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The Evolution of Activism

Students balance fighting for causes with following the rules

A graphic timeline of Harvard student protests over the past half-century
A graphic timeline of Harvard student protests over the past half-century
By Monica M. Dodge, Crimson Staff Writer

The words “fight, fight, fight” chanted during the 1969 protest against Harvard’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps may share a superficial similarity to “fight the cuts,” a rallying cry during the March for Common Sense this April. But the two protests couldn’t have been more different.

The 1969 rally ended with police clubbing and teargassing the protesters over 300 of whom were arrested, but the other ended with all protesters peacefully returning home after presenting their demands to Mass. Senator John Kerry.

While the concussions and bruises that resulted four decades ago may have been especially brutal even for a period marked by intense student activism, in its own way last month’s rally was an aberration. For a generation raised on a steady diet of Facebook and Twitter, activists are less eager to leave behind their laptops and pick up picket signs, many students say.

This generation of Harvard protesters often puts dialogue before destruction, classes before causes, and private conversation before public confrontation.

The commitment hasn’t abated, students say, but the strategy has changed.

“Today’s Harvard student is a rule follower. They’re at Harvard because they followed the rules. They do well at Harvard because they follow the rules and the rules are to follow the system,” says Michael W. McLean ’12, president of the Harvard Republican Club.


In order to start one’s career as a modern activist, a Harvard undergraduate must look no further than the course catalog.

Students this year have spurred the creation of a new secondary field in Innovation for Social Change, an interdisciplinary program that has been sponsored by the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

While many of the details are still being worked out, the secondary field will give students the opportunity to explore a range of real world tactics to create social change.

“You get to Harvard and you’re sitting in Tercentenary Theater and President [Drew G.] Faust is telling you how you’re going to change the world, but there’s no real institutional support to motivate further thinking and a deeper analysis,” says Bonnie Cao ’12, vice president of the Undergraduate Council.


Even outside the classroom, Harvard activists tend to take incremental steps to further their causes, before adopting more disruptive strategies.

When students first found out about the $650,000 fund to honor former Social Studies Head Tutor Martin “Marty” H. Peretz—who had previously made controversial comments about the Muslim community—they gathered in dorm rooms, not to organize a protest, but rather to draft a letter to the Social Studies department to explain their concerns.

It was only after the department failed to reverse its decision about the fund that students expanded the scope of their efforts with protests in front of the Science Center, putting public pressure on the University, according to Abdelnasser Rashid ’11.

This chain of events follows an increasingly common pattern, which moves from deliberation, to discussion, to public criticism, and finally to protests.

“Harvard students tend to work through administrations that exist. For better or for worse that means more collaboration, signing petitions online, and petitioning office hours rather than the protesting outside University Hall that happened in the ’60s,” UC President Senan Ebrahim says.

To help students communicate their concerns, the UC has moved to become a liaison between the undergraduate population and the College on politically charged issues.

In what was a “defining moment” in the history of the UC, according to Ebrahim, the UC balanced its concerns about evolving into a political group with its desire to consider an issue that had an overwhelming amount of student support: It passed a piece of legislation condemning the University’s decision to honor Peretz.

“What we are is a student voice for the administration,” Cao says. “If we can do anything to emphasize student voices to the administration, we’re going to try to do that.”


In addition to a shift toward implementing change through more administrative channels, students are increasingly using the internet to spread their message, undergraduates say.

While this transition allows students to reach a wide audience, some activists say that the internet can distract from real-world activism, which they argue tends to be more effective.

“People start thinking, ‘Ok, I can just send an email or join a Facebook group and I’m being active,’ but I don’t think that’s effective activism,” Rashid says.

In planning a rally to support AmeriCorps before Representative Eric Cantor, a Republican from Virginia, visited the Institute of Politics earlier this year, Samuel B. Novey ’11 did the majority of his organizing without using the number of email lists he was a part of.

Instead, he had as many individual conversations with people as possible and tried to convince them why his cause was personal, not abstract, he says.

“This wasn’t some idealistic issue that people kind of cared about,” says Jackson F. Cashion ’13, one of the other organizers of the rally in support of AmeriCorps. “It was a message people could rally and latch on to because it was about the seniors who were going to dedicate the next two years of their lives to something really great.”

But both Novey and Cashion say that the way to get people invested in their cause wasn’t flooding their email and Facebook inboxes.

They say that the way to get students to pick up signs and fight for something they believed in was to connect the issue in a concrete way to their lives.


But modern organizers are more concerned about University and federal restrictions than they were decades ago.

This willingness to work only within the boundaries of accepted channels may have implications beyond a simple change in tactics, critics say.

The efforts to work within the system may prevent student activists from reaching their objectives, according to Professor Marshall L. Ganz ’64, a lecturer in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.

“There may be a wish that if we all just share the information and we all just talk together, it will work out and it’s just not so,” Ganz says. “There must be an appreciation for the importance of conflict, not violence, but contention, especially within a democratic system.”

—Staff writer Monica M. Dodge can be reached at

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