MIT professor a candidate for Harvard board
By Karen Kaplan
Professor of Political Science Willard R. Johnson has been selected as a candidate for the Harvard Board of Overseers on a pro-South African divestment slate sponsored by the Harvard-Radcliffe Alumni Against Apartheid (HRAAA).
The Board of Overseers is a thirty-member group that advises the Harvard Corporation, although it has no voting power on matters of policy. Members of the Board are elected by Harvard alumni, and this year's results will be announced on Harvard's Commencement Day.
Johnson is one of five nominees on the fifth annual HRAAA slate, which offers an alternative to the candidates in opposition to the Harvard-Radcliffe Alumni Association's official slate of candidates. Other HRAAA candidates include Donald Woods, a journalist who was expelled from South Africa after reporting the death of activist Steven Biko; Boston City Councillor David Scondras; Judy Lieberman, assistant professor of medicine at the Tufts University School of Medicine; and Ruth J. Simmons, provost of Spelman College. Last year, Archbishop Desmond Tutu won a seat on the Board of Overseers after running on the HRAAA slate.
A well-known activist on the issue of divestment from South Africa, Johnson founded TransAfrica, a national anti-apartheid organization, which is "the black lobby on foreign affairs," he said.
At MIT, he sponsored a faculty resolution for divestment from South Africa. But despite its passage, the MIT Endowment for Divestiture is still working for total divestment at MIT.
Johnson earned his undergraduate degree from the University of California, Los Angeles, and a PhD in government from Harvard. He has been a professor in the Department of Political Science at MIT since 1964.
If he wins a seat on the board, Johnson said he would like to see an increase in the number of minorities at Harvard, strengthen the Department of Afro-American studies there, and "maintain the eminence of Harvard."
Robert P. Wolff, executive director of HRAAA, also believed that Johnson's background in African history would be an important asset in an evaluation of Harvard's small African Studies department. Currently, Johnson serves on a visiting committee for the government department at Harvard.
The current policy at Harvard is one of "selective divestment." Under this policy, the University has only divested from companies that refused to adhere to the Sullivan Code, which guarantees equal employment opportunity in South Africa.
Johnson finds this criteria "too narrow." In his view, Harvard should "accept the principle that companies do more harm than good by being [in South Africa]."
Altogether, 155 universities, 83 cities, 25 states, and 19 companies have divested their holdings from South Africa since 1972, when the issue began to gain worldwide attention. Over 150 corporations have pulled out a total of $12-$13 billion in what Johnson called an "enormously successful movement."
Johnson acknowledged that "if Harvard and MIT divest now, it would come at the end of the process" of dismantling apartheid. But he stressed that divestment was still important because "we do not want to be associated as a source of strength with the South African regime."
The recent political events in South Africa were "very, very, very exciting and heartwarming," said Johnson. "I am in awe of the quality of leadership in the black movement," he said. He also praised South African President F.W. De Klerk for acting with "understanding and intelligence."
If things continue to improve in South Africa, the major battle now will be "to prevent the lifting of sanctions prematurely," he said. "The United States is looking for the earliest possible reason to lift sanctions, and we need public pressure to keep them in place," Johnson said. "Harvard and MIT divestments would help this," he added.
Although it may be only "a matter of months before the processes are in place" to create a new, non-racial constitution in South Africa, "it may take years to actually get the full product," Johnson explained.
"As South Africa starts an irreversible process towards reform, we must not put strength back in the hands of the regime," he warned.
Despite accusations that HRAAA candidates have subordinated Harvard's interests for their own political agenda, Johnson felt that his slate had a "one hundred percent chance" of attracting enough votes for election. "Several of us should get in," he said, noting that "the prominence of the South Africa issue helps."