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Commencement Forecast: Gusts of Hot Air, No Turbulence

By Jennifer M. Frey

Twenty years ago this Commencement, a young community activist led 20 protesters onto the stage at Tercentenary Theater, bringing the most sacred of Harvard rituals to a standstill.

That woman, Saundra M. Graham, demanded a microphone to make her case against the University in front of the tens of thousands who had gathered to celebrate, not criticize, Harvard.

She was given the microphone--for two minutes.

Graham's action was the symbolic culmination of two years of escalating activism at Harvard. Just the month before, the day-to-day workings of the University had ground to a halt when students struck to protest academia's complicity in the Vietnam War.

What brought Graham to the stage was deep-seated resentment toward Harvard's dealings with the local community. The corporation, she told the audience at that Commencement, was recklessly committed to expanding its interests in the Cambridge real estate market without any discussion.

Harvard may not have wanted to listen, but Graham forced her issue that Commencement Day. And in doing so, reminded the 1300 graduating seniors of the battles they had fought to make their own voices heard during their four-year sojourn in Cambridge.

From Black students' demands for an Afro-American Studies department to the concerns of the nascent women's movement and the successful protests to kick the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) off campus, students had mobilized. They had marched and boycotted classes and taken over buildings. And they hadn't waited for their degrees to recognize the University's connections to the outside world.

So when Saundra Graham's speech interrupted the carefully planned Commencement ceremony, her protest was a final reminder of those lessons.

TWENTY years after that commencement, there will be no Saundra Graham to disrupt our festivities.

There will be symbolic gestures of protest, of course. Students will wear buttons, perhaps even hold signs. Some of those in this year's audience will have fought to keep ROTC off campus. they will have staged protest in front of University Hall and boycotted classes.

And they will have had, on the surface, a very different kind of Harvard Experience from their predecessors in the Class of '70. They will have been taught by a few more women, a few more minorities; they will have read a established canon of "great literature." And among their ranks will be hundreds of students who attended classes offered in Afro-American studies and the first graduates of a fully accredited women's studies program.

But despite the changes--and despite the continued tradition of activism at Harvard--President Derek C. Bok still remains unchallenged today from his podium on the stage of Tercentenary Theater.

Unchallenged because Harvard's Faculty of arts and Sciences still has only 35 tenured women professors, and 29 tenured minority professors among its nearly 400 members. And not a single Black woman with a senior faculty position.

Unchallenged because junior faculty members still haven't a hope of advancement within the university. and because Harvard still feels no need to value teaching and advising--the things that matter most to students--in making promotion decisions.

Unchallenged because, despite years of student pressure, the University continues to hold investments in companies that do business in South Africa. And continues to operate with investment standards more appropriate to a Wall Street firm than an academic insitution that ostensibly puts ethical considerations ahead of financial ones.

Unchallenged because the University maintains its research connections to the federal government and the military--unscrutinized.

Unchallenged because Harvard's promise of diversity is still an empty one for those who are the statistics. Because their is no women's center. Because there are few, if any, meaningful attempts to break down racial barriers. Because tuition continues to increase far faster than inflation, despite a $5 billion endowment.

The list goes on...reminders that when Bok stands before us today, he goes unchallenged.

BOK and his closest advisors rule Harvard with an iron hand not only because of their specific policies, but because they have defined the role of the University in the two decades since Saundra Graham--and so many others--called for its reevaluation.

What made those voices of 20 years ago so insistent in their critique of Harvard was the realization that the concept of education itself had to be rethought. That academia had helped shape those same social problems the activists of 1970 were protesting. And that students could no longer separate what was happening in the world from what was happening on their own campus, in their own classrooms.

This is the lost legacy of campus activism 20 years ago--a legacy not only of results, but also of questions. When Saundra graham seized the stage, she demanded something more than concrete action by Harvard. She demanded the right to pose her own questions. Many of the student members of that Commencement audience had also taken up the challenge.

Twenty years after that Commencement, there will be no Saundra Graham. There will be no disruptive students. There will be no questions.

Susan B. Glasser '90, a Social Studies concentrator, was managing editor of The Crimson in 1989 Jennifer M. Frey '90, a History and Literature concentrator, was sports editor of The Crimson in 1989.

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