Please read my new article in Dissent about the Divest Harvard sit-in. Our action showed that Harvard can never be a leader–only a follower in the footsteps of its students.
On Thursday, February 12, I walked into Massachusetts Hall with thirty-three other Divest Harvard members and began a twenty-four-hour sit-in outside Harvard President Drew Faust’s office. Amidst the intensity, chaos, stress, and excitement of those hours, I learned an enduring lesson: I can no longer look to my university for leadership. At this point, Harvard can only be a follower in the footsteps of students who are not afraid to stand up for what they love.
I co-founded Divest Harvard in the fall of 2012. Our first meeting drew about ten students. Then 72 percent of Harvard College students voted for divestment. Three years later, over 3,000 students, 232 faculty members, 1,062 alumni, and almost 65,000 community members have joined the call for Harvard to divest from fossil fuels. Despite this support, the administration has not only refused to consider divestment but has consistently ignored requests to engage with Divest Harvard and the wider Harvard community in public debate. Instead, our president told us that the fossil fuel industry doesn’t influence the political system. One trustee told us that weshould “thank BP” instead of divesting from them. Harvard went so far as to arrest a student who participated in a peaceful blockade of the administration building last spring—an action whose sole aim was to urge the administration to publicly engage with us on divestment. As Margaret Atwood put it when she spoke on campus later that day: “any society where arrest is preferable to open dialogue is a scary place.”
For nearly three years, the administration has hidden behind closed doors, periodically regurgitating old arguments and steadfastly refusing public discussion. Divest Harvard has responded to the administration’s intransigence with a powerful campus movement including rallies, blockades, teach-ins, a seventy-two-hour fast, faculty forums, and an alternative fund for alumni to withhold donations until Harvard divests. Our sit-in last week further escalated our campaign, increased pressure on the administration, and galvanized dialogue on campus.
The sit-in began at 10 a.m. Divest Harvard members held hands, hearts racing, as we walked into Massachusetts Hall and sat down in the hallway outside of our President’s office. Our entrance was peaceful and respectful. The campus police arrived within minutes. Within an hour, President Faust agreed to talk to us, and we scheduled a meeting for 2 p.m. This was the first time that Faust committed to meeting with Divest Harvard students outside of the ten-minute appointments allotted during her bi-semesterly office hours. Already, our sit-in was a success. We brought divestment to her doorstep, and she responded.
Before 2 p.m., Faust made an appearance. Her face was contorted with anger. She said that she was “sad” and “disappointed” that we were using “coercive tactics.” We then learned that Faust would only meet with us behind closed doors and only if we left the building. We offered to meet with her in an open and transparent format that did not obligate us a priori to end the sit-in. We suggested sending two Divest Harvard members to meet off site, while the rest of us stayed in Mass Hall. We also suggested that President Faust join our group in the hallway of Mass Hall to discuss our campaign. She refused both options. No meeting took place.
After President Faust refused our meeting proposals, the police blocked access to the only bathroom. When we tried to reclaim access, they threatened to forcibly remove us. Our police liaison had to negotiate a compromise: we could use the photocopy room for bathroom emergencies. We had to use diapers and bottles, despite there being a fully functional bathroom ten feet away. Most of us relieved ourselves only once in the entire twenty-four hours. Nevertheless, our group carried on with energy and passion. We spent the night in Mass Hall, doing our best to sleep on the hard wood floors, though the loud police presence and radios made it difficult. We left exhausted at 10 a.m. the following morning. But we consider the experience a success.
Why did they block the bathroom? The Harvard spokesperson said that we would be treated with the same disrespect that, he claimed, we had showed the employees of Mass Hall. In fact, we had never been disrespectful. We kept the hallway and doors cleared for staff. We were polite and civil. Blocking our use of the bathroom was a petty and spiteful move from an administration that has seen its moral authority wane as it refuses to engage seriously with the planet’s most significant existential threat.
My reflections on the sit-in trigger a wild range of emotions. Most prominent among these is a mix of shame, anger, and frustration at the audacity of the university’s hypocrisy. Just a few months ago—as Divest Harvard member Naima Drecker-Waxman recalled—President Faust inaugurated a weekend celebrating Harvard’s black alumni with a speech in Harvard’s historic Sanders Theater. Her remarks pivoted on these words:
[w]e know that the road to social justice remains long, and difficult. And we know the courage and commitment that it requires. Du Bois medalist and legendary Civil Rights leader John Lewis said in Sanders Theater just about a week ago, “I got into trouble. Good trouble. Necessary trouble.” You are here, and I am here, because of people in Harvard’s own imperfect past who were willing to get into necessary trouble. And so as we celebrate you, and Harvard, and our bright possibilities, let us also celebrate the sense of purpose of so many who preceded us.
Faust recognizes the moral imperative of “necessary trouble” when she speaks as an observer of history, but she fails to see the same imperative when she is called upon to be an actor in history. The students of Divest Harvard are part of a movement that, along with so many other vital (and growing) movements for social justice across the country today, has inherited the legacy of Lewis and other civil rights leaders, and we are shaping it to the challenges of planetary destruction. This heritage, long recognized by luminaries like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, is utterly lost on Harvard’s president. We, too, are necessary troublemakers, confronting an imperfect present.
For centuries, Harvard’s name has commanded respect around the world. Can this institution reclaim the moral authority that such respect warrants? The university’s intransigence has only underscored the basic tenet that guides our movement, like so many before it: social change does not begin with polite questioning. Resistance, agitation, and disruption of the status quo prompt the conversations and actions that lead to change. A sit-in is not coercive: it is a wake-up call. The real coercion at the Divest Harvard sit-in was that of an administration trying to impose its will on students rather than to engage in a good-faith effort to find common ground.
My frustration is countered by overwhelming pride and gratitude toward my peers in Divest Harvard. While the university squanders its opportunity for historic leadership, I found strength and hope in my friends as we sat in the hallway together—even in the few precious hours that we slept, still tightly huddled side by side. As we proudly and peacefully walked back through the doors of Mass Hall into the frigid Boston air on Friday morning, I felt more committed than ever. The thirty-three other students with whom I sat in are my role models.
I graduate in a few months, but I will carry the Harvard name with me for the rest of my life. When I tell people about my experience here, I will say that it was defined by the passion of student activists on this campus. I will say that the Harvard administration can no longer be a leader on climate change. But I will never give up hope that Harvard can find the humility and wisdom to follow the leadership of its own students and feel pride, not disappointment, that so many of us have been willing to get into necessary trouble for the sake of all we love.