Harvard's Blacklist

Intimidating students by e-mail will increase, rather than quell, student discontent

Last Friday, College administrators sent an e-mail to several members of the Progressive Student Labor Movement (PSLM) saying they had been observed in Mass. Hall during a “teach-in” on Feb. 21 and notifying them that they could be suspended if they repeated the action. While the e-mail itself was a clumsy and counterproductive attempt to intimidate PSLM, it was even more startling that the e-mail was sent to some students who weren’t actually in Mass. Hall on Feb. 21.

The message was clearly an attempt at intimidation—only a day before, the administration had announced its “interpretation” that students occupying buildings would be subject to suspension. Intimidating e-mails to students are hardly the best way to begin a new, more cordial relationship with PSLM now that the janitors’ contract has finally been settled.

President Lawrence H. Summers and other administrators are justified in their efforts to prevent “any further disruptive behavior of this kind,” but they should try to do so with constructive dialogue—not threats. Intimidation is an inappropriate and ineffective tactic for the administration to use with fellow members of this academic community; problems can be better averted by talking to students rather than by sending intimidating e-mails via students’ senior tutors.

While it is understandable that the administration keeps a list of people who have occupied buildings in the past, they should not use it to preemptively intimidate students. It is hardly necessary to add that the administration should not make the mistake of sending inaccurate e-mails to students who weren’t in Mass. Hall on Feb. 21 if it hopes to maintain its credibility. By sending warning messages to members of PSLM who had no part in the most recent teach-in rather than just to students who actually participated, the administration cannot hope to avoid the implication that its action was intended as a threat, not as merely an explanation of consequences for a past action.

The administration is not perfect; it will make mistakes from time to time. Sending an e-mail to the wrong list of people is a mistake, but it is more embarrassing than damaging. But sending a message—an e-mail rather than a more respectful old-fashioned letter—that is intimidating rather than constructive is more than a mistake. It gives the distinct impression of an administration unable to resolve the debate over workers’ wages that has occupied campus for years, an administration unwilling to create a more open and consultative dialogue on the critical issues affecting the University.