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A Parting Shot

By Garrett Epps, President, 1971-72

The last veteran of the American Civil War died on December 19, 1959. His name was Walter Williams and he claimed to have served as a foragemaster with the Confederate Fifth Cavalry under General John B. Hood. He survived the last Union veteran by nearly three years. Shortly before he died, he was asked about the war. "It didn't settle anything," he said.

When the Class of 1972 graduates in June, the last organized group of undergraduates which participated in the Harvard strike of 1969 will have left the University. And so ephemeral are the politics of Harvard's undergraduate student body--and so great the self-willed forgetfulness of the larger institution--that the metaphor of the last veteran, outlandish as it seems, is not totally inapt. When we leave, the bonds and rifts which the strike set up between us will vanish, and the last few remnants of a collective mind which at odd moments during that battle seemed fused into one inchoate but unanimous rage will be atomized. For most, the strike will become something they did at college. It will be a historical phenomenon.

For those in the classes below, this is probably one of the last lectures they will be subjected to about the meaning of a bizarre and murky struggle now three years in the past. It may be difficult for them to understand the sense of loss which I feel at this passing unless they realize that for me--and for many of those who participated--the strike was the most important experience of our lives. In countless small ways, the insights and ideas which came to us during April of 1969 still govern our thinking and our daily living. Affiliations, friendships, and hatreds which we formed then are still compelling, though we are now quite different people than we were when we stood at the steps of University Hall, or in Memorial Church, or in the end zone of the Harvard Stadium.

And so I would like to make some assessment of the strike as a historical phenomenon. It is no longer worthwhile to view it as living experience, for Harvard, like a river, is carrying its disruptive elements to the sea. The University has emerged unscathed; this being true, we must ask ourselves what meaning and result our strike had.

To begin with, we should view it as a concrete political struggle. Administrators, parents, professors, and psychiatrists have expended a great deal of effort to cloud the fact that the strike was fought for a group of specific demands. The major demands were three:

1. We demanded that Harvard abolish its ROTC program by breaking all existing contracts with the Department of Defense and not entering into any new ones. It seemed not unreasonable to ask that Harvard refuse to allow the American military to train its students to murder Indochinese with rifles and cannon and bombs. We won a victory against ROTC. Col. Pell packed up and went back to the Pentagon; Shannon Hall is now a day-care center.

But the victory is probably fleeting, Princeton, Brown, and Dartmouth all had their revolutions against ROTC too. But now, sensing that the coast is clear, the men who run these universities are openly considering inviting the military back on campus. Given the quiet that reigns at Harvard, it seems likely that tin soldiers with toy rifles will be marching here again quite soon.

And in a larger context, the triumph over ROTC meant little. At most it gave us a good feeling to have destroyed the crudest connection between our University and the war machine. But our strike did nothing material to slow up the flow of soldiers and pilots to Indochina: faced with loss of certain Ivy schools, the Pentagon quietly moved into colleges which it had previously considered unworthy and revamped its student training programs so that they would not require term-time campus training. And the abolition of ROTC left untouched the many more important ways in which Harvard serves the military. They have been detailed many times before; let it stand that a University which holds a chair for Henry Kissinger and harbors Samuel Huntington, Ernest May, and Roger Fisher cannot be said to have disengaged itself in any way from the war.

2. We demanded that Harvard drop its plans to demolish certain low-income housing units on University Road and near the Medical School's Affiliated Hospitals Center. Faced with pressure from students and tenants--and embarassed by a clumsy lie by its President--the Administration changed its plans. The housing is still standing; in the medical area, moreover, continued agitation by tenants and medical students has forced important concessions to the tenants' union there.

But again, this limited victory has not changed matters much. Harvard continues to view its tenants--and, indeed, most of the people of Cambridge--as chattel to be uprooted and driven out at will. Last spring's dispute over the use of the Treeland site illustrates nicely the arrogant, feudal paternalism with which Harvard manipulates Cambridge and its neighborhoods.

3. We asked that the Black Studies program be set up according to the agreement made earlier in the year between Harvard and Afro. Few people now remember the remarkable duplicity exhibited by the Administration in planning the Afro-American Studies Department. Although they had agreed earlier in the year that it was to be a full academic department, with a chairman and a Faculty, the Administration in April attempted to set it up as merely a Committee on Degrees, which would offer no courses other than tutorials and would grant degrees only to students who had completed all requirements in one of the existing departments. Incensed by this retreat, the Harvard Association of African and Afro-American Students joined the strike and won their original demand. The Department granted its first degrees last year, and it seem likely to survive as a healthy Department despite the present criticism. That Harvard, a racist institution throughout its history, should fund an academic center in which racism can be studied and combatted seems to me, then as now, an entirely reasonable and just demand.

But the worth of the demands does not explain the fact that hundreds of Harvard students were willing to face censure, disciplinary action, beatings or imprisonment to tell Harvard that its actions were reprehensible. There must, in fact, be larger causes behind the strike. These are many and various, for it happened at the end of a decade which had seen activism blossom across the American landscape. But to understand fully why many of us chose to oppose Harvard at that point in time we must examine the values which Harvard cherishes and teaches.

Harvard today clearly has little in common with the seminary established in Cambridge in 1636; our teachers are not much concerned with pointing us along the peculiar lonely path which the Puritans followed to spiritual salvation. Nor are its values those of classical education: Harvard really does not try very hard to force us to drink of the fountain of Western civilization.

