By Ibby Caputo
Nov. 22, 2011
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Since Nov. 9, most of the gates to Harvard Yard have been locked. Only people carrying Harvard IDs are allowed to enter through police barricades. On Nov. 21, within the locked-down campus, students, staff and former professors gathered for a panel discussion about the tents in Harvard Yard and the administration’s response to Occupy Harvard. WGBH News was there.
The smell and sound of the Dudley House cafeteria wafted into the common room upstairs, where about 70 Harvard graduate students and university affiliates sat in attendance at a forum on Occupy Harvard.
The panel, hosted by Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, included three pro-Occupy students, one former lecturer and a retired professor. A few hours before the meeting started, the Dean of Students backed out of attending.
At the start of the forum, the moderator, professor emeritus Everett Mendelsohn, pointed out that the one empty chair at the table had been reserved for an administrator.
“The administration was invited. They took a long time and only late this afternoon told us they weren’t going to come,” he said. “One of the deans did agree to come but then I suppose was talked out of taking part.”
He added, “My sense is that unfortunately by keeping such a distance from the students, the administration had something of a siege mentality, rather then a sense that these are people we rather go out and talk to.”
No dean, but a letter arrives
The administration did send an observer: a serious-looking man in a gray suit who sat in the front row taking what seemed like detailed notes. Soon after the meeting started, a letter from University President Drew Faust was emailed to the Harvard community stating the administration’s position on locking the gates to Harvard Yard for security reasons.
What had started as a dry academic discussion then turned into a passionate discourse about what attendees widely perceived as a disingenuous excuse. Graduate student Katherine Stevens said she felt really good about the meeting until she read Drew Faust’s letter.
“It’s just hard when you have an amazing discussion with people and you talk about issues and everyone’s really open and expressive, and then you get a letter from the top down that rejects that and doesn’t respect that,” Stevens said.
Faust’s letter referenced “deeply troubling conduct” on Nov. 9, the start of Occupy Harvard and the day the gates were closed to outsiders. It stated that some people attempted to enter Harvard Yard by force, assaulting at least one Harvard police offer, grabbing his gun belt and stealing his radio.
Grad student Summer Shafer said she remembered the situation differently.
“I happened to be standing right next to this officer and saw him drop his radio, and there were so many people trying to enter the Yard with their Harvard IDs out and holding them, that he started pushing students around asking, ‘Have you seen my radio? Have you seen my radio? So for this, to be made out as something that was a violent act against a Harvard police officer is disturbing to me.”
Attendees question administration's motives
Without an administrative spokesperson at the panel, the discussion became a free forum for speculating about Harvard’s motivation for locking the gates. Some said it was a strategy to pit students inconvenienced by the gates against students in the movement.
Panelist and former lecturer Chris Sturr suggested that Occupy Harvard protesters look into the archives for photos of previous encampments in Harvard Yard.
“I think part of what they are afraid of — the Harvard administration — is what happened in 2001. There were thousands of people who came to rallies, there were outside speakers, there were outside people camping in Harvard Yard and Harvard was being scrutinized by the outside world. And that’s what they don’t want,” Sturr said.
One of the main issues discussed at the forum was the lack of transparency regarding the investment of Harvard’s $32 billion endowment.
Sturr said, “It’s funny how the issues of safety and security bleed into the issues about all these people in Harvard’s backyard talking about Harvard, because it is not safe for the way things are done at Harvard. And so it’s not really the student’s safety that they’re concerned with, it’s the administration’s safety that they’ll be risking challenges to their own decision-making authority.”
Occupy Harvard students said their encampment would continue. The administration said they had no interest in locking the gates any longer than was necessary.
Harvard University police told WGBH News that a report was filed regarding the alleged assault on a university police officer but that the document was private.