Did Occupy Matter?

When one of Harvard’s most prominent professors gave a lecture entitled “Rich and Poor: The Economics of Inequality,” students who cared passionately about social justice might have wanted to listen.

But one Wednesday in November, 70 such students chose instead to stand up in Sanders Theatre and walk out of Economics 10.

These students harbored discontent with the principles espoused by the course’s instructor, N. Gregory Mankiw. They said that the Occupy movement that emerged that fall, criticizing conservative economic policies like those taught by Mankiw, had inspired them to demonstrate their frustration.

In a class of more than 700 students, the protesters represented a minority. And according to Mankiw’s account of the protest in the New York Times, at least one student walked out only to sneak back in minutes later so as to avoid missing lecture.

At Harvard, an institution that fosters academic discussion of topical issues, a physical demonstration seemed, to some, out of place.


One week later, an arguably more incongruous sight materialized: a tent city in the middle of the Yard, bearing signs decrying the advantages of the country’s wealthiest 1 percent in a place home to some of the nation’s most educationally privileged students.

Harvard Yard had been occupied.

As domestic unrest spread to more than 600 communities in the United States in the form of the Occupy movement this fall, Occupy Harvard aimed to bring the spirit of the national movement to the Yard.

Harvard’s occupiers embraced some of the frequent demands of the national movement but paired them with Harvard-specific grievances as well.

On those issues, including requests that Harvard not reinvest in a controversial hotel chain, HEI Hotels & Resorts, and that the University heed custodians’ wishes in contract negotiations, Occupy Harvard claimed success.

Yet closer examination suggests that