Campus shanties protest college investment in S. Africa. Dartmouth student builders hope to pressure trustees

Four shoddy shanties spoil the post-card panorama of the Dartmouth College landscape. But for most people here, the shantytown growing on the campus green is more than just an eyesore. For the Dartmouth Community for Divestment (DCD), which began building the shantytown here more than a week ago to dramatize the plight of black South Africans, it's a device for pressuring college trustees to withdraw the $63.4 million that Dartmouth has invested in companies with South African ties.

For the board of trustees, it's a demonstration that it's right to denounce apartheid but wrong to request full divestment.

For the college administration, however, the shantytown is a rumbling volcano: It's a form of peaceful and laudable dissent at this stage, but it threatens to boil over into the more disruptive civil disobedience that has shaken colleges across the United States this fall.

Since last April, when US pro-divestment groups began what has been the most sustained series of protests since the Vietnam-war era, 12 colleges and universities have either fully divested or made plans to do so. The biggest coup came last month when Columbia University, pressured by a string of demonstrations, decided to move from partial to full divestment over the next two years.

Shantytowns have now popped up on at least 11 college campuses. And in three instances -- at Cornell University, Boston University, and the University of California at Los Angeles -- the administrations have waited for opportune moments to tear down the unsightly shacks.

At Dartmouth, demonstrators feel the shantytown is the next step up from the more traditional protest rallies, because it creates a constant, nagging presence. But so far, the trustees haven't budged from their policy of selective divestment.

As student frustration mounts, administrators -- many of whom were students themselves during the turbulent protests that marked the 1960s -- are acting with the increasingly popular yellow-light response of caution and accommodation.

``I might prefer that the structures not be on the green,'' said Dartmouth president David McLaughlin, ``but that in no way infers a lack of sympathy for their views or the way in which they have been conducting themselves. As long as [the shantytown] is maintained as a center of honest dialogue, we should'' at least join in the spirit of their activities.

``What we learned from the '60s and '70s is that the quick response is not always the best response,'' says associate dean of the college Alvin Richard, noting that the administration today better understands student perspective.

Last week, officials ordered the students to tear the shacks down, but then backed off from their request. It was a wise choice, says the Rev. Kenneth Carstens, an exiled white South African who has organized anti-apartheid protests in New England for over 20 years. ``The administration has to be sure it does not act like the government of South Africa,'' he said after a recent rally. Bulldozing the shanties, he adds, gesturing to the newly built ``Mandela Hall,'' would display a ``similarity of behavio r they are right to perceive and right to avoid.''

College provost Agnar Pytte says the administration ``will not take a position that makes it a we/they situation. Our aim is to keep things as peaceful and nonconfrontational as possible.''

That line is echoed in hallowed university halls throughout the country, though many student protesters see it as a thinly veiled attempt to quell dissent on campus.

At Dartmouth, one student protester says that by applauding the protesters' efforts to educate the community about South Africa, the administration is ``deliberately skirting the divestment issue.''

At Harvard University, which many feel has dragged its feet on the divestment issue, university spokesman David Rosen says the administration is ``increasingly responding [to protest] with accommodation rather than confrontation.''

Harvard students dispute that claim to accommodation. Benjamin Robinson, who had his diploma withheld last year for helping barricade a visiting South African diplomat last spring, scoffed at the revival of a long-dormant disciplinary committee: ``I think the whole aim is to stifle political protest.''

At the University of California at Berkeley, where 138 people were arrested Nov. 6 for occupying an administration building, university officials are trying to ease tensions at protests by replacing police officers with plain-clothed monitors and videotape recorders with detached observers, says spokesman Ray Kolvig.

These steps will certainly ``depolarize demonstrations,'' agrees student body president Pedro Noguera. He says the changes came about only after a student uproar.

College administrations have ``learned to appear open to dissent and debate around the issues,'' says University of Iowa student organizer Joseph Iosbaker. ``But as students move toward a disruption of business as usual, they are cracking down quickly and effectively.''

It remains to be seen what will happen at Dartmouth. Most involved in the protest, like Richard Joseph, an associate government professor, feel that ``students will undoubtedly push that threshold.''

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