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Into the Archives: Apartheid Divestment, part II

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Last CJ issue, I wrote about an exchange between 1985 Swarthmore grad Perry Chang and then-president David Fraser about the college’s policy on divestment from Apartheid. This week, I’d like to dig a little into what that process actually looked like.

Before the college came to the decision to divest in 1986, it adhered to the “Sullivan Principles,” a set of rules enacted by an African-American minister Leon Sullivan on the board of General Motors. GM was one of the largest employers of black South-Africans in Apartheid South Africa. The principles, which were originally created in 1977 and slightly amended in 1984, were as follows:

  1. Non-segregation of the races in all eating, comfort, and work facilities.
  2. Equal and fair employment practices for all employees.
  3. Equal pay for all employees doing equal or comparable work for the same period of time.
  4. Initiation of and development of training programs that will prepare, in substantial numbers, blacks and other nonwhites for supervisory, administrative, clerical, and technical jobs.
  5. Increasing the number of blacks and other nonwhites in management and supervisory positions.
  6. Improving the quality of life for blacks and other nonwhites outside the work environment in such areas as housing, transportation, school, recreation, and health facilities.
  7. Working to eliminate laws and customs that impede social, economic, and political justice.

Eventually, however, the principles came under fire as perpetuating an inherently oppressive system, as opposed to ending it.

On December 7, 1985, 41 students and one member of the faculty sat-in on the the Board of Manager’s meeting to protest the college’s policy of continued investment in companies doing business in South Africa. In a Board of Managers document from March 3, 1986 — the day divestment was finally agreed-upon by the Board — titled “Background on Swarthmore College, Endowment and Divestment of South African-Related Stock” outlined the process of the college’s transition from the Sullivan principles to divestment.

“They ringed the room, made brief speeches and then sat on the floor. Board Chairman Eugene Lang told them that the meeting would not be conducted in their presence. Discussions failed to resolve the impasse, and at 12:30 p.m. the meeting was adjourned,” the document read.

On December 11, 1985, students conducted a similar sit-in, this time in president David Fraser’s office.

“At noon on Wednesday, December 11 , 1985, 6 students entered President David Fraser’s office for a sit-in, although the President was out of the country for three weeks. The students demanded total divestment of stocks in companies doing business in South Africa, increased efforts to recruit black students, increased efforts to recruit black faculty, and the appointment of black faculty to important committee and professional positions. Between 3 and 40 students rotated in the President’s office for the next nine days, leaving the office on December 19 around 3 p.m.,” the document continued.

From student, alumni, and social pressure — as exhibited by Chang’s letter and many others — the college eventually decided to pursue full divestment.

As of the day the college finally divested,  $42.5 million of the college’s $195 million endowment was invested in 41 companies doing a fraction of their business in South Africa. However, this number had been decreasing for a while.

“Under the direction of the Board of Managers, the College has monitored its investments since 1978. To date, Swarthmore has sold over $3 million of South African-related stock, in four separate divestments. ln each case, the Board advised its investment counselors to sell the stock because the companies involved did not convince the College that they were conforming to the Sullivan Principles, which set forth goals for the equal treatment of workers of all races,” the document continued.  

In a memo dated that same day, Vice President and Treasurer of the board Loren Hart announced the board’s decision to fully divest.

“At the meeting on Saturday, March 1, the Board of Managers decided to move toward total divestment of stock in companies which do business in South Africa following a plan to be presented at the May meeting of the Board. Since the plan is not yet developed, we cannot now estimate precisely the impact of divestment on the endowment and, hence, on endowment income available for next year’s budget,” Hart wrote.

Hart and other board members were concerned with the impact of divestment on the community as a whole.

“This uncertainty, combined with the Board’s considerable concern the large amount of endowment income we need to balance next year’s budget, has forced us to cut next year’s budget by $300,000 (1%) from the amount previously discussed,” Hart continued. “The cost is to be borne approximately equally by the whole community: from faculty and staff, in Iower than expected compensation; from students, in lower financial aid; in lower departmental budgets; and lower major maintenance expenditures.”

Indeed, while the decision to divest had much support, it was not without setbacks. According to a letter from Ken Landis ’48, former Vice President, by April of 1988 the college had lost $1,300,000 in its efforts to divest.

“If extrapolated, this would mean total divestment would cause the College to lose each year the price of building a new Performing Arts Center or twice the cost of running our financial aid program,” Landis wrote to 1982 alum Dana Lyons.

The college crafted a plan to manage the losses over time, but it also emphasized that the goal was not to extend the losses for generations.

“The Board has consístently expressed its concern that future generations at swarthmore not bear the costs from divesting. We now deduct 300,000 from the operating budget each year — to cover losses incurred by this process. Thus, it is the current students, parents, faculty, and staff who are shouldering the financial responsibility for the change,” Landis wrote in another letter in 1989 to two alums.

