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As members of Occupy Harvard, we are writing in response to your letter to the members of the Harvard Community sent on Monday, Nov. 21.
Thank you for recognizing the important conversations our movement has generated, and of the centrality of free speech and debate for Harvard as an institution of higher education. We appreciate your concern for the safety of all members of the Harvard community, including the occupants of our encampment in Harvard Yard.
However, we are concerned with your characterization of our movement. As stated in a motion passed at our first general assembly on Nov. 9, we have been committed to being peaceful in all our actions. Exceptions to peaceful conduct from that night can be cited from both sides, but these isolated events do not speak to the broader principles and behaviors that drive either side. You make reference to incidents of sexual assault at other Occupy sites, which are abhorrent. However, we invite you to compare the number of such incidents with that of sexual assaults occurring, for example, on Harvard’s campus and in final clubs.
Given that we have made a public commitment to nonviolence, we request that you do the same. In light of brutal institutional acts carried out by police at the University of California Davis and Berkeley, the Harvard Undergraduate Council passed a resolution calling for “the continued support of the right of students to peaceful protest without violent response by the Harvard administration, the Harvard University Police Department, as well as student unions, university administrations and police departments across the US." We share that sentiment, and we ask that you make a public commitment that the University and its agents will refrain from the use of violence against Occupy Harvard.
As we share your concern with violence, so do we share your concern with free speech. A number of faculty have written to you asking that you open the gates of the Yard, and some are holding classes off-campus in protest against the gate closure. We agree with this sentiment, we think that speech cannot genuinely be free in a location heavily locked down by security, with public access largely eliminated.
Over the past weeks, we have received strong support from the Harvard community and have enjoyed productive conversations with many students at the encampment. At the same time, the closure of the Yard has divided the campus community, and created an atmosphere of anger and frustration that has stymied constructive debate within Harvard and strangled exchange with the world outside it. It has enabled, rather than prevented, individual acts of verbal and physical abuse directed at the encampment by certain inebriated students late at night. If Harvard genuinely cared about freedom of speech, the health and well being of its own campus, and its obligations to a community larger than the one that lies within its walls, it would open its gates
Let us now focus the discussion on one of the real issues at hand. Controlled by the world’s second-largest non-profit, Harvard’s $32 billion endowment is larger than the gross domestic products of more than half the countries in the world. Why are Harvard’s investments opaque to the Harvard community? How can we be confident that Harvard’s investments are socially responsible? We appreciate that you, as the President, play multiple roles within this university. You are both the leader of a community of scholars and an employee of the Harvard Corporation. When conflict arises between these two allegiances, whom do you serve?
We want to know, and we want Harvard to be held accountable. The scholars who contribute lifetimes of hard work and research, elevating Harvard’s prestige, winning grants and garnering huge donations, should have a say in how our contributions to Harvard are impacting the broader world. As far as we know now, there is a deep void of transparency and accountability with regard to the broader impact of Harvard’s investments. This is not only a problem of management, but also a problem of morality.
We invite you to a discussion of this and other issues that have led to the creation of the Occupy Harvard movement and maintain hopes that we will have substantive opportunities to engage with you on the pressing issues of integrity and fairness that are causing growing discontent on campus. Members of your administration have declined to attend any of the general assemblies to which they have been invited and have pulled out of two discussion events to which they had previously committed: the general assembly of Nov. 10 and the Dudley House discussion forum of Nov. 21. We are a horizontal and democratic movement and we invite you, again, to attend one of our general assemblies, which take place on Mondays and Thursdays at 6 p.m. in the Yard, right outside your office.
By the time this letter appears in print Harvard Yard will have been locked down for nearly three weeks. A movement rooted in the reclamation of public space and an enhanced engagement with fundamental ideals of democracy and equality has been met with repression and a retreat into exclusion, a breed of fear that is the most regrettable byproduct of privilege. We call upon you, and our University, to do better.
Jennifer Sheehy-Skeffington ’14 is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Psychology. Jack Hamilton ’12 is a Ph.D. candidate in the History of American Civilizations. Sandra Korn ’14 is a joint History of Science and Women and Gender Studies concentrator in Eliot House.
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