Colleges and universities across the United States have historically been sites of social activism. Students often use tactics of negotiation and protest to call on their institutions to curb unjust practices and pioneer justice initiatives. Divestment of university endowment funds from harmful corporations is one way that schools can enact change and demonstrate a commitment to social causes. The most successful nation-wide campaign for divestment occurred in the 1970s and 1980s when student organizations all across the country started a movement to protest US company investment in the South African Apartheid government. Apartheid was a system of institutionalized segregation in South Africa that ensured the domination of the minority white population in the political, economic, and social spheres of the country. Most of the campaigns used a mixture of institutional and physical protest means to persuade their Board of Trustees to divest stocks of companies doing business in the country. Many Trustees around the country faced a dilemma: risk further political unrest and calls for divestment at their universities, or divest the university’s endowment from companies where they personally profited. As the national movement intensified throughout the early 1980s, and it became clear that student activism would not disappear, university Trustees were forced to fully evaluate their role in investment into Apartheid.
As a result, 55 universities and colleges partially or fully divested from Apartheid by 1985. This new financial burden of divestment caused the companies profiting in South Africa to put pressure on the Apartheid government. Renowned South African anti-apartheid activist and Nobel Prize winner Desmond Tutu wrote, “there is no greater testament to the basic dignity of ordinary people everywhere than the divestment movement of the 1980s.” The past holds valuable insights for the future and many contemporary student activist campaigns for prison divestment are learning from this very successful divestment movement of the 1980s. It is important, therefore, to evaluate the successes of individual university campaigns to create the best strategy for current divestment.