On October 19, 1978, 249 students bearing placards that read “Stop NU Apartheid Connection” staged a demonstration in Ell Hall. Their demand was simple: Divest the University’s holdings from companies that do business in in Apartheid South Africa. After seven years of sustained pressure, law students were allowed to present before the Northeastern University Board of Trustees on the issue of divestment. By all accounts, the presentation was a success, as the board soon began to explore divestment options.
President Ryder and the Board of Trustees were initially hesitant to commit to divestment, arguing that the move would be would be irresponsible and its impacts harmful. However, fearing more strikes, sit-ins, and protests (combined with the fear that their inaction would be equated to racism), the board finally took action. In 1985, the University sold $7 million of its holdings in apartheid-affiliated companies followed by the the remaining $14 million in 1986. In their official statement, the university wrote, “This symbolic gesture [divestment] has become the common language of protest against apartheid.”
Almost 40 years later, Northeastern students and administrators are still debating divestment, now both from the fossil-fuel industry (Divest NU) and from companies complicit in Israeli human rights abuses (Students for Justice in Palestine). Although divestment is a symbolic action, our university frequently makes symbolic gestures that could be called political, such as pledging to support the Paris climate accord or signing an amicus brief against Trump’s Muslim ban. Divestment campaigns simply ask that Northeastern follow up its words with action. As the anti-Apartheid campaign effectively brought international attention to South Africa’s crimes against humanity, the campaigns to divest from fossil fuels and Israeli apartheid have already begun shedding more light on two issues that will define our generation. The question is, when will Northeastern get on the right side of history?