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UCI Apartheid Protest Is a Learning Session : Gov. Deukmejian, Regents, Gardner Listen to Students Opposed to Investment in South Africa

March 16, 1985|BILL BILLITER | Times Staff Writer

On what University of California officials hoped to be a perfect day, the small student protest Friday morning could have been a spark igniting a fire of campuswide reaction.

Instead, the apartheid protest at UC Irvine turned into a learning experience--for students, university officials and observers. The impromptu event even included Gov. George Deukmejian and UC President David Gardner.

The scene was a session of the UC Board of Regents. The regents, who chose to meet this month at UCI, were hoping to wind up business early so that they could attend the afternoon inauguration of Chancellor Jack W. Peltason.

Protesters Appear

But as their meeting got under way in the UCI University Club building, a solemn group of about 20 Latino and black students formed outside. They held up signs of protest, one of which said: "UC Regents, Divest From South Africa."

The students claimed that the regents, who govern all nine campus of the university, are helping the segregationist regime of the Republic of South Africa by investing university money in U.S. firms doing business there.

A similar student protest against the regents when they met on the UCLA campus last month briefly turned ugly when the student marchers unsuccessfully tried to storm a guarded area where the regents were eating lunch.

The UCI students, representing black and Latino campus groups, were angry--but not disruptive--as they were allowed to enter the general public-viewing area of the regents' meeting room Friday morning.

There were looks of disappointment on the students' faces when the regents concluded their business meeting without allowing them to speak. But Fred Gaines, a student regent, suggested to the board that they informally go to the back of the room and talk to the protesting students.

Soon All Join In

At first, only two regents took the suggestion. Soon, however, almost the entire board came to the back of the room and sat down with the UCI students. Deukmejian and UC President Gardner joined the group.

Regent Yvonne Braithwaite Burke, who is black and a former member of Congress, told the students that the regents will formally discuss the South Africa investments issue at their June meeting at UC Santa Cruz. "We've asked for a report (on investments) to be given to us at that time," she said.

Burke also pointed out that the investment money in question does not come from student fees. "The money is retirement funds invested in various companies, and we, as regents, have to safeguard that money," she said. "We are not directly investing in South Africa, and Mervyn Dymally, when he was lieutenant governor, got the university in 1977 to agree not to invest in any company that does more than 1 1/2% of its business in South Africa."

A graduate student, anger showing on her face, interrupted at this point.

"How much in money is 1 1/2%?" asked Erylene Mandy. "We (students) are here to tell you we think there's something more important than money. Why is it that people of color are always the ones who have to suffer when other people's portfolio is at risk? We're talking about human life! About people suffering and being tortured!"

'A Different Direction'

Regent Dean Watkins, in response, said: "The facts are that companies working in South Africa are working in a different direction (from apartheid). . . . They oppose it."

Dean added: "The real issue is how do we (regents) deal with it. Is it better for us to divest entirely from those companies (with South African business) or to try to influence them as shareholders?"

President Gardner said: "We've asked for a study. You students, as members of the public, can get it as soon as we do."

The students said they are still unhappy with any university money being involved in South Africa, but they said they appreciated the high-level audience they received.

And the regents thanked the students for listening. "I can assure you that your message was heard," said Vilma Martinez, the board's head.

The informal meeting then dispersed on a peaceful note. The picket signs disappeared. Notably, no protest signs whatsoever showed up three hours later during the regents' march in the formal ceremony installing Chancellor Peltason.

"That experience this morning was really beautiful," commented UCI Vice Chancellor Kathy Jones. "I've never seen anything like it."

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