Fifteen's Report on the Crisis

Following are excerpts from the committee of Fifteen's interim report on the causes of the April crisis. Copies of the full report are available at the University Information Office.

For a long time, many, perhaps even most members of the Harvard community thought that "it couldn't happen here." They were wrong, mainly for two reasons. First, they probably underestimated the ease with which a "confrontation" can be created. It takes only a small group of determined students. There will always be some diffuse discontent which they can hope to mobilize through action. To be sure, the scope of the drama still depends on two other factors: the catalytic impact of the initial act, and the nature of the response.

Here lies the second reason why Harvard's complacency proved misplaced. We had all studied what had happened in other Universities, particularly at Berkeley and Columbia, but also abroad. Many of us had concluded that Harvard would be spared because the specific issues which had allowed a small group to mobilize support elsewhere--issues related to the nature, policies and specific structure of those other Universities did not exist at Harvard. There was, it seemed, no widespread "alienation" of the student body, no breakdown in communications between students, teachers and administrators in an academic community with decentralized power and remarkable integration of all its parts.

To some extent, this judgment was right. If Harvard succeeded in recovering quickly from the shock of the events of April 9-10, it was largely because of such factors. However, the recovery is precarious and the shock was colossal. Harvard's resilience is great. But Harvard's complacency has been mistaken, not because it was wrong to believe, say, that the deficiencies of Columbia analyzed by Professor Cox did not exist here, but because the obvious differences between Harvard and other Universities helped us underemphasize two crucial factors, both of which had become apparent long before the April days, albeit in diffuse and disconnected ways.

On the one hand, the crises in the other Universities were mere manifestations of a widespread crisis of the University in advanced capitalist societies. It was naive to believe that a movement as broad and as deep as present student unrest would spare an academic community that prides it self not only on its intellectual achievements but also on its general involvement and leadership role. Indeed, Harvard's pride--some would call it self-satisfaction--only served to delay recognition of the fact that what was happening here was not a succession of discrete loud knocks at the door but the poundings of a tidal wave.

On the other hand, in such a situation--when the traditional University finds itself challenged and questiones and provoked--it is inevitable that structural inadequacies get displayed. For the old structures are simply not equipped for such a challenge. The challenge itself is due in part to the fact that procedures, rules and institutions devised in earlier times are no longer adequate to, or functional for, what the University has become. The myth of the traditional University remains what could be called the Barzun ideology, or the concept of the liberal arts College, or the dream of the temple of learning, disinterested and politically or socially neutral. The reality is of course quite different, as shown by the growth of specialization, research and involvement in public affairs. This discrepancy explains why, in every confrontation, events are actually shaped by the idiosyncracies of the particular University under stress.

It is also easy to see why any serious confrontation can threaten the whole life of a University. As long as there are only minor tests, the old habits and established procedures prevent most members of the community from taking a full view of the crisis. One handles the issues raised one by one, and tries to fit a complex and global challenge into creaky mechanisms that were set up to cope with such a situation. Now, inevitably, they perform erratically: not well enough to appease the desires of the impatient ones, not to mention the rebels who would anyhow not want these institutions to succeed; not firmly enough for those who see in the challenge a threat; not badly enough for most people to see how serious the problem is. And so the confrontation comes. If the moment is well chosen, if the issues or demands are of sufficient resonance, if the response aggravates divisions (and it is hard to imagine a response that somehow does not), then into a local incident the following forces can get plugged: student discontent with society and the world, much of which is beyond the University's capacity to handle; student discontent with the University's education, structures, and policies; the strong desire of black students for an aggressive University effort to develop Black Studies; the deep cleavages which this challenge exposes within the University on how to cope with such issues; the particular flaws of the University's patterns of authority and institutions; and, needless to say, the hazards of personality.

It is obvious, finally, that any study of the Harvard crisis can be no more than a short chapter in the sprawling study of the crisis of modern youth and modern academia. It is almost impossible to separate what is true for Harvard alone and what is valid more universally. A complete description of the crisis would try, more rigorously, to focus on the unique features of this community. A summary report on causes can hope to do little more than show how Harvard's concrete case illustrates general propositions, or rather how its peculiar ordeal revealed a general plight.

