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A Siege Mentality


By Gay Seidman

IT WAS NOT a pleasant sight: Harvard's President Derek C. Bok, stalking tight-lipped through the Yard, followed by at least 75 chanting students who would not leave the poor man alone--through the Yard, across Mass Ave, down a block, across the street again, and finally, as he tried to get away in a siren-shrill police car.

The entire episode must have been fairly disturbing to Bok and the protective group of deans who surrounded him late Monday afternoon. The horde of students--which earlier had been much larger and perhaps even more ferocious--had demanded Bok's presence at their rally to protest Harvard's holdings in companies operating in Southern Africa. The protesters had frequently raised their fists in threatening gestures toward the building in which they believed Bok sat; the whole scene must have been frightfully reminiscent of the crowds of angry students at the height of the antiwar movement.

No, it would be unfair to say Bok's reaction--that tightlipped stalk across the Yard--was a particularly surprising one. If these students wanted only a confrontation, why should he submit? Especially when, as everyone knows, confrontation leads only to deadlock and frustration, serving no constructive purpose.

It must have seemed a bit pointless; he already knew--if only from the Corporation's open hearing on the subject--that students feel strongly about Harvard's links to South Africa, and this ugly scene did little more than reinforce that sense. As he zigzagged across Mass Ave, pressed onward by chanting students who had already barred his entrance to Mass Hall, he must have wondered what he had done to deserve this fate. At which point, apparently, he reached that much-repeated conclusion, "It's just another day in the life of a university president."

BOK KNOWS BETTER than anyone else, of course, what a university president's life is really like. But somehow, his wry comment doesn't quite ring true. For the past four years, at least, Bok has been spared student demonstrations of more than 300 or 400 people; the demonstration that gave rise to this particular incident drew more than 1000 students at its height, a clear sign that something out of the ordinary is going on. To imply, as Bok appears to have done, that Harvard students frequently ask the president to voice an opinion on any issue--or at least, that they do so in a somewhat threatening manner--is to ignore the three-year lapse since the afternoon sit-in of Mass Hall over the DuBois Institute funding; the six-year lapse since Harvard students took over Mass Hall to demand that Harvard sell its shares in an oil company that supported Portugal's colonizing efforts in Angola; and, most importantly, the nine years that have passed since Bok's predecessor, Nathan M. Pusey '28, called the Cambridge police in to remove 150 demonstrators from University Hall. The swarms of police and the proliferation of locked doors that have appeared in the Yard all week bear witness to the administration's siege mentality. Bok seems to have forgotten, somehow, that the days of rage are over, and th at Harvard's presidents rarely run away from demonstrators any more.

It is possible, of course, that Bok declined to discuss his views on the subject of American companies in southern Africa because he does not believe this particular group of students would have deemed them acceptable. He did not bother to repeat at the Corporation's open hearing a statement he made at two less formal meetings with undergraduates in the Houses--that he finds it "charming" that undergraduates think they can influence corporations. Certainly, that statement would not have elicited polite applause form the people who followed Bok across the Yard Monday. It would have been impolitic, at best, to throw his views in their faces.

And yet, it is hard to avoid a sneaking suspicion that it was equally impolitic for Bok to refuse to stop and talk. Students do feel strongly about South Africa--they have demonstrated again and again the depth of their feeling on the matter--and one might consider it Bok's duty to hear the litany once again, no matter how bored with the subject he might be. And then, too many people have pointed out the discrepancy between the widely held view of the present student generation as apathetic and apolitical and the wide support the question of divestiture from South Africa is receiving. If only out of simple curiosity, one might have expected Bok to stop and inquire about the source of his students' reborn moral concern.

It would not have taken so very much, alter all. Most of the people who followed Bok down Mass Ave are hardly fringe extremists. They had asked more politely to speak to Bok on several occasions; Bok declined to make appointments in his office, declined to address rallies, declined to respond to most questions at the Corporation hearing. If Bok had only turned around and acknowledged--as Deans Fox and Epps did later--that the students might have a point about the role of U.S. corporations, he would undoubtedly have been left alone. (Probably he would have been left alone no matter what his view, though his image as a good liberal might have suffered.) Certainly he was in no physical danger: the plethora of policemen in the Yard attested to his safety, even if the general decorum of the entire afternoon did not. Indeed, his decision to leave U-Hall while the demonstrators still sat outside suggests Bok was not particularly afraid of actual violence. In the end, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Bok, rather than the students, forced the confrontation.

In the wake of University threats of disciplinary action against students who blocked Bok's entrance to Mass Hall Monday, it seems only fair to ask who raised the ruckus. It would not have taken so very much for Bok to think of a few words to say before he emerged from University Hall--particularly because he must have known that students were waiting for him to appear. Six months or so after President Bok took office, during the days when he shone in contrast to Pusey's tarnished image, a Crimson editor wrote that Bok "not only lacked substance, but showed contempt for substance. For to Bok, the form is all." In retrospect the words of G. Garrett Epps '73 seem extraordinarily prophetic. On Monday it was Pusey's tarnished image, a Crimson editor wrote that Bok "not only lacked substance, but showed contempt for substance. For to Bok, the form is all." In retrospect, the words of G. Garrett Epps '73 seem extraordinarily prophetic. On Monday, it was the form--a confrontation between students and a university president--that caught onlookers' attention. The content--the fact that Bok himself initiated the confrontation and the fact that students have been moderate and reasonable throughout the South Africa demonstrations--seems to have gotten lost in the maelstrom. So long as the University administration continues to refuse to engage in open dialogue, acts born of student frustration will continue.

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