WHEN Robert Wolfe took over Harvard-Radcliffe Alumni Against Apartheid (HRAAA) last year, funds were low and spirits lower. Then, Mr. Wolfe got an idea. After several phone calls to South Africa he had an answer: Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize winner and highest ranking Anglican Church official in South Africa, would run for the Harvard Board of Overseers on the 1989 HRAAA slate. The archbishop's decision to run for the board reflects his belief that Harvard's divestment would make headlines and could change minds. ``If Harvard divests, there's no telling who would follow. ... Harvard could bring all sorts of institutions with it,'' says Archbishop Tutu. Only Harvard alumni are eligible for election; Tutu qualifies because he received an honorary degree in 1979.
The annual election is taking place now; the five winning candidates will be announced at June commencement. The 30-member Board of Overseers has advisory power on issues facing the university. Traditionally, university officials nominated the candidates. Four years ago, however, the first HRAAA candidate was elected. Tutu is one of 15 candidates, including Elizabeth Dole, secretary of labor; John Lithgow, the actor; and Paul Kirk, former chairman of the Democractic National Committee.
If elected, Tutu promises to lobby the university to divest the $230 million - 5 percent of Harvard's $4 billion endowment - still invested in companies that do business in South Africa. Over the last 10 years Harvard has divested the same amount. Rejecting total divestment, Harvard favors selective divestment only when the university has been unable to persuade companies to help black South Africans.
The election is fast becoming a partisan issue, though Harvard officials say it shouldn't be. Professor of government Harvey Mansfield points a finger at HRAAA for politicizing the process. ``Harvard is being dragged into this by a group less interested in apartheid than in using the university as an engine for their left-wing politics,'' he says, cautioning that if Tutu wins, Harvard will be open to pressure by conservative causes as well.
Stanley Hoffman, professor of government, counters that ``it's naive to believe that Harvard is an ivory tower, above politics.''
The university recently created a special committee on divestment composed of members of the Board of Overseers along with faculty and students. After five months of study, the body urged continuation of Harvard's longstanding policies, concluding in its report that ``divestment precludes the opportunity for continuing influence; shares sold by Harvard may be bought by investors [who are] less concerned with ethical considerations.''
The committee also opposed divestment on financial grounds, maintaining that ``by every measure ... divestment would have cost Harvard money,'' - as much as $39 million over the past three years.
But HRAAA sharply disagrees. Robert Zevin, a board candidate and economist with Boston's US Trust Company, oversees $1.2 billion of funds, half of which has been divested. ``We have found no measurable difference between the performance of South Africa-free portfolios and others. If anything, they've done better in recent years because they contain fewer of the large companies that have underperformed the stock market,'' he says.
The university and HRAAA agree on one thing: American companies will continue withdrawing from South Africa. Harvard hopes to use its corporate proxy power to make that transition beneficial to black South Africans.
But Tutu and HRAAA say any policy that rejects total, immediate divestment is not enough. They believe that when the ballots are counted in June, the majority of the 160,000 voting alumni will agree.