Faculty Views on Divestment: Against General Divestment


Nassau Weekly Article (12/12/85)

By Randy Schoenberg

“There is a consistent pattern to the moral utterings of academicians,” says Uwe Reinhardt. “They tend to be vacuous.” Reinhardt, a professor of Economics at the Woodrow Wilson School, echoes the sentiment of many faculty members who opposed the motion for general divestment from companies which operate in South Africa. He disagrees with the claim of divestment advocates that the faculty and the University have a responsibility to set a moral example. “We don’t impart high moral values,” he says. “We remind you of them. We do not lead. We are not moral beacons. I think that’s quite all right. I admire the faculty for its expertise, and I personally feel it’s enough. But beacons or guides for moral conduct we are not.”

Says Marion Levy, “I don’t think the University builds character. I don’t hear people out in society say that we are a moral beacon.” Levy believes that the purpose of the University is embodies in creation, preservation, and transmission of knowledge. “As a matter of values,” he says, “I think knowledge and the University are ends in themselves.”


Henry Bienen, who specializes in African political economics, argues against the politicization of the University in opposing general divestment. “The people who are for it,” says Bienen, “their aim is to politicize the University. The aim of general divestment is to take political stands. Having the University act as a political policy actor is something I don’t like.” Levy agrees, “If we simply become another political forum, we won’t be effective, and we’ll wreck the University.”

The faculty vote disturbed Seymour Bogdonoff of the Mechanical Engineering Department. “I am very worried about the political implications of the vote. I resent being placed in a position of having the University take a political position, even one supported by a majority of the faculty, because it binds me in a political sense.” Like Levy, Bogdonoff believes that the University should not act politically as an institution. “I do not agree with the premise,” Bogdonoff says, “That the faculty should take a political position. I object to that. The University is a place where individuals take stands as individuals. We’re the wrong kind of institution to do this.”


Robert Tignor of the History Department believes that the University should take some sort of action, but feels that politicization is a problem. “The University shouldn’t be taking lots of political stances,” he says. “Hopefully, we won’t be polled on this and that.” Levy believes members of the faculty who support general divestment are inconsistent in their condemnations of international injustice. “The same people who are so excited about this issue,” he says, “never said anything about Cambodia—not one of these people ever mentioned that.”

Bienen feels that failing to divest is not a political statement. “I don’t believe that not divesting is as political as divesting,” he says. The University depends on industry and the government, Bogdonoff says, and must necessarily interact with them regardless of politics. “We consider ourselves a private university,” he says, “but we’re not. We couldn’t be a university without government and industry support.”

Boycott v. Divestment

Most of the anti-divestment sentiment stems from a strong conviction of the complete failure of divestment, both as a moral gesture and as a tool for reform in South Africa. Reinhardt argues that there are three facets of a corporation: the operations (products), stocks and bonds, and assets (buildings, machinery). To show a corporation that the University is displeased, it must affect one or more three areas. An institution like Princeton cannot readily affect a corporation’s assets, but it can manipulate stocks, bonds, and products. “The thing with stocks and bonds,” he says, “is that if you didn’t buy them, you can be sure someone else will. If you hurt a corporation through their operating pipe, there they will not find another buyer. If you wanted to hurt a corporation, you should boycott its product. Divestment would be the last thing you would think of.”:

Levy gives IBM as an example of a company which would be affected by a boycott. “If you really want to hurt IBM, don’t turn over the influence to people less concerned than you are. Stop buying their machines. Don’t use their typewriters, computer and programs.” Reinhardt agrees, “By buying and using their machines, we are facilitating IBM’s marketing program.”

Bienen sees an inherent contradiction in divesting from companies like IBM. He adds, “ I think people have slipped over these issue. You can’t say divest and solicit gifts.”

Einhardt also points to the University’s relationship with IBM. “How can it be moral and decent,” he asks, “to own IBM equipment but say that company is too soiled for us to own their stock? How can you write a petition [as the faculty resolution in favor of divestment] on an IBM/PC?” Levy notes that two of the strongest supporters of the divestment movement are in the Religion Department, which has been given a considerable grant from IBM. “There has been no movement to demand that they reject those funds,” Levy asserts. “They want the University to divest, but they haven’t asked their own department. Apparently divestment, like charity, frequently does not begin at home.”

