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Gray's divestment policy is insulting

Column/Robert E. Malchman


Editor's note: The charge to the Class of 1985 appears on Page 14.

In his commencement charge to the Class of 1985, President Paul E. Gray '54 insulted the graduates by attempting to link his decision not to let MIT be used for propaganda purposes by supporters of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) to his decision not to support university divestment from companies doing business in South Africa.

Gray began his address by correctly noting that government attacks on academic freedom and the free exchange of knowledge should be resisted vigorously by universities. That which directly impinges on a university's self-interest not only deserves, but requires the university's response.

Gray then properly dissociated MIT from support of SDI. The project will fund new research at universities and will take over administration of other already-existing programs.

"The head of the SDI's Office of Innovative Science and Technology has asserted that the participation of university researchers in SDI-funded projects will add prestige and credibility, and will influence the Congress to be more generous in funding for the program," Gray said. "This university will not be so used," he declared later in his speech.

Gray claims, however, that to divest from companies doing business in South Africa is to enter a political debate on social policy, just as it would be to allow SDI proponents to claim MIT supports their program. The two cases are not comparable.

Gray would certainly not deny that MIT can choose whether or not to do SDI research -- or any other research, for that matter. The Institute is not obliged to accept every research offer that comes its way. It will not accept the research if it violates Institute guidelines.

Just as the Institute can decide what research to accept, it can decide in what companies it will invest. The Institute makes its decisions based on the expected return and potential risks of the research or investment, and on the uses to which the company will put the research or investment.

In the SDI case, MIT has made a decision to accept certain research, but will not allow others to impose their interpretation on that decision. Gray can successfully claim that SDI research satisfies MIT's agenda of free scientific enquiry and is therefore not necessarily an endorsement of its political aspects.

In the divestment case, there is no way MIT can avoid making a political decision. It has decided to support companies which do business in South Africa. The direct effect of that decision is to support the South African economy.

To claim that divestment is a political statement, while retention is not, is ridiculous. Maintenance of the status quo does not imply political neutrality, as Gray would have one believe.

To extend Gray's argument, one must presume he would have no qualms if MIT had investments in companies that made drug paraphenalia or produced sexually explicit films.

The Germany of the 1930s and the South Africa of the 1980s are both known for certain objectionable social policies. Gray's remarks suggest that had he been president at the time, he would have as steadfastly refused to divest from companies doing business with Nazi Germany.

He would instead "urge companies ... to comport themselves in ways which improve the status and condition of their ... employees." He would have had as much effect then as he will now.

Gray condemns apartheid, as most everyone else does. His condemnation, however, begins and ends with his hand-wringing. The decision to do nothing is a decision itself. MIT, as a powerful, supposedly ethical institution, must make an institutional decision about what types of companies it will support.

Gray has declared that MIT will support the economy of South Africa. No amount of rhetorical obfuscation can successfully hide that fact.