The Moral Politics of Divestment: South Africa, the Anti-apartheid Movement, and American Higher Education in the 1980s

Saturday, January 5, 2019: 10:50 AM
Water Tower Parlor (Palmer House Hilton)
David Busch, Carnegie Mellon University
This paper examines the rise of anti-Apartheid activism on college campuses in the 1980s in relation to a top-down public service effort led by the presidents of Brown, Georgetown, and Stanford universities. Anti-apartheid student activists developed a public awareness campaign that mobilized students and pushed American colleges and universities to think critically about the morality of their investment and policy decisions. In contrast, the Campus Compact effort pushed a conception of service, engagement, and volunteerism that emphasized charity and the benefits of “doing good” in the community. The convergence of the two points to a key tension within the modern university: university presidents were willing to expand an apolitical volunteerism in higher education, but pushed back against the explicit moral politics exemplified by anti-apartheid student activists. Anti-apartheid activism and administration responses represent both the possibilities and limits of the university as an institution for social change. Student activists, on the one hand, exemplify the best of the university and how it equips students to critically analyze society. Institutional responses, on the other hand, bring to light how the university sets limits on what’s appropriate and inappropriate forms of citizenship.