When about 50 students occupied Harvard’s Office of Admissions and Financial Aid on December 12, 2019, they carried the legacy of a nearly half-century-long call for Harvard to create an Ethnic Studies department. The occupation represented one of several recent actions that have gripped campus and jarred the administration. From Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard’s sit-in at the 136th Harvard-Yale football game to office occupations by the Ethnic Studies Coalition and the strike by members of the Harvard Graduate Student Union-United Automobile Workers, a new era of more radical student activism seems to be dawning on campus.
Yet such activism is not unprecedented; rather, it invokes a long legacy of student protest. In response to these new protests, the administration tends to portray campus activism as uninformed and contrary to civil discourse, reluctant to appear as if it is conceding to student demands. This dismissiveness has only fueled the perception that without disruptive action, Harvard will never meaningfully respond to critical disparities between its espoused principles and actual practices. Now, with new tools at their disposal and a focus on building collective power, students activists are ramping up their organizing in the hope that by posing a sufficient threat to Harvard’s prestigious public image, they can motivate institutional change.
The Evolution of Student Activism on Campus
Early campus activism centered around student living conditions, ranging from physical abuse by administrators to poor food and commons quality. Only a few years after Harvard’s 1636 founding came a series of student petitions, protests, and mini-rebellions — including the Bread and Butter, Cabbage, and Great Rebellions — which provoked new fury and disciplinary action by the administration, leading to its banning “illegal combinations,” or unauthorized assemblies of students, in 1809.
For Dr. Zachary Nowak, a Harvard College fellow who teaches a course on Harvard history, the debate over slavery’s abolition in the 1850s represents a critical turning point in Harvard student activism. After the administration and faculty worked to hamper public debate over slavery on campus, students went from “mainly being activists about things on campus and their own quality of life to being political in a broader sense,” sparking a lasting engagement with national and world politics, Nowak told the HPR.
Over a century later, April 1969 marked another turning point in student activism: the occupation of University Hall by anti-war student activists. The students had six demands, including ending Harvard’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program. Although the organizers, members of Students for a Democratic Society, initially represented a radical minority on campus, Harvard President Nathan M. Pusey’s response to the occupation — making an unprecedented call for Cambridge City and Massachusetts state police to remove students from University Hall — shifted public perception in favor of the student protestors. For many skeptical of the claims of Harvard’s complicity in the Vietnam War, the violent scenery of 400 city and state troopers armed with maces dragging students outside, beating them with billy clubs, and arresting them seemed to expose the administration’s villainy. According to Nowak, the aftermath of this decision made Harvard recognize that it had committed a “huge tactical error,” which it would never again repeat.
Rutgers Law School professor Richard Hyland ‘69, who participated in the occupation, told the HPR that it represented a “dramatic shift” in the history of student activism on Harvard’s campus. For Hyland, the occupation “happened at a particular moment when Harvard was ripe for change. … [It] crystallized the evolution that was underground at the time” when Harvard was a “totally dysfunctional educational institution,” very different than the Harvard known to students today. As Harvard College had yet to integrate with Radcliffe College — remaining all-male until it began merging its admissions process with Radcliffe in 1975 — and had a predominantly white and affluent student body, the education it provided was far less interdisciplinary.
The intersectional nature of the anti-war movement on campus not only heightened the efficacy of student protest but set a lasting precedent for building student power. Overlapping with the anti-war movement was a powerful push, led primarily by black students in the Harvard-Radcliffe Association for African and Afro-American Students, for what became Harvard’s Department of African and African American Studies. After SDS supported and even formally adopted black students’ demand for this department, the campaigns organized several actions together. Only a few days after the University Hall occupation, they held a rally at Soldiers Field Stadium calling for change from the University that helped prompt a vote by Harvard faculty the following week to establish an Afro-American Studies department, with student participation in its development.
Such activism laid the groundwork for what emerged in the ensuing decades. From the 1980s campaign for divestment from apartheid South Africa to the 2001 Living Wage campaign, the collaboration between student movements has grown dramatically. Today, student campaigns draw from this legacy to challenge the power dynamics of the University. Movements from fossil fuel and prison divestment to the ongoing push for an Ethnic Studies department have galvanized support from students, faculty and alumni and garnered national media attention. Meanwhile, the official formation of HGSU-UAW in 2018 after years of organizing augmented the potential for student-worker solidarity, made visible in striking graduate students’ collaboration with campus groups including the Harvard TPS Coalition, Student Labor Action Movement, fossil fuel and prison divestment campaigns, and Ethnic Studies Coalition.
An Old Strategy with New Tactics
Today, the Harvard administration appears far less eager to employ direct force against its students or to shut down student protest and take disciplinary action against student organizers. This change, indicative that the University learned from the outrage sparked by its response to the 1969 occupation, may also reflect Harvard’s greater sense of public accountability in the digital era. Especially with social media, students can quickly turn campus actions into national news stories. Alternatively, the University may see less need for direct force, as Hyland speculates that students now seem generally less willing to jeopardize their academic and future careers for activism than in his era.
Instead, the Harvard administration now largely seeks to preempt student protest by emphasizing the importance of “civil discourse.” President Bacow has repeatedly called for open “conversation” about contentious campus issues and claimed that he responds to “reason, not pressure” amidst student activism for fossil fuel and prison divestment. Student organizers have argued that such rhetoric dismisses the legitimacy and historical legacy of protest as a form of dialogue, as well as noting its racially charged implications when applied to organizers of color. They have also called out the hypocrisy of such rhetoric given their perception of the administration’s persistent refusal to engage in substantive conversation about schisms between its espoused principles and actual practices.
