After nearly a decade of student and faculty protests against apartheid, Occidental College trustees and administrators decided this week to consider removing university investment funds from two companies that do business in South Africa.
"We're going to begin looking at the companies," said Carl Vance, the college's vice president and treasurer and a member of the Corporate Responsibility Committee, which was formed last year to look at divestiture of the school's holdings in companies with South African ties. The group will make its recommendation to the Board of Trustees in February.
The 11-member committee's decision Tuesday to examine the school's investments reverses a longstanding policy of refusing to even consider divestiture. The decision came as about 50 students and faculty members sang and chanted during a protest rally outside the doors of the board room.
The Anti-Apartheid Coalition of students and teachers at the liberal arts campus in Eagle Rock last week petitioned the committee to divest the college's holdings--directly or through mutual funds--in Avery International Corp., Chevron Corp., Texaco Inc., Decatur Income Fund, Ford Motor Credit Co. and the Mobil Corp.
However, the committee agreed as a start to consider divesting funds only in Avery and Ford, companies in which the college has about $150,000 in direct holdings. Its holdings in the other companies are through brokers or mutual funds. Divestiture of those may be considered later, said Peter Hong, the student representative on the committee.
The six companies represent only some of the college's investments in companies that do business in South Africa, said David Peritz, a junior and member of the coalition.
Anti-apartheid activists focused on those companies because they are some of the "worst offenders" in discriminatory personnel practices and value to the South African economy, and represent about $9 million in college investments, Peritz said.
Occidental College's total endowment is about $100 million. Administrators have declined to say how much is invested in firms with South African operations.
Although pleased with the committee's decision to investigate and possibly develop a divestiture policy, Peritz said the school's trustees probably would be reluctant to divest Avery stock because the company's chairman of the board is Charles D. Miller, an Occidental alumnus, trustee and member of the Corporate Responsibility Committee.
Avery is a Pasadena-based company that produces adhesive labels and other related products. It owns and operates a South African subsidiary.
Miller could not be reached for comment.
When asked whether Miller's role on the committee presented a conflict of interest, Vance said it did not.
"He did discuss his company's activities in South Africa. We have the head man right in there with us telling us about his company's thoughts on the issue. I wish we had equal access to the chairmen of all the companies we are going to be trying to get information on," Vance said.
In the two-hour closed meeting Tuesday, the committee members discussed the petition and invited Peritz in for questioning.
Peritz said the committee asked him about the cost of divestiture to South African blacks and the possible loss of income to the college if it were to divest.
Peritz said he told the committee that South Africa-free investment portfolios are performing well. He also said the recent announcements by several large corporations that they are getting out of South Africa probably will hurt that country's economy and thus damage the school's portfolio.
Several corporations, including IBM, General Motors and Coca Cola, have decided recently to pull out of South Africa. Two months ago, Gov. George Deukmejian signed a divestiture law that requires the withdrawal of up to $12 billion of California public investments.
Pressure for divestiture by Occidental College led to a showdown between administrators and students, who built a miniature shantytown on the campus last May to represent what they said are the living conditions of some South African blacks.
Administrators threatened to tear down the shantytown and suspend the students if they did not dismantle the dilapidated shacks before the June graduation ceremony. Administrators relented, however, and allowed the shacks to stand through graduation after the faculty rallied behind the students' right to protest.
The student protesters removed the shacks after the graduation ceremony.
Before Tuesday's committee meeting began, about 50 students and faculty members staged a rally outside the door of the board room in the Administration Building. The demonstrators, most of them wearing red armbands, sang "We Shall Overcome" and other civil-rights songs and spirituals.
The rally was relatively low-key, unlike others on the campus last semester that led to confrontations with school officials. At one demonstration last spring, college President Richard C. Gilman angrily shouted at students and accused them of trying to hurt the school.
Instead, board members entered quietly and two of them briefly addressed the students. Trustee Alan Mithies Jr. told the group that he had read the petition and was impressed with the research.
As trustee Keith Ann Kieschnick left the board room after the meeting, she turned to student representative Hong and said, "At least we got a dialogue going. Please be patient, if you can."