Why I (sort of) Like SLAM

For the four years I’ve been at Harvard, the Student Labor Action Movement has been one of the least popular groups on campus. To be sure, the group is dedicated to an admirable goal—higher wages for Harvard’s lowest-paid employees. But the dogmatism with which SLAM activists put forward their arguments has turned off many lefties who would otherwise be sympathetic to their cause. After all, SLAM has managed to alienate me, and I spent last summer working at a labor law firm whose head partner supports repealing the Reagan tax cuts.

In the past couple weeks, however, I’ve come to realize that there is something to admire about SLAM’s leaders. On a campus where most people are too worried or too self-conscious to express their opinions freely, SLAM is a welcome reminder that some students do speak their minds without compunction.

I began to see SLAM as refreshing—rather than nauseating—a few days after I wrote a somewhat-incendiary editorial piece calling for specific administrators to be laid off to help deal with the fiscal crisis. Though I expected the piece to be controversial, I didn’t expect the dozens of e-mails praising me for being “ballsy,” “brave,” and even “courageous.”

Truth be told, these sentiments did more to worry than to reassure me. I walked around for the next day wondering if I had done something stupid. “Brave,” as far as I could tell, meant reckless. I couldn’t shake what one of my roommates had told me when I mentioned my plans for the piece a few days before it was printed. “They’re going to come after you,” he had said. When I asked him who “they” were and what, if anything, they could do, he just looked at me worriedly and said, “Be careful.”

It turned out to be a non-issue. Though the piece generated debate, the negative repercussions were non-existent, apart from a couple terse e-mails from administrators. But recalling my roommate’s admonishment, and how I had felt immediately after the piece was printed, I began to wonder how so many of us have become conditioned to withhold our opinions when it comes to issues that affect Harvard. Indeed, as I stopped to think about it, I realized that nearly all of us have been silent for years on issues that go to the heart of the University. It’s a reticence that stands in stark contrast to how we act when expressing our views on politics or society, and it’s one that affects professors just as much as students.

There was almost no debate, for example about who Lawrence H. Summer’s replacement as university president should have been, despite the fact that virtually all of the candidates were publicly known and had been profiled extensively in the media. No student, professor, or campus organization I know of openly supported a particular candidate, even though many had private opinions they would readily share. (I was barred from expressing my opinion as a reporter covering the search, so I will do so now: I favored Harvard Law School Dean Elena Kagan or Howard Hughes Medical Institute chief Thomas R. Cech, a Nobel laureate in biology.)

Similarly, dozens of junior professors in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and Law School have complained to me over the years that tenured professorships are “occupied” by older faculty who no longer actively publish or teach. This, they argue, is detrimental to the academy since it keeps faculties filled with unproductive scholars and makes it extremely difficult for younger ones to begin their academic careers. But no students or faculty at Harvard have called publicly for reassessing how faculty are appointed and kept on. The one person who has is Summers, who did so in a speech after he left office. The speech was at Tufts.

To be fair, there are some people at Harvard who have not been shy in making their voices heard. During my short time here, professors like classicist Richard F. Thomas and computer scientist Harry R. Lewis ’68 have been raising and debating many questions of importance to Harvard’s institutional well being. (Lewis even wrote a book sharing his opinions on Harvard’s direction as a university—he tellingly titled it, “Excellence Without a Soul.”) These voices, though, seem few are far between, despite the fact that there is little reason to stay silent. The University is not run by a bunch of ayatollahs, as the uneventfullness of my brief foray into public tactlessness seems to show.

Universities thrive on the vigorous clash of ideas. This is true for debates that happen at a university, and for debates that happen about a university. If we fail to make our voices heard about the most critical issues Harvard faces, its future will be poorer. And so as irritating as a group like SLAM can be, the next time I read an overly shrill statement given in support of one of their campaigns, I’ll at least respect the fact that they’re expressing an opinion in an effort to make Harvard a better place. It’s their silent opponents who are doing Harvard the disservice.

Paras D. Bhayani ’09, a former Crimson managing editor, is an economics concentrator in Pforzheimer House.