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Committee of Fifteen Explains Its Decisions


(Following are excerpts from the Committee of Fifteen's letter to students disciplined for the University Hall occupation.)

The Committee of Fifteen is fully aware of the diversity of motives that led students to participate in the forcible occupation of University Hall. Many had not approved of the decision to occupy the building or joined in any planning of the seizure. Some entered University Hall, and remained there, out of a desire to bear witness against evils or injustices which pervade our society or state policies. Some were unhappy about acts or statements of members of the University administration or governing boards, or impatient with what they regard as the slowness or bias of procedures for the redress of grievance. Some felt a deep urge to assert their solidarity with those who had taken a grave and perilous step and to establish a community in the midst of what many students deem a cold and impersonal University. Such motives were, on the whole, honorable and sometimes noble. However, the act itself--joining the forcible occupation of University Hall--must be severely judged. Those who joined a given group because they share some of its purposes cannot absolve themselves of all responsibility for the actions and tactics of the group.

One may sympathize with the motives of many of the occupiers, or share their views about the University or about American society. But there are more constructive ways of pursuing goals. The University had responded, however imperfectly or tortuously, to students concerns and initiatives in the months that preceded these events. If many felt that the response was inadequate, there were peaceful ways of convincing others of the rightness of one's cause, or of the need to transform Harvard's relations with the world at large, or Harvard's procedures of decision. The best way is to put forth intelligent proposals, to use existing mechanism in order to persuade others, to suggest and promote new mechanisms, to mobilize support behind such proposals--in other words, to make use off all the opportunities provided by the University without violating its basic commitment to reasoned discourse. The previous argument would not be valid had this University been a totally coercive institution. But whatever Harvard's flaws and failure, about which this committee intends to speak clearly and firmly, there were other ways of dealing with them than the forcible occupation of University Hall.

As for those whose target was society, an evil and unjustifiable war, and the University's supposed connections with social injustice, they often argue that students who feel impotent both as citizens and as a minority with limited rights and powers can make their influence felt only in the University. But the fact remains that striking at the University is likely to produce not a better society but one more repressive and not at all more enlightened. Whatever else may be said of Harvard, its intellectual life serves to generate criticisms of society and, to a considerable degree, to provide catalysts of constructive social change.

Even if one believes that the ends justified the means, those who today assert that the seizure produced worth-while results might realize that the costs themselves were too high. These results, insofar as they are due to force, derive at least as much from the shock of the bust as from that of the seizure. In the wake of these shocks, what put the place together again and made it move forward was a generalized and passionate display of the good uses of reason: colloquia, meetings, discussion, negotiations, most of which proved constructive and orderly. Surely the price paid by the University--animosities, divisions, sanctions, fatigue, the genuine suffering inflicted by the events on so many, and the diversion of energy from the essential functions of the University--proves that disruptive tactics cannot become a recurrent method of government or progress. Surely, the members of this community and especially the students have enough imagination to produce the benefits without the costs. Confrontation, violent action and reaction, the radicalization of some and the alienation of others are not constructive in themselves.

Finally, some of the means were bad in themselves. An academic community must be committed to the use of reason and the avoidance of violence. To be sure, there was more violence during the bust than in the seizure; this Committee has no intention of endorsing this bust and addresses itself to this matter in a separate document. But had there been no forcible seizure of the building, there would not have been any reason to call the police; had this seizure not been accompanied by intolerable acts of force and violence, the idea that an early call was necessary would not have arisen in the minds of some. The resort to the police, while it may have momentarily erased in the minds of many the responsibility of those who had seized the building, does not in fact excuse them.

Violence is simply not compatible with the serious and sustained intellectual work which is the essence of a University. The very intellectual processes on which study, teaching and research depend cannot proceed in the atmosphere of destructive emotions which invariably accompany violence and which are too often unleashed by it. If the University is to make any contribution toward reducing or overcoming the violence that on oasis of non-violence. This does not prevails in the world it must remain mean that even subtle forms of repression and authoritarianism which any hierarchical (or for that matter "participatory") organization creates must be accepted; it means that they must be fought in ways that are not self-defeating.

Of course, many will argue that their presence in the building was entirely peaceful, and that the only violence was that which occurred at their expense at 5:00 a.m. But those who joined in what had begun as a violent take-over and who asserted through their presence their solidarity with the small group that had seized the building (a group many members of which broke that solidarity by seeing to it that they, at least, would be out before the police came in) made themselves willy nilly the pawns of that group. The non-violent ones thus place themselves at the mercy of the more violent ones and aligned themselves with the most intransigent. Those who came into protest against the lack of dialogue in the University abetted those who refused any dialogue at all. Those who came in with the hope of improving the University, served those who wanted to shut it down. Those who came to protest against Vietnam, the very symbol of violence, became the hostages of those who favor violence as the method of change.

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