Language around civility also drives Harvard’s media and public relations machine. The university’s official news source, the Harvard Gazette — a division of Harvard Public Affairs and Communications — covers student activism with a palpably pro-administration slant. Striking a similar tone, the nominally independent Harvard Magazine published a piece in late 2019 contrasting the peaceful disruption of an FAS faculty meeting by a student calling for an Ethnic Studies department with a faculty discussion of divestment that “was completely civil, and on a high intellectual plane.”
Yet even with a change in tactics, Nowak sees a strong historical continuity in the administration’s strategy for responding to student activism — namely, in the reality that the administration “does not want student organizing” or student voice in decision-making when it might threaten institutional norms.
The administration’s response to the more direct and intersectional organizing occurring on campus now supports Nowak’s point. As students increasingly frame themselves as part of broader political moments for action on issues such as climate change, the Harvard administration has only intensified its efforts to control the public narrative of actions on campus and quell student unrest. According to Nowak, the administration has two primary means of doing so: First, it tries to “run out the clock,” taking only superficial or bureaucratic actions such as forming subcommittees to investigate issues in the hopes of indefinitely prolonging a fulfillment of student demands until the most vocal student organizers graduate.
When such movements garner too much momentum to reach this more natural conclusion, Nowak explained, the administration tries to “divide and conquer” student activists, working more subtly to undermine the solidarity between movements. At its most extreme, the administration has gone so far as to break the law, as with its illegal interference in the HGSU-UAW 2016 election and recently, its potential violation of labor law in suggesting that hiring prospective teaching staff be contingent on their refusal to participate in a strike continuing during their employment.
Recently, Harvard has also employed more visible forms of intimidation. Farah Afify ‘22, an organizer with the Ethnic Studies Coalition, told the HPR that in the wake of recent student activism, she has noticed a heightened police presence on campus, as well as the installation of new security cameras in Harvard Yard. For the first two weeks of the HGSU-UAW strike alone, Harvard was billed about $185,0000 in security fees by the Cambridge Police Department after it requested additional security. Afify finds this reaction by the administration to students’ nonviolent escalation telling: for her, it reveals the insincerity of claims by administrators that they aim to more deeply understand student sentiments.
Furthermore, Afify finds that the administration responds differently to various student groups. As a result, the Ethnic Studies Coalition, which is comprised largely of students of color, has remained highly cognizant of how the administration’s uneven response to student protests may fall along racial lines. For Afify, this disparity reflects a broader issue of non-white activists’ demands being seen as less legitimate.
Looking Back to Look Forward
With tensions rising on campus, the stakes for both students and administrators remain high. While the administration prioritizes Harvard’s image among alumni and the broader public, Nowak also emphasizes that the administration is not a monolith but is instead comprised of many stakeholders aiming to work efficiently while balancing their own interests, which makes sharing decision-making power with students — whom administrators may view as ill-informed — difficult.
For Harvard Law School student and HGSU-UAW Bargaining Committee member Rachel Sandalow, campus activism forces a greater question about the democratization of the University and how Harvard defines itself as an institution. “You can’t project one image into the world in your advertising materials and then maintain a separate reality for the people who actually study and work here,” she told the HPR. Sandalow views HGSU-UAW’s work as about “building [students and workers’] power to have a real sustainable voice at the table … to hold the University up to the values that it claims to promote” in its treatment of those on campus, who are most directly affected by its policies, and in its broader societal influence.
While there is no clear path to success for student campaigns, certain tactics have proven highly effective. Both Sandalow and Afify noted the importance of receiving support from public figures — as with the signing of an open letter by over 200 prominent Ethnic Studies scholars criticizing Harvard’s denial of tenure to Latina associate professor Lorgia García Peña — which catalyzes national media attention, intensifying public pressure on the University to change its practices. Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard’s sit-in at the Harvard-Yale game demonstrated this potential, as its endorsement by public figures from actress Alyssa Milano to presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) helped spark international news headlines.
“I think we underestimate the media of the past … but at the same time, there’s no comparison to the reach that media has today,” said Nowak, affirming the power of activists’ media strategy to pressure the University. He also cited dining hall workers’ ability to leverage media attention when striking for improved working conditions in 2016. For Sandalow, the dining hall workers’ success also testifies to the value of uniting students and workers for institutional change.
To this end, coalition-building is also crucial for effective organizing. Afify finds that intersectional actions more often provoke a response from the administration, even if they do not change its stance. Such actions can also garner greater public participation by having a broader appeal, helping student activists meet the challenge of “making the University feel like they can’t get away with [ignoring students].” Sandalow similarly stresses the value of joint organizing, viewing HGSU-UAW’s fight to “build a more just and equitable campus community” as inherently intersecting with other campaigns. She also highlighted the value of outside groups’ support in building public pressure, such as when UPS stopped delivering packages to the University in solidarity with the HGSU-UAW strike.
Knowing when to escalate is also critical. While disruptive actions tend to garner greater criticism, Afify holds that disruption uniquely challenges the status quo and often proves necessary given the historical intransigence of the administration amidst more tame organizing. “Without disruption, no one really recognizes what’s wrong,” Afify explained, invoking the power of the Harvard-Yale sit-in.
As Harvard’s administration and students take lessons from the University’s history, they simultaneously set new precedents for future activism on campus. For Afify, activists are “always implicitly learning from other movements” and “inheriting a legacy” from organizers past. Likewise, the legacy of today’s activism and the University’s responses to it will carry forward, shaping generations more of student protest for institutional change still to come.
Image Credit: Unsplash / Library of Congress // Unsplash / Phil Hearing // Unsplash / Sybylla Climate // Unsplash / History in HD // Unsplash / Natalie Chaney // Unsplash / Brandon Erlinger-Ford // Unsplash / Heather Mount