ON WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 9, Occupy Harvard began. The university is frequently accused of being an “academic gatekeeper,” but the administration and police response to the nascent protest movement has made this gatekeeping uncomfortably literal: Harvard Yard has been placed on indefinite “lockdown,” meaning two-level ID-checks at every entrance. Further, unlike its sister-movement Occupy Boston, the less-than-week-old encampment has been the object of flak from other Harvard students, who complain about the inconvenience.
The occupation had been publicly announced a few days prior, prompting the guarding of the gates as early as 6:15 p.m. on the 9th (the rally had been called for at 7 p.m.). Harvard Law School students took part as National Lawyers Guild “greenhat” legal observers. Participants — numbering around 500 — marched around the Yard and rejoined at a general assembly at Harvard Law School, which is not gated or walled. The general assembly (made up largely but not exclusively of Harvard students, as two separate shows of hands revealed) passed a consensus-based resolution for a Harvard Yard encampment. In the hours that followed, the Yard went into full police lockdown mode, with many students, staff, Cambridge/Boston community members, and passersby finding themselves locked out (or, sometimes, in). A regrouping of the general assembly followed in front of Boylston Gate, with an agreement that Harvard ID-holders wishing to pitch tents would enter Harvard Yard and do so. While Harvard students built the encampment inside, with a human shield created by Harvard Divinity School students, scores of community members marched in solidarity with them outside the gates.
The night air was frigid. Some people were new to the consensus-based process favored by the Occupy movement; others were veterans. Consensus can be messy and vertiginous, but the general assembly was wildly spirited. I heard a student exclaim, “This isn’t a protest or demonstration — it’s a process,” a sentiment that has run through Occupy mobilizations all over. In the span of five hours, an Occupation was established at the heart of one of the most visible institutions in the world. At least 20 tents still stand.
The next morning, Harvard’s administration issued a statement enacting “heightened security measures” (most tangibly ID-checks by private security firm Securitas and the Harvard University Police Department) until the occupation ends, a move that some have criticized as “untenable” considering the volume of tourists and ID-less Extension school students that typically roam the Yard. Harvard’s gates are usually guarded during private concerts or graduation ceremonies, but the Yard has never been on full lockdown, as noted on Occupy Harvard’s Frequently Asked Questions page, not even during the 1969 Vietnam war protests or the 2001 Living Wage Campaign. In an even-handed letter to President Drew Faust, Harvard Law School professor Duncan Kennedy criticized the lockdown’s “massive security presence” and “Homeland Security feel.” The administration’s own public relations statement relied heavily on the discourse of “safety” and “security” in justifying the checkpoints. But Kennedy held that the gathering “was [not] even a small danger,” and that “whatever dangers ‘outsiders’ posed in the Yard, it would seem they also posed at the [non-gated] Law School.” What I found most alarming about the “pre-emptive” guarding of the gates was the turning away of the press; I saw at least two people hold up press badges and be refused entrance by police.
Why “occupy” Harvard? Occupy Harvard itself has issued reasons for its existence, demanding a “university for the ’99 percent,’ not a corporation for the ‘1 percent'” (with a short primer on what this could look like), an alter-model to the corporatization of higher education, and a demand for financial transparency, including the disclosure of all of Harvard’s investments. And several commentators, such as The Atlantic’s Adam Clark Estes, have contrasted the university’s “ballooning wealth” (aided by its status as a non-profit institution) with its unfair treatment of service workers. One oft-cited statistic is the 1 to 180 ratio between worker and administrative pay. At a rally on November 12 Harvard custodians voted unanimously to strike if a contract agreement isn’t reached by Tuesday.
It bears noting — whether one “likes” Occupy Harvard or not — what gumption it takes to reclaim space on the land of one of the most powerful (both real and imagined) entities in the world, and in the face of peer disparagement. After police locked down the gates completely, prompting participants to crowd the gates and chant together, some freshmen from balcony dorms yelled, “We are the 1 percent! We are the 1 percent!” (bringing to mind the widely disseminated video of investment bankers drinking champagne from their high lofts and laughing at Occupy Wall Street demonstrators). The editorial board of the Harvard Crimsoninitially castigated the Occupy Wall Street movement, and it wasn’t until very recently that it began offering supporting viewpoints, such as this evocative op-ed by three students drawing attention to campus hostility to serious alternative discourses on Harvard’s function in the wider socioeconomic landscape. A new awareness of the role that universities, and Harvard in particular, play in legitimating the current economic order is one of the most significant byproducts of the Occupy movement. The student walkout on Professor N. Gregory Mankiw’s Economics 10 course laid the groundwork for the campus occupation and brought national attention to an internal debate within the university.