It’s true, the students of the time did shoulder the financial responsibility for the charge. But they did also enjoy the moral responsibility of pressuring their own institution to help undermine an explicitly racist regime. By 1991, a year after the college fully divested, Apartheid was over — at least in a codified sense.

Desmond Tutu said of Apartheid,

In South Africa, we could not have achieved our freedom and just peace without the help of people around the world, who through the use of non-violent means, such as boycotts and divestment, encouraged their governments and other corporate actors to reverse decades-long support for the Apartheid regime.”

That’s a legacy of which Swat should be proud of being a part. Sacrifices were made, from an institutional point of view; faculty and staff took pay cuts, financial aid took a hit, projects were not enacted. But the sacrifices did work, and the success of Apartheid divestment serves as a reminder that collective action and institutional accountability is not only possible, but powerful.

Into the Archives: a correspondence on divestment

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On June 17, 1985, recent alum Perry Chang wrote a handwritten note to then-president of the College David Fraser. The note read:

“Dear President Fraser: I would be interested to receive a response to the letter I handed to you at Commencement. I have enclosed a copy of that letter, which I helped draft. Hope you are having a pleasant summer. Sincerely, Perry Chang.”

The letter enclosed, written by Chang and a few other students who had graduated in 1985, was a call for divestment from companies doing business in South Africa under Apartheid.

“Many of us wear armbands today to remind both College officials and our friends, family, teachers, and fellow students about the deteriorating situation in South Africa and what role the College might play in improving the situation … during the past four years at Swarthmore we have become more and more familiar — through films, course work, symposiums, and even late-night discussions — with the apartheid system of South Africa,” Chang and others wrote.

They then urged President Fraser to take two specific actions. First, to contact the College’s Ad Hoc Committee on Ethics and Investments, created a the year prior, and urge them to support a new provision. This provision reconsidered the College’s policy since 1978, which established that the College would maintain investments in South Africa as long as they followed the “Sullivan Principles,” which the Swarthmore Anti-Apartheid committee considered to be a cover for companies wanting to stay in South Africa. The second thing the students urged was for Fraser to publicly support the proposed Anti-Apartheid Act of 1985 being considered by Congress.

“We believe the time is ripe for action on the apartheid issue,” the last paragraph of the letter reads. “In South Africa, things grow worse every day. Over here, the “Free South Africa” gains steam, in college campuses and in the halls of Congress. Both the situation in South Africa and the movement here cry out for us to act now. As students here for the past four years, we have waited patiently as the College has put this issue through the slow mechanism of its formal committees. We are running out of patience.”

Chang and others ended with a concrete consequence for the college if it did not divest.

And we suspect that, should the Ethics and Investments Committee effort go nowhere over the summer, next year many of us will likely support the establishment of an “alternative endowment” — a pool of alumni contributions which will not be released to the College until it divests — and younger students who remain at Swarthmore will likely lose faith in the College’s established mechanism for change and opt for a different mechanism. The time for you and the College to act is now.”  

On June 28, 1985, President Fraser sent a letter back to Chang. In his letter, he outlined his dismay for the situation.

“Dear Perry: I welcome the chance to make a personal reply to the letter that you and your classmates gave to Gene Lang and me during the Commencement ceremonies. In the letter you raise important issues of what the College’s and our government’s responses should be to the dreadful system of legislated racism that was built up in South Africa forty or fifty years ago, and continues largely in place despite some recent marginal improvements … The College wrestles with a variely of issues including whether it should be a locus of debate or a debator, whether to use its investments as a polítical or moral statement would compromise its fiduciary responsibilities, and how the College might use its investments most efficiently in effecting change in South Africa.”

Fraser also outlined recent discussions in Washington on Apartheid.

“I spent Wednesday in Washington with a group of college and university presidents debating these issues and cross examining Senator Paul Sarbanes and Assistant Secretary of State Chester Crocker (who have, as I suspect you know, markedly differing views). Crocker argues that the oppression of blacks ín South Africa is lessening, and that our leverage is greater if we are ‘constructively engaged,’ and that forces are already in place that will lead to the dismantling of apartheid in the relatively near future. I find myself unconvinced that our engagement has cause much improvement in the situation of blacks in South Africa, because I do not see that the situation has improved much. I have a harder time judging the validity of his assertion that things will now improve fairly rapidly — I worry that the Botha government is changing things about as quickly as the Afrikaners will permit and that in the present climate only revolution will bring rapid change.”

Despite this, Fraser explained that he was not personally yet convinced that the College would do better to follow total divestment, and that he looked to the committee of guidance. He did accept the second demand, and publicly expressed support for the passage of the Anti-Apartheid Act of 1985, however warning that this did not commit the college itself to a particular stand.