Selective Divestment

Selective divestment was not discussed at the meeting after the original resolution succeeded. “I felt that those in favor of total divestment should have the ability to discuss their measure,” says Tignor. Unlike Levy, Reinhardt, Bienen and Bogdonoff, Tignor was not unhappy with the approved resolution. “If I had thought that the [general divestment] resolution would win, even have a fair chance not to be defeated resoundingly, I would have sat back and said, ‘Sure. Let’s go!’ ”

Bienen is an ardent supporter of selective divestment. “There will be companies,” he says,”that one would not want to hold share in, morally.” He proposes a three-point decision-making procedure whereby corporations could be judged on a case-by-case basis. Under this plan, the University would choose to divest for any of the following three reasons: one, making equipment which is directly used for repression; two, not responding to inquiry by the University; and three, not abiding by the Sullivan principles, guidelines for fair employment practices. “Selective divestment is a very different view,” Bienen says, “with different implications and motives. It has some problems, but they are a different order of magnitude [from total divestment].”

Levy entirely rejects selective divestment. “What I say applies as much to the watered-down alternative amendment,” he states. Levy considers any form of divestment as inappropriate moral posturing by the University.

Reactions to the student activism which occurred last spring were mixed. “The Coalition did a super job,” says Tignor. “The 270 [faculty] signatures were really generated by their enthusiasm.” Levy, however, feels that the students efforts could have been better spent lobbying in Washington. “I think the students are wrong,” he says. “The University is not where they should be spending their interests. When the weather turns wonderful, the demonstrations start. I don’t take them very seriously.” Bogdonoff disagrees with the stance that the student activists have taken, but thinks that their involvement is important. “I approve of student activism. It gets out hand once in a while, but I’m much more for active students than apathy.”

Reinhardt believes that more could be done to reform corporations by buying stock. “I think you should not divest,” he says, “but buy more stock, combine with like-minded institutions and mutual fund managers, go to stockholders’ meetings and throw your weight around.” He says that while Princeton by itself may not have more than 2% of a corporation’s stock, the entire Ivy League may hold a significant block, enough to dictate a change in company policy. Bogdonoff agrees, “I think that you ought to increase your investment in South Africa, not divest. This gesture of divestment may make people feel good for a moment, but I don’t understand how it will help.”

“Empty Gesture”

The whole question of what the faculty vote was intended to accomplish bothers most of these professors. Bogdonoff sees it as an empty and inconsistent gesture. “This business of making these gestures from the University point of view is bad,” he argues, “because there are many, many issues which are just as bad as South Africa.”

Reinhardt sees the faculty discussion in a more cynical light. “It’s even cheaper than smoking pot. They just engage in afternoons of exquisite rhetoric.” He also points out how ineffectual the vote was as a moral gesture or symbolic act. “The New York Times and Wall Street Journal did not even pick it up. If the faculty had decided to boycott it would have been covered by the Wall Street Journal. I find it very significant that the world took no notice of Princeton’s moral chirping.”

Levy also complained about the emptiness of the faculty’s gesture, “It was a cheap, costless gesture. What they would have loved is front page coverage in the New York Times. If they had indicated a willingness to bear the cost of their actions, that would have made the Times. The faculty is conspicuous in making such gestures as long as they are costless to the faculty concerned.” At the meeting, Levy suggested that the faculty offer a cut in salaries to support the costs of divestment, if any. The suggestion was ignored by the proponents of the divestment resolution. Bogdonoff explained the futility of Levy’s attempt, “It’s hard to get them to say that they’ll take less of anything to make this happen.”

All of the professors interviewed expect the Trustees to brush off the faculty recommendation and proceed with selective divestment as outlined in Bienen and Tignor’s resolution. Reinhardt feels that, as businessmen, the Trustees act more responsibly than the faculty which he characterizes as childish. “I have more faith in the moral convictions of the Trustees because,” he says, “they are businessmen, constantly assaulted by temptation and moral problems.” Bogdonoff has little respect for the faculty in this area as well. “Most members of the faculty,” he says, ­­“are totally irresponsible when it comes to questions of finances. They do not think through decisions which have long-term impacts, and which might affect faculty and students for generations to come.”

Reinhardt sees many other positive actions which the faculty could take if they were willing to sacrifice something for oppressed South Africans. A surtax on salaries could support scholarships to students and leaders in exile. In 1979 the faculty decided to sponsor fellowships for disadvantaged South Africans. This action was quickly forgotten, as Levy reveals, “In the six years since then, one graduate fellowship was given (and later abandoned), and four or five undergraduate scholarships. Only one of the supporters [of the 1979 resolution] ever even inquired about the fellowships. I don’t take such people seriously.” As for the faculty and its influence on the rest of the world, Reinhardt offers this analysis: “Academia is set up to keep faculty members in a perennial state of infancy or adolescence. Society presumably says we’re just like children. By and large I think the world just smiles at us.”

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