a May 15, 1986 article in the Los Angeles Times. Pitzer divested $2.1 million from its stock portfolios, about 20 percent of Pitzer’s total investments. In particular, Pitzer divested from “blue-chip” companies like IBM, AT&T, and U.S. Steel.

“I’m very happy about the process,” said James Lehman, then-assistant professor of economics at Pitzer, who chaired the ad hoc committee. Lehman is now emeritus professor of economics at Pitzer.

“It seemed to be thoroughly grounded in the community, and it reflects a widely held sentiment that some kind of statement needed to be made by the college as a body,” he said.

Then-Pitzer President Frank Ellsworth said divestment made a limited impact financially, but was significant as a political and moral action.

In a Feb. 7, 1987 article in TSL, Dave Fratello wrote, “Actually divesting was easy from the point of view of trustees. Pitzer’s investment company simply deleted the more than 20 offending corporations from the college’s long portfolio and reinvested the money in other stocks.”

The article also mentioned that Pitzer’s profits would be unlikely to change as a result of the divestment.

CGU divested 10 percent of its $37 million portfolio but maintained support of three companies (American Home Products, General Motors, and IBM), which accounted for six percent of its total investments, according to the LA Times.

Claremont McKenna College had assigned a committee to study the issue in 1985 and reported that the Board of Trustees would make a decision in June of 1986. Pomona College, Harvey Mudd College, and Scripps College had no plans to divest.

Then-Pomona President David Alexander opposed divestment because it would cause the school to lose influence at the companies in which the school was invested. In 1986, Pomona had $7 million of its $100 million endowment invested in companies working in South Africa, according to an article in TSL from Nov. 14, 1986.

“As long as we hold our shares we can continue to state our views,” Alexander said in the Nov. 14 article. “As soon as we sell that stock we lose the ability to speak.”

While Alexander acknowledged that there were valid moral reasons for divestment, he said he believed that divestment would not cause disinvestment in South Africa, meaning that if Pomona were to divest from companies doing business in South Africa, other investors would replace Pomona, and the companies would not be affected.

“I think divestment is a cop out,” Alexander said in an interview conducted by TSL for the Feb. 6, 1987 issue.

On Dec. 15, a group of Pomona students erected a “shanty dorm” across from President Alexander’s house, calling for divestment from companies working in South Africa, according to the 1987 issue.

The same week, TSL polled students about whether Pomona should divest from companies that supported South Africa. Seventy percent said yes, 23 percent said no, and 7 percent gave no answer. When asked, “Would you participate in activities to support divestment?” 46 percent said yes, 46 percent said no, and 8 percent gave no answer.

Protest organizer Kevin Gardner said, “If people think about [the issue of divestment], maybe they’ll develop some sort of opinion and act on it, whether pro- or con-divestment.”

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