WHEN student activism lulled following the chaos of the student strikes of 1969 and 1970, many observers were quick to hail the demise of campus politics and the growth of alcohol, drugs and apathy. Last Spring the political somnolence of Harvard students was shaken, if not to full wakefulness, at least to a semi-conscious state.
Three events were mainly responsible for this shaking one of them the war was well trod territory, while the others--an imbroglio over investment in Portuguese Africa and a controversy over a cut in pay to teaching fellows--were fresh ground. On top of these, a host of other issues embroiled those on the campus who were specifically concerned with them and sometimes those who couldn't really care less but had nothing better to do with their time.
The familiar heat of antiwar fever surged sharply but briefly, after President Nixon's decision to escalate the bombing of North Vietnam and mine the country's harbors. Yet peace activity was both slower and less forceful at Harvard than at many other colleges throughout the nation. While many schools were whipped into nearly instantaneous rage following Nixon's March 30 speech, students here failed to mount any serious antiwar actions until a week later when a loose coalition of antiwar groups called a mass campus meeting to plan protests.
The first of these mass meetings--which were held in Sanders Theatre with overflow audience accommodated in Lowell Lecture Hall--drew about 2200 people. But this group quickly dwindled as the resolutions put to vote appeared increasingly contradictory and the debate meaningless. The most notable result of the first meeting was the declaration of a five-day University-wide strike with a stipulation that a second mass meeting be held at the end of that time to consider further action.
MANY who attended the meeting and who listened to it broadcast over Harvard radio station WHRB were unclear about what constituted a strike. One faction said it meant a boycott of all classes; another group said it meant a general orientation toward antiwar activity--classes would not necessarily be skipped unless there was a conflicting peace protest planned. In any case, by the end of the five-day strike period only about 10 per cent of the student body were cutting classes--just about the normal percentage during the academic year.
Attendance at the second mass meeting was sharply reduced: only about 700 people showed up and most of them didn't stay for long. The debate bogged down over the very question of whether a continuation of an announced boycott of classes was a proper course for the protest to take. The meeting initially passed a resolution terminating the strike, but later, as the attendance dropped, it reversed itself and passed a resolution continuing the strike indefinitely.
The weary protesters adjourned the meeting before any vote could be taken on resolutions calling for substantive antiwar actions. And the next morning, class attendance showed that the call for a strike had gone almost entirely unheeded. Antiwar protests continued among smaller, specialized groups, but the attempt to give the movement a mass. University-wide base had failed.
AMUCH MORE DRAMATIC conflict--and one which ran concurrent to and may have sapped some of the strength of the antiwar movement--was the controversy surrounding Harvard's ownership of 683,000 shares of Gulf Oil Corporation stock. A group of black students, calling themselves the Pan-African Liberation Committee (PALC), called upon the University to sell its shares in Gulf--valued at about $18.5 million--and thus sever its connection with the company the group said was causing the greatest harm to the people of southern Africa.
PALC accused Gulf, which maintains oil drilling facilities in the Portuguese colony of Angola, of providing crucial revenues and support for the Portuguese government in their suppression of independence movements in their African colonies. After seven months of delays by the Administration while they weighed alternative approaches to the situation, PALC staged a two-hour mill-in at University Hall, the campus's main administrative building.
Shortly afterward, President Bok's assistant on investment policy, Stephen B. Farber '63, issued a report presenting the arguments given by each side in the dispute. The report was given to the Harvard Corporation, the University's highest governing body which holds responsibility for all investment decisions. After considering Farber's arguments, as well as meeting with the black student leaders, the Corporation decided not to sell the stock. Instead, it said it would await further factual information, which Gulf promised to release, and a trip by Farber to Angola, which it said would provide first-hand information on the situation in Africa.
The blacks, infuriated by the Administration's response, decided to occupy Massachusetts Hall, the building which houses the offices of the President and his staff. At about 5:30 a.m. the day after the Corporation's decision was announced, 35 students entered Mass Hall through a first-floor window and said they would not leave until Harvard sold its stock.
THE OCCUPATION quickly gathered support among the University community, with faculty as well as students--sometimes numbering as many as 1000--marching around the building in support of the occupiers. While the blacks inside the building read announcements and played soul music over a make-shift public address system set up in a second-floor window, supporters maintained a picket line around the building 24 hours a day during the occupation as a safeguard against a police bust. The commotion was so great that some freshmen in Yard dorms adjacent to Mass Hall temporarily moved to local hotels--at University expense.
From the start of the occupation, the Administration followed a sit-tight policy, preferring to pursue increasingly severe legal sanctions against the demonstrators rather than use police power to evict them. And despite the worries of some frantic letter-writing alumni who scorned the trespass on sacred University property (Mass Hall is Harvard's oldest brick structure, built in 1720), the strategy paid off. Only a week after the occupation began, the blacks decided to vacate the building rather than face heavy fines and jail sentences.
"These sentences would remove us from the struggle," the last voice to come over the loud speaker explained. "The issue is Harvard out of Gulf and not Mass Hall."
The wheels of University discipline then began to turn, but they yielded one of the most tame and puzzling verdicts ever delivered. The Committee one Rights and Responsibilities, itself a frequent target of radical attacks, decided against any punishment for any of the occupiers. Instead it handed down what it called a suspended requirement to withdraw. This meant that all the students were told their offense merited a suspension from the University for a year, but that because of their strongly held convictions and the non-violent nature of their protest, the faculty suspended the punishment.