Examining Activist Strategies

Reviewed by Associate Editor Akanksha Ashok

Farris Peale’s Indifference and the Ivory Tower attempts to qualify and explain the strategies of apartheid divestment activists at Harvard and Columbia in the 1980s. These activists pushed the two universities to divest from investments in South Africa that supported apartheid. While Columbia divested fully, Harvard’s partial divestment stands out in stark contrast to Dartmouth, Georgetown and the entire University of California system (which withdrew three billion dollars of investments). By comparing Columbia and Harvard, Peale attempts to understand the gap in the administration’s response to divestment movement, and identify strategies that made complete divestment possible at Columbia.

Peale draws upon interviews and articles in The Harvard Crimson and The Columbia Spectator to construct coherent narratives of student activists and administrative responses. Her analysis suggests that outcomes at Harvard and Columbia were due to the differing structures of the two organizations heading the divestment movement. Harvard’s South African Solidarity Committee (SASC), despite having a democratic and non-hierarchical approach, seems to have been less effective than Columbia for a Free South Africa (CFSA) in persuading administration to divest fully. SASC remained a largely white organization with, as Peale notes, existing racial power structures replicated within. By contrast, CFSA’s more diverse population and prominent South African members made it more credible.

Structural differences aside, CFSA and SASC’s largest difference was a tactical one. CFSA had the distinct advantage of appealing to moderate students through a multistep process of education, appeal to administration through student votes, and eventual protests and barricading. Going through this process gave CFSA a way to cater to a base of moderate students and administration in a way SASC’s anti-administration and association with purely leftist student groups did not. In fact, Peale suggests that SASC ended up alienating a moderately conservative student body that should have otherwise been its broadest support base.

Indifference and the Ivory Tower provides an interesting study of divestment activism. In the context of Columbia and its Boycott, Divest, Sanction (BDS) movements, one may wonder how effective the tactics presented by Peale are. The caveat, however, is that Peale’s research cannot account for administration and their motivations as actors. While Peale acknowledges this and suggests further research in the area, activists and their narratives do not exist separately from their administrations and circumstances. Perhaps a study of the makeup and motivation of Harvard and Columbia’s administration would allow Peale to establish a more causal relationship between CFSA and SASC’s structures and the different outcomes of divestment.

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