In 1986, the Anti-Apartheid Act passed in congress and the College board of managers reached a decision to proceed toward full divestment. Full divestment was reached in 1990. Apartheid legislation in South Africa was outlawed in 1991.

The process, though, was a long and halting one; Chang and President Fraser’s exchange is a mere slice. Next issue, I’ll outline the actual process of the College’s progress toward apartheid divestment.

In many ways, this process can be seen as analogous to the current movement for divestment from fossil fuels: in April of 1985, before the Committee came to a decision, the College held a referendum in which 79% of the students who voted called for total divestment to replace the Sullivan principles. Mountain Justice held a similar referendum last year. Then and now, divestment is no easy process — hoops must be jumped through; drawbacks must be considered. Even so, morality in investment has been a question the College has been struggling with for decades and will, I predict, for years to come.


*Chang and Fraser’s letters are courtesy of the Friend’s Historical Library

Into the Archives Column: The Beginning

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If you’re researching Swat on the internet, the first sentence on the “about” page of its website reads:

“Since its founding in 1864, Swarthmore College has given students the knowledge, insight, skills, and experience to become leaders for the common good.”

As students on campus, descriptions like this of the college can seem largely rhetorical. Swarthmore has a long, long history of progressivism and social justice, but with our large workloads and busy schedules, it’s easy to feel detached from our place within the institution as a whole. I stumbled upon random facts about the college’s history last year — Albert Einstein spoke here; Nirvana played here; the FBI investigated students and faculty here — and thought it’d be interesting to look further into the narrative that the school’s history itself creates. I’m hoping to raise my own (and potentially our collective) consciousness, to help us appreciate our place in historical time and be better equipped to hold the college accountable to its promises of the past. With that in mind, I’m going into the archives: this week, to the beginning.

Swarthmore was officially authorized to become a college on April 1, 1864. In its authorization, the Pennsylvania Senate and House of Representatives approved Swarthmore College “to establish and maintain a school and college for the purpose of importing to persons of both sexes knowledge in the various branches of science, literature, and the arts.”

However, the process of founding Swarthmore was begun even earlier, around 1860, by a group of Hicksite Quakers in the Philadelphia area, who placed great emphasis on community building and were ‘liberal’ even for Quakers. (They split from more Orthodox quakers as the other group moved away from women leading services and focused more on material possessions than “common people.”) The Hicksites met in Philadelphia, New York, and Baltimore to discuss the starting of a Hicksite college; one of their main goals was coeducation, highly uncommon for the time. (For comparison, Yale didn’t become co-ed until 1969.)

Apart from the general Hicksite Quaker goals, the main proponents of the school themselves were visionaries of the time. One such person was Benjamin Hallowell (sound familiar?), the man who wrote the first pamphlet advocating the creation of the college. He was a conscientious objector in the War of 1812, and eventually became the president of the University of Maryland — only on the condition that he serve without a salary and the school’s farm not use slave labor. There were initially conversations about what kind of school Swarthmore should be; some Quakers wanted a grammar school, another a school to train other Quakers, but Hallowell wanted more out of the proposed school. He wrote in a letter to future president Edward Parrish “The Institution must, from its commencement, possess faculties for pursuing a liberal and extensive course of study … equal to that of the best Institutions of learning of our Country” (Swarthmore Bulletin).

Along with Hallowell was Lucretia Coffin Mott, a Hicksite Minister — Hicksites encouraged women leading religious services — as well as a leading abolitionist and suffragist of the 19th century. Mott devoted her life not only to these causes, but also “to the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, school and prison reforms, temperance, peace, and religious tolerance” (Swarthmore College, A Brief History). Her home was a stop on the Underground Railroad, and she even received a nomination for United States Vice President in 1848, long before the 19th amendment was even on the horizon.

Hallowell and Mott were a few noteworthy proponents, but the creation of the college included a vast variety of people who adhered to Quaker values: from wealthy businessmen, to abolitionists, to former professors at West Point.

The name “Swarthmore” was actually coined in 1863 by Hallowell’s wife Margaret, who wanted to name the school after a historical house in England called “Swarth moor” the home of another Margaret, Margaret Fell, who dedicated her life to the Quaker movement and was a strong proponent of the right of women to speak freely and be leaders, even in religious contexts. As early as the mid 1660s, Fell wrote in her book Women’s Speaking” that the ministry of women was “Justified, Proved, and Allowed of by the Scriptures” (Swarthmore: A Brief History).

From the land for which it was named, to the people who decided on its inception, to the very sect of Quakerism from which the College was conceived, Swat’s beginnings are permeated with progress. The founders had a vision of a school that transcended the societal expectations of the time; one can only wonder how that vision has evolved. How have we translated this original outlook into our present?

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