Like all human institutions moving into a new era, Harvard has suffered from inner structural defects and the inadequacies of accepted practices. To be sure, the University has been anything but an unchanging institution. In the realms of teaching, curriculum and research there has, in fact, been constant innovation. All of these changes, whether good or bad, in what most might regard as the central functional area of the University, have been carried out within the framework of an administrative structure which has been accepted until recently as more or less adequate by most of the constituencies of the larger Harvard community.

What has revealed the insufficiencies of this structure has been the arrival of a remarkable student generation many of whose members share with their peers elsewhere an enormous dissatisfaction with the world in which they now find themselves. These dissatisfactions express themselves quite differently among different students and by no means affect the entire student community. The expressions of discontent run the gamut from a cultural "hippie" rebellion to extreme political radicalism. Politically concerned students brought up to trust their leaders and to expect good will and progress from them, have in the recent years undergone an experience which has been tantamount to the discovery of sin, the end of trust, and an overflow of guilt for having been acquiescent or "accomplices" for so long. As trust has waned, many students have been impelled to look to the University to provide that which church and state no longer seem to provide. The continuing agony of Vietnam, coinciding with the upsetting political events of 1968, have turned their attention inward onto the University which is their temporary home.

During the academic year which has just ended, there has without doubt been marked escalation of such student dissatisfaction and ferment. The incidents of recent years (the McNamara, Dow, and Paine Hall incidents) were initiated by small groups of students with definite radical images of the world. The issues involved in these incidents produced a much wider impact insofar as they touched on matters concerned with the war. There was thus a large audience prepared to treat the presence of ROTC at Harvard as a symbol of Vietnam and militarism.

The growing involvement of many students with these issues inevitably led to increasing interest in the issue of University governance and the general process of decision-making at Harvard. This led, in turn, to an increased faculty concern with the same order of problems. Discontents on the matter of University governance which had long lain dormant were suddenly reawakened. The concrete result of this new concern with University structure led most concretely to the formation of the Student Faculty Advisory Council and of the Fainsod Committee. The formation of these bodies, far from stilling discussion, actually stimulated further interest in all matters of University administration.

It had already become apparent that the growth of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences had, by itself, put in question the efficacy of its traditional procedures. The rapid multiplication of new issues -- educational, political, procedural, disciplinary -- raised by the students brought forth a great variety of responses from the Faculty. These responses often created an impression of confusion. They, along with the new issues themselves, strained further the established procedures, as well as the relations between the Faculty and the group of men who came to be called "the Administration." The former may have appeared, in the eyes of the latter (and of a part of the Faculty itself) more eager for change under pressure than for orderly procedures and deliberations. The Administration, in turn, appeared to many Faculty members too defensive and too slow in (and also insufficiently staffed for) dealing with the new issues. The debate over the disciplinary consequences of Paine Hall revealed the growing distance between a large section of the Faculty and the Administration, as well as between groups in the Faculty.

It is within this context and climate that a new conflict was to arise concerning the status of ROTC at Harvard. A considerable number of the students correctly interpreted the Faculty resolution of ROTC of February 4, which aimed at taking ROTC out of the curriculum, as essentially negative to the continued presence of ROTC at Harvard, even though the Faculty had rejected the outright abolition of ROTC. The resolution itself was not free of ambiguities, and various statements subsequently issued by the Corporation and the President were seen by the same students as emphatically affirmative to the continued presence of ROTC, thus disregarding the spirit if not the letter of the Faculty's resolution.

It would appear that the Administration was strongly motivated by its concern with the effects of the ROTC decision on the outside world. While this concern is entirely understandable, one may well question whether the Administration was responding in this case with sufficient sensitivity to the new climate or to the new need for bringing both Faculty and students into the arena of discussion on issues of this type. Given the deep feelings of large sectors of the student body on the war and all matters related thereto, one wonders whether in this instance a concern for the sensibilities of the internal constituencies of the University should not have out-weighed the importance of effects on the world outside.