The true value system of this University is that of Henry Kissinger, Samuel Huntington, John Dunlop, B.F. Skinner, and the other theorists of social manipulation who lurk around William James and Littauer. In the traditional sense, they are not values at all. For what binds these men together is an ethic of brute competence--a belief that they are members of an intellectual elite which is more clearly fitted to make the crucial decisions in American life than any other individual or group in the country. It is this, an absolute confidence in the intellectual and moral fitness of the A students to run every aspect of the nation and the world, that Harvard teaches us; and coupled with it comes an absolute contempt for the C students, for all those whose background or race or education or style mark them as unsuitable to join the elegant world of the elite. We learn here that the C students must be deprived of any power and prevented from making mistakes which the elite could avoid.

In 1969 we looked around and saw the United States transformed into a hideous monument to these men and their beliefs: cities everywhere run like kingdoms, filled with high-rises for the A students and rubble for the rest; an electoral system designed to preclude any real choice by those voting; a monstrous war begun by executive order and designed by the former Dean of the Harvard Faculty and his bright young cronies. Our rebellion was, in part, an attempt to destroy the identities which Harvard had prepared for us as administrators of the A students' empire, to reach out and proclaim our kinship with all those who had been denied admission: America's victims at home and abroad. We wanted to break down the walls which made us the rulers and them the ruled, and force the University to listen to our voices and theirs.

That we did not succeed is easily shown if we ask ourselves who benefited most from the strike. The answer is quite simple: the real victor in April, 1969 was Derek C. Bok, student hero and A student extraordinary.

Bok first impressed the powers-that-be by his cool handling of a miniature crisis at the Law School when the freneticism of the strike spilled over from Arts and Sciences. A group of first-year students held a "study-in" at the Law Library, refusing to leave at closing time to dramatize their demand for changes in the grading system.

In this hour of crisis, Bok, the school's dean, showed up to drink coffee and chat with the rebels. He assured them that he would consider their demands very carefully; they went home. The Law School escaped turmoil, and Bok became known as Harvard's coolest crisis handler.

Here is a key to Bok's style. The situation was not nearly as desperate as later accounts drew it; Bok was facing a group of rebels whose idea of protest was to sit at tables and read books when asked not to. And his responsiveness was largely illusory. After the incident, the Law Faculty passed a compromise plan which had been drawn up before the incident; a plan which instituted reform so mild as to be meaningless. Bok's glad-handing and oily sincerity at the "study-in" made no difference in the resolution of the issues in question. His presence was simply a device to reduce tension and pacify students; his gesture not only lacked substance, but showed contempt for substance.

For to Bok, the form is all. His only discernible goal as President is to avoid risk to his institution and minimize conflict which might threaten it by making cosmetic concessions which divide and pacify the constituencies he must manipulate. His change in Harvard's sex-ratio is an excellent example of this tyle of pacification. Bok has no desire to compromise Harvard's honored principle of male supremacy by making admission 1 to 1 or sex-blind. Demonstrations, petitions, letters, lawsuits--nothing will force him to admit that women deserve an equal place in the University. But neither will he make a profitless stand on the principle. Instead, he adjusts Harvard just enough to take the initiative away from those demanding change, makes the minimum effort necessary to blur the issue. Again, it is a politics of contempt, contempt for the policies instituted and for the constituencies at which they are aimed.

Contrast the slick maximizers who now glide through Massachusetts Hall with the zany Yankees--William Bentinck-Smith, J. Boyd Britton, F. Skiddy von Stade Jr.--with whom Pusey surrounded himself. For that matter, contrast Pusey himself with Bok. Nathan Pusey was a nasty old man obsessed with reactionary beliefs and values. Yet, for all that, he was more human than Bok. He had human loves and hates, and he was willing to fight to the death with any weapon he had to preserve his principles inviolate.

Two memories of Pusey stand out in my mind. After Harvard's upset victory over Yale in 1970, the Harvard band marched to Pusey's house and serenaded him with a medley of Harvard fight songs. The old man emerged from the house and accompanied the band on cymbals as it ripped through "Ten Thousand Men of Harvard." And in the spring of 1970, when he was asked what qualification he considered most important to his successor, he answered simply: "a belief in God."

Imagine the contempt and derision with which this was received in Langdell, Baker, Littauer, William James, and the Computer Center. With all the important skills necessary to manipulate a great university, the godstruck old fool had cited something as intangible as a belief. For it was not only Pusey's belief in God which was pitiful and funny: it was his belief in belief of any kind. Nothing more amuses the men who run this university--and their compatriots who run our society--than people with beliefs and no power.

And we who breifly shut Harvard down in 1969 were not only enemies to be checked; we were also jokes, pathetic Luddites trying to smash the fabric of the new American order without money or power or management skills. Our day, like Pusey's, had passed, and the future belonged to them, the smartest, most dynamic, most skillful group of technocrats the world had ever seen. Thus far, they are winning.

I will pass from this University in June, taking my memories of the strike and an academic transcript undistinguished by excellence or promise. I plan to talk to the C students of the nation, and I imagine I will be renewed by their common sense and their decency. Perhaps we can figure out some way to take our country away from the maximizers and technocrats and make it a free nation where everyone can live.

One of the slogans of the 1969 strike ended: Strike because they are trying to squeeze the life out of you. More and more I see that it is the A students, the Harvard men, who are squeezing the life out of me, and out of the American people and the cities and the countryside and, if they can, out of the trees and the grass and the sky. I plan to help stop them if I can.

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