Columbia University Archives

South Africa Divestment Records, 1972-1987

Summary Information


Beginning in the late 1970s, Columbia students urged the university to divest from companies doing business in South Africa in protest of South Africa's system of apartheid. After a series of student protests culminating in a month long blockade of Hamilton Hall in 1985, the Trustees voted to begin full divestment. The collection contains the administrative records of this decision making process in the 1970s-1980s.

At a Glance

Call No.: UA#0295
Bib ID 6948369 View CLIO record
Creator(s) Columbia University
Title South Africa Divestment Records, 1972-1987
Physical Description 5 linear feet (4 record cartons); 114 Megabytes
Language(s) English .

This collection has no restrictions.

This collection is located off-site. You will need to request this material at least three business days in advance to use the collection in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library reading room.



Arranged in two series.



This collection contains the administrative records of Columbia University's divestment from companies doing business South Africa in protest of apartheid in the 1970s-1980s. Originally part of Columbia's Central Files, these records were kept separately because of their important subject matter. They document the extensive deliberations between the Board of Trustees, the President, the University Senate, students, and alumni though statements, reports, memos, petitions and correspondence. In most instances, materials created by students and alumni or by the University Senate are in support of divestment. The majority of the collection, however, documents the perspective of the Board of Trustees and Presidents McGill and Sovern, who did not support divestment until the 1985 Ad Hoc Committee's recommendation. Their records include background research and communication with other universities and groups debating divestment as well as their own statements and reports. The collection also contains a small amount of material on the 1985 student protests and University response.

  • Series I: Central Administration, 1972-1987

    The Central Administration Series, which contains the majority of the records in the collection, documents the deliberations over divestment between Presidents McGill and Sovern, the Board of Trustees, the University Senate, students, alumni, and faculty. The series contains the official resolutions and statements by the Trustees and its Finance Committee (led by Anthony Knerr), the Senate, as well as the Ad Hoc Committee on University Investments in Corporations Doing Business in South Africa. Other materials include background research and reports on South Africa and corporate responsibility, meeting notes and memos, and stockholder reports. There is also correspondence with related stakeholders including companies, Columbia students and alumni, and administrators from other universities. Box 3, labeled South Africa I-XI, contains records sent to and from Marion Jemmott, the University Secretary in the early 1980s, who was responsible for supporting the work of the Board of Trustees. The rest of the folders contain materials from the Office of the President.

  • Series II: Student Protests, 1981-1985

    The Student Protests Series documents the response to the Coalition for a Free South Africa's blockade and hunger strike in April 1985. This small series consists of letters and phone call records from Columbia students, alumni, and students from other colleges voicing support for the protesters. There is also one folder related to disciplinary action against the protesters, which includes President Sovern's statement following the protest and an amicus brief filed by Columbia Law professors arguing against disciplinary action. The Series also contains a video "Adapt or Die: The End of White Politics in South Africa," and a digital file created by Danny Armstrong, a student protest leader, which includes flyers, letters, articles, and other materials related to his experience fighting for divestment. In addition to the records in Series II, a number of folders in Series I contain flyers from student protests in and leading up to 1985. These flyers are mixed in with the materials collected by the President and Trustees. See box 1 folder 5, box 2 folder 10, box 3 folder 9 and box 4 folder 1.

Using the Collection

Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Restrictions on Access

This collection has no restrictions.

This collection is located off-site. You will need to request this material at least three business days in advance to use the collection in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library reading room.

Terms Governing Use and Reproduction

Single photocopies may be made for research purposes. The RBML maintains ownership of the physical material only. Copyright remains with the creator and his/her heirs. The responsibility to secure copyright permission rests with the patron.

Preferred Citation

Identification of specific item; Date (if known); South Africa Divestment Records; Box and Folder; University Archives, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University Library.

Selected Related Material at Columbia

University Protest and Activism Collection, 1958-1999 [Bulk Dates: 1968-1972]: documents other instances of Columbia University student protests, most notably those of 1968.

Historical Subject Files, 1870s-2017 [Bulk Dates: 1968-1972] : Additional records related to the student protests in favor of divestment are in Box 127 folders 4-6: "South Africa Divestments, 1980s-1990s."

Central Files, 1890-1984 [Bulk Dates: 1890-1983]: Additional records documenting the administration's decisions about divestment are found in the Central Files, Box 923, folder 25.

Office of the Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Records, 1939-2006: Further records documenting the administration's decisions about divestment are found in Boxes 297, 298, 364, 451, 501, 513, and 619.


No additions expected.

About the Finding Aid / Processing Information

Columbia University Libraries, Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Processing Information

Processed by Rachel Klepper. Finding aid written by Rachel Klepper in August 2018.

The South Africa Divestment Records were retained in the physical order in which they arrived. Most of the collection was placed in new acid-free folders. Folder titles were retained except where they were missing or were not specific enough.

Revision Description

2018-08-22 File created.

2018-08-22 xml document instance created by Celeste Brewer. Container list encoded by Rachel Klepper.

2019-05-20 EAD was imported spring 2019 as part of the ArchivesSpace Phase II migration.

Subject Headings

The subject headings listed below are found in this collection. Links below allow searches at Columbia University through the Archival Collections Portal and through CLIO, the catalog for Columbia University Libraries, as well as ArchiveGRID, a catalog that allows users to search the holdings of multiple research libraries and archives.

All links open new windows.


Heading "CUL Archives:"
"CUL Collections:"
"Nat'l / Int'l Archives:"
Administrative records Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Clippings (Information Artifacts) Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Correspondence Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Notes (documents) Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Reports Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID


Heading "CUL Archives:"
"CUL Collections:"
"Nat'l / Int'l Archives:"
Columbia University -- Administration Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Columbia University -- Administration Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Columbia University -- Students -- Political activity Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Disinvestment -- South Africa Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID

History / Biographical Note

Historical Note

In 1977 Columbia students began urging the University to divest (or disinvest) from companies doing business in South Africa in protest of South Africa's system of apartheid. Within the administration, deliberations began among the president, the Board of Trustees, and the University Senate. The Senate, a body made up of faculty, students, and administrators, was more supportive of divestment, while the Trustees and President remained concerned about the strategy and its implication for Columbia's investments. Presidents William McGill and then Michael Sovern, who took over in 1980, pursued a strategy of corporate responsibility, seeking to develop standards for ethical investment that did not require full divestment.

In 1978 the Trustees issued a statement that they would not divest, but would aim to strategically pursue more ethical investments in South Africa. Presidents McGill and Sovern supported this strategy, signing on to Reverend Leo Sullivan's "Sullivan Principles," which required businesses to agree to equal treatment of their employees regardless of race. They communicated with other school's administrators to share policies and ideas as many American colleges and universities faced these questions in the early 1980s.

In 1983 the University Senate passed a resolution that Columbia should divest fully from South Africa. However, the Trustees rejected that proposal, agreeing to monitor their holdings and selectively divest, which was seen by many as not going far enough.

The Coalition for a Free South Africa, a student group led by Danny Armstrong, responded to Columbia's continued investment with protests in April 1985 that included a two week hunger strike and a blockade of Hamilton Hall. The blockade grew quickly, with hundreds of students participating. Columbia received an injunction to remove the students and brought disciplinary action against about 50-60 students. Soon after, the university created the Ad Hoc Committee Regarding Investments in Companies with Operations in South Africa. The committee proposed full divestment of $39 million of stocks, which the Trustees accepted and set a mandate to complete by 1987.