Ties and Takeovers Don't Mix
DIVESTMENT protesters Sunday should have chanted: "hey, hey, ho, ho, Board of Overseers-Corporation joint committee with an undetermined constitution and timetable has got to go." Or maybe instead: "hey, hey, hey, bring the University's junior governing body to a full vote on our institutional ties to South Africa today."
These protesters don't deserve to use the catchier slogans they dragged out for their spring sing-a-long outside 17 Quincy Street last weekend--those belong to another age when radical students believed in their causes and took drastic actions to further them.
Instead of storming University Hall, Harvard protesters now submit reputable reports on the University's governance structure. Rather than fire-bombing offices, they campaign for pro-divestment candidates to the Board of Overseers. Forums on free speech have replaced divestment marches once so large they stopped all traffic in the square. Pseudo-political sophistication is predominant where once single-minded devotion and a willingness to risk injury and expulsion reigned.
Harvard protesters have lost sight of the prize--divestment--and instead have been mesmerized by the University's picayune bureaucratic processes. The Committee on University Practices--a little activist group which proudly calls itself "Coup" much the same way Sinclair Lewis' Babbitt labelled himself "important"--displays this misguidedness in all its splendor. Last year Coup demanded that Harvard reduce the 50-year rule on its secret records. This year Coup held a contest to name Harvard's most "inaccessible administrator." If the University doesn't come around these radical activists may roll up their sleeves, put up their dukes and write President Bok a nasty letter.
THE willingness to focus on the issues of governance and process has stripped the divestment movement of any of its force. Last weekend's protest--both inside and outside 17 Quincy--were a painful demonstration of the activists' impotence. In the meeting, "insurgent" Overseers spent as much time arguing about Robert's Rules of Order as about South African investments. Outside, protesters listened to speakers: one from the African National Congress, a former state representative and an erstwhile activist who favors army surplus clothing and an earring. None of the Overseers took special notice of the protest, which has become as much a fixture of their meetings as the little cups of tea and pastries they must get for refreshment.
In case anyone missed the news, Harvard did not divest.
And make no mistake about it, if campus activists continue to play Harvard's governance game, they will never force the University to do anything. Take the Corporation-Undergraduate Council meeting, for example. Activists like Rob Weissman worried about getting an "activist representative" included in the group which met with Harvard's governing body--instead of thinking of ways to convince the Corporation of the errors of its ways. Protesters are no longer bringing important issues to light and forcefully impressing them on the Harvard consciousness--this used to be the way to unite the student body and produce reform. They are only becoming institutionalized within the Harvard administrative process.
Perhaps activists feel proud that they have won access to Harvard's decision-making process. But they have only played into the University's hands. Their demands are now filled with talk of "governance" and of "freedom" of speech and movement; virtually gone is the word "divestment." If the campus activist movement inherited anything from the sixties, it should have learned that only violent, disruptive tactics will force the Administration to change its ways.
WHERE did the activists lose their way? Part of the blame has to lie with the alumni who campaigned to place their insurgents on the Board of Overseers. While the product of a sincere desire to have a say in decision-making, the alumni movement has also drawn students to the governance red herring. Divestment activists who once built shanties now stuff envelopes urging alumni to vote for Peter Wood for Overseer. In the sixties, radical college students learned to distrust their elders. Now their alumni elders have become their role models.
Some of the disintegration of the campus protest movement naturally comes from the aging of any extremist group as its views and tactics move toward the center (or as the center moves toward it). A similar phenomenon accompanied the success of SCLC and SNCC in the civil rights movement. Perhaps the divestment movement is just becoming old and tired--especially to the students that have watched it spring after spring.
But the real reason is what can only be labelled the "professionalization" of campus protest. An activist friend once described to me the intense and meticulous planning that went into the building of the shanties two years ago--certain groups were detailed to certain duties according to a precise timetable. Press releases are prepared and media representatives are sought for events that are calculated to produce the "right" image in the next day's news-papers and TV. People are designated to be arrested while volunteer lawyers are placed in strategic positions to make sure no one gets hurt.
All this effort is intended to reproduce the campus upheavals of 1969 which destroyed the presidency of Nathan Pusey and won Harvard national condemnation. But if the protests of recent years have proved anything, they have showed that today's activists have nothing like the fervor, determination or devotion those 1960s men and women did. The protesters of the 1980s seem too fascinated by calculated war plans and too worried by arrest to follow in the footsteps of their predecessors.
EVERY now and then, of course they try to prove their activist heritage by blockading dinners or shouting down speakers. But then they shift the debate all of a sudden to freedom of speech and freedom of movement. If today's activists want to play it safe, avoid arrest and wear their ties to meetings with the Corporations, they can. But they cannot play the radical protester at the same time. Schizophrenia is unhealthy for anyone--including activists.