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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.

All of these matters had created great ferment and new tensions within the University community. The fact remains that none of these tensions led to any fundamental breach of civility on the part of most students or to any serious break with the commonly accepted rules of University life. The strength of the Harvard community had by no means been dissipated. None of this directly caused the forcible seizure of University Hall on April 9, even though those who initiated that seizure were counting heavily on the widespread discontents.

In order to explain the seizure of University Hall, we must turn our attention to that group of students within the SDS which had developed a very definite image of the world. This image contained certain well defined components. To these students Harvard University is an integral part of a thoroughly repressive social system. Not only does it service this system with all its experts and elite cadres, but its ruling elements are themselves part of an imperialist ruling class bent on exploiting the entire world. The revolutionary students see themselves as representing the true interests of the popular masses who do not as yet have any true understanding of their own class interests. They remain the victims of a "false consciousness" created by the mass media of capitalist monopoly. The first task of students, however, is to radicalize their own fellow students and thus increase the ranks of the vanguard. The use of militant action against the established University authorities serves to discredit that authority and to radicalize the students.

The small group of students who decided, on April 9, to seize University Hall and to throw out the Deans may have had such aims, and may have wanted to exploit the discontent created by the ROTC issue. Among the "six demands" on behalf of which they seized the building, two referred to ROTC and called for its abolition, thus entering into conflict with the Faculty; one demand dealt with the loss of some scholarship money for students placed on probation afttr Paine Hall; three of the demands referred to Harvard's expansion, an issue that had previously raised more concern in Cambridge than on campus.

The students who joined the small, first wave, immediately or later in the day, were moved by very different motives. Some came out of sympathy for the demands, or out of conviction that the ordinary channels were clogged. Others came to bear witness against the Vietnam war, or its symbol on campus, ROTC. Others came out of general dissatisfaction with Harvard education or procedures. Others came out of a desire for solidarity with the occupiers, or for an exhilarating experience. Thus the group in the building was far from homogenous. The numbers in the building did not exceed 200 to 300, and there was little evidence of widespread student support outside.

There were obvious perils for the University in merely waiting for the occupation to end. The ejection of the Deans--an act of force unprecedented at Harvard--the importance of the building, the presence in it of confidential files of the Faculty and the students, the risk of an invasion of the Yard by outsiders--supporters of the occupiers or self-appointed vigilantes--the danger of more building seizures, the need to show the nation that Harvard would not tolerate disruption, the risk that (as at Columbia) any delay might bring forth student or Faculty sympathy for the disrupters, these were strong arguments for early action.

However, in weighing risks and alternatives at the Council of Deans, the President and the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences seem to have underestimated the costs of the costs of the course of action they selected. Waiting or calling the police at once were not the only alternatives. A third one was available, but it was too easily discarded, or perhaps even ruled out by the narrowness of the process of decision and consultation and by the overriding determination to act without delay. The President could have chosen to present a course of action to the Faculty and the students with the goal of rallying a broad consensus behind him. Such a course could still have been firm and swift, but it would have been aimed as much at mobilizing the loyalty of, and at preventing a further schism in the community, as at putting an early end to the occupation. This was, after, all neither a problem of the legal authority to make a decision in such an instance (this authority was clearly the President's) nor was it a mere problem of management. It was a matter of judgment and wisdom. The way in which the decision was reached and carried out resulted form, revealed and reenforced the elements of distrust, the problems of faulty communication, and the deficiencies of the decision-making process which had gradually become apparent in previous months. It is true that the crisis was overcome. But it has left deep traces, divisions have been exacerbated despite the remarkable display of a general determination to save and reform the University. Moreover, as long as the deeper causes of the crisis have not been coherently dealt with, these is still a danger of major new explosions

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