Like most universities, Harvard has a complex bureaucratic structure: There are two bodies that govern it, subjecting the university to a perennial dialectical tension. One of those bodies is the “Harvard Corporation” whose official name is The President and Fellows of Harvard College; the other is the Harvard Board of Overseers. The “Corporation” has its own governing board and the Harvard Management Company manages its portfolio of billions. (One professor once wryly joked to me that Harvard is a “dot-edu” managed by a “dot-com.”)
While the University does share formal similarities in structure to a corporation (i.e., it is governed by a board, owns assets, and is subject to liabilities), it is listed as a non-profit institution. As such, it receives enormous tax exemptions: as three students noted in their 2009 examination of the University’s role as a nonprofit, Harvard’s endowment grew from about five billion dollars in 1990 to a full $37 billion in 2008. It did not pay taxes on that astronomical gain, which made it the second wealthiest non-profit in the world after the Catholic Church. While Harvard is the largest landowner in the Cambridge area, holding nearly one million square feet of property in nearby Allston, it does not pay real estate taxes but rather voluntary (and significantly smaller) payments. Alumni are also encouraged to give the gift of real estate to Harvard College through residential, commercial, or undeveloped properties. One perceives a barely hidden irony in the fact that Harvard benefits enormously from the same local communities now locked out as “outsiders.”
Privately-owned public spaces (or POPs) have constituted a major challenge for Occupy mobilizations, and the debate over Occupy Harvard has encapsulated them in microcosm. POPs have been contested as part of the political landscape for centuries, but when discussions turn to the rights of assembly and speech in such places, we are told that things get inalterably “complicated.” Yet the participants of Occupy Harvard have insisted on these rights. On the night of November 9, Occupy Harvard decided that since there were no “representatives” in horizontal leadership, they could not talk to the dean unless she spoke to all of them at once; they also asked, via Twitter, “how locking down the school helps Harvard students study.” (On a related note, while some student electronic lists and Facebook walls have frothed over with disdain about Occupy Harvard as a “disruption” of the university’s normal functioning, few have made the connection to such non-political “disruptions” such as the Head of the Charles Regatta or the thousands of seasonal tourists that descend on Harvard Yard annually.)
An institution is never just one thing. Many social processes go to make it up. Horizontal and vertical authority structures exist side by side all the time. Professors, graduate instructors, and staff give of their time and attention liberally; dining hall workers and custodial staff go beyond the call of duty in serving student needs; incalculable examples of peer-to-peer mutual aid and cooperation abound. While wealth inequality, profit-driven economic pursuits, and a pro-corporate agenda may dominate, they simply do not and cannot constitute all forms of life at Harvard. For every moral wrong at the “Corporation” level, there are multiple acts of ethical fortitude to be seen every day on campus.
That the administration’s actions in creating a virtual checkpoint at Harvard Yard have fomented animosity toward Occupy Harvard comes as no great surprise. For reasons of ideology or inconvenience, many believe that the Occupiers should pack up their tents and relocate to a less visible, less embarrassing, less unwieldy site, or simply cease to exist at all. Yet there is no such intolerance for the presence of the “big six” giant corporate banks (Bank of America, J.P. Morgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, and Wells Fargo) on campus: Harvard’s Office of Career Services is an employer partner with four of them, in addition to other “bulge bracket” firms like McKinsey and Merrill Lynch. If massive recruitment from investment banking and consulting firms — the very institutions that helped plummet the international market economy into a recession — is not only tolerated but implicitly encouraged, what accounts for the intolerance toward dissenting views?
Occupy Harvard is polarizing the university community, and this should not be ameliorated but embraced. Polarization is a process in which people are actively thinking, discussing, and acting on ethical principles rather than living in dormancy. That the Occupy mobilization has, within its short lifetime, managed to arouse the country’s citizenry from its dogmatic political slumber is among its most important legacies. If its seedling presence in Harvard’s backyard can do the same for our academic institutions, it will be no small accomplishment.