In the midst of a national debate in the early 1980s over apartheid, the legalized system of racism that existed in South Africa, the Colby campus did not remain silent. The College responded to South African leaders such as Bishop Tutu and Reverend Sullivan, who urged American individuals and institutions to use their influence by divesting from corporations that profited from the status quo.

Out of this initiative came the Sullivan Principles, designed to improve conditions for Blacks in South Africa; on April 15, 1978, the Trustees resolved to endorse these principles and formed the Committee on Investment Responsibility to uphold this moral criterion and others. Despite building pressure from students and faculty for total divestment from companies doing business in South Africa, as vocalized in a 1981 forum, President Cotter and Chair of the Committee on Investment Responsibility and Economics Professor Tom Tietenberg felt that the existing college policy of selective divestment was more effective. Tietenberg explained that unlike many other colleges, Colby always divests publicly, so the amount of embarrassment for a single, particularly odious company would be accentuated.

The public outcry against Apartheid culminated yet again in a rally on October 11, 1985, as part of National Anti-Apartheid Day. Over 250 people gathered on the Miller Library steps to hear speeches by President Cotter, Professor Tietenberg, and the campus religious figures. This event coincided with an on-going petition campaign calling on Colby to divest the $7.5 million it held in corporations with assets in South Africa. The Board of Trustees responded on October 19: they resolved by a 20-0 vote that “Colby will divest all remaining financial instruments of corporations having direct investment in South Africa unless, by May of 1987, legal apartheid is in the process of being dismantledƒ.” Addressing concerns that this act would lead to an onslaught of pressure to divest from other companies for different moral reasons, the Trustees also made clear that “South Africa is a unique problem” which should not be seen as a precedent for future investment.

Many were dissatisfied with the 18-month wait advocated by Rev. Sullivan and endorsed by the Trustees. They called for immediate divestment and supported the proposal of Government Professor Roger Bowen to divest before the end of the year, for he observed in an interview with the Echo that waiting “serves only to perpetuate our symbolic and material support for a regime that is irredeemably and morally bankrupt.” The faculty established their position during the November 13 meeting; they passed a resolution (40-15) introduced by Professor Tietenberg to begin divestment in April of 1986 unless there were “positive signs of meaningful change in South Africa.” They also supported putting pressure on their national faculty pension organization, which held $6 billion of assets in corporations with holdings in South Africa.

In the end, the College abided by the wished of the trustees and initiated divestment in May of 1987; this restriction remained in place until 1993, when Nelson Mandela urged for reinvestment in South Africa after apartheid had been dismantled.