Black Colleges Slow To Divest From Sudan Smaller Endowments Often Limit Options, School Officials Say
By Michelle S. Keller
Tribune staff reporter
April 25, 2007
Though the movement to divest from Sudan has swept U.S. colleges and universities, historically black colleges have remained on the sidelines of the issue -- until recently.
In recent months, Hampton and Howard Universities divested fully from companies that do business with the African nation, where violence has claimed more than 200,000 lives in the Darfur region.
The decision by two of the nation's most well-known black universities was widely applauded. But their late entrance into the divestment movement, which began at Harvard University in 2004, raises questions about why historically black colleges have been slow to respond to what the U.S. government has deemed genocide in Darfur.
"It unfortunately has not been on the radar screen for many," said Hampton President William R. Harvey. Hampton started the divestment process in July.
African-Americans traditionally have been a reliable lobby for humanitarian and political causes in Africa. But some alumni and university officials say most of the colleges are less likely to divest because they have smaller endowments than their white counterparts.
"Howard University can afford to do it because its endowment is among leading endowments in the country," said Ron Walters, professor of political science at the University of Maryland in College Park. Walters helped spearhead the U.S. anti-apartheid movement in the late 1970s.
But, "You can't ask Fisk University to join the divestment movement when the state of their economic situation is so bad," Walters said. "Those movements are reserved for universities that have the money, that have the valid alternatives. Most of them can afford to follow a social investment strategy."
Fisk University, in Nashville, has about 800 undergraduate students and an endowment of roughly $7.5 million, a spokesman said. By comparison, Howard, sometimes referred to as the "Black Harvard," has an endowment of just under $424 million. Harvard has nearly $29 billion, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers.
A graduate of Morehouse College, Corey Richardson, 28, agrees with Walters.
"You don't have that wide of an alumni base, so the endowments at many of these universities are smaller," said Richardson, a Chicago-based ad agency associate. "We don't have the luxury of being able to say, we won't invest in that mutual fund, even if it has several degrees of separation from companies in Sudan."
Though Walters says many historically black colleges can't afford to divest, Maryland's Bowie State University, with a $4 million endowment, has severed financial ties with companies that do business in Sudan.
Some believe that the divestment movement itself has been strategic in its selection of schools to target.
The Sudan Divestment Task Force "chose schools with large endowments whose divestiture in Sudan would have a greater impact. Schools like Harvard, the California university system, Yale and so on," said Emmett Bradbury, associate professor of philosophy at Chicago State University.
Bradbury believes historically and predominantly black campuses are not part of the Sudan divestment movement "because the movement has yet to come to them," he said.
Conservative climates on campus also have hampered student activism, alumni and scholars said.
Many of the schools were established by religious institutions such as the Southern Baptist or the United Methodist Church, entrenching conservative attitudes on the campuses. Most also are in the South.
"Most of these administrations report to Southern state legislatures," said Martha Biondi, associate professor of African-American studies at Northwestern University. "That produces a very conservative culture among the administrators."
During the civil rights movement, schools in the South that heavily depended on state and federal funding feared being closed if they participated in protests, said Charles Henry, a professor of African-American studies at the University of California at Berkeley.
During the war protests of the late 1960s, students on historically black campuses were more vulnerable to violence from authorities, Biondi said. "The state and local law-enforcement agencies were more likely to invade those campuses."
These conservative attitudes have persisted. Two years ago, Hampton threatened to expel seven students for handing out leaflets -- including information on HIV/AIDS, the crisis in Sudan and the war in Iraq -- in the school center. The Virginia school defended its actions, saying students had not distributed the leaflets in accordance with school code. But several people accused administrators of trying to squelch student activism.
"Usually these schools are 25 to 30 years behind other institutions" in terms of their progressive attitudes, said J. Anthony Clark, a Chicago attorney who graduated from Hampton in 1978. "They tend to be much more conservative than people think."
The Sudan divestment movement started at Harvard, where students persuaded the board of trustees to divest its holdings from PetroChina in 2005.
In 1997, the U.S. government imposed a trade and investment embargo in Sudan. As a result, companies that have been heavily targeted in divestment campaigns are primarily from China.
Soon after Harvard's decision, universities such as Stanford and Yale divested, and states such as Illinois and California have followed suit.
In Illinois, Chicago State University, which is not a historically black university but is predominantly African-American, has not passed an official resolution to divest from Sudan. The United Negro College Fund, an educational assistance fund including 40 private, historically black campuses, has not taken a position on the issue.
Students at historically black institutions say the need to make a living limits their political involvement.
"Many of these students have jobs and are trying to put themselves through school," said Henry, the Berkeley professor. "Many are also the first generation to go to college, so they are going to get a lot of parental pressure to focus on what will get them through school. Protesting is a secondary priority."
At Spelman College, a historically black liberal arts college in Atlanta, junior Sheeba Ema-Nuru said students have been working to raise awareness about Darfur, but the movement has been slow to catch on. Spelman and Morehouse, also in Atlanta, have not divested.
"It's not that students don't care," said Ema-Nuru, 20. "A lot of the students have the mentality that I will help when I can, but right now, I cannot."
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Until recently, historically black campuses have not been a big part of the movement to divest from Sudan. Many of them have small endowments and do not have the flexibility to be more selective with their investments.
For fiscal year 2005
Harvard University:$28.62 billion
Yale University:$17.95 billion
Stanford University:$14.08 billion
Historically black colleges
Howard University: $423.9 million
Spelman College: $291.6 million
Hampton Univ.: $217.5 million
Morehouse College:$121.0 million
Fisk University: $7.5 million
Bowie State Univ.:$4.0 million
Source: Council for Aid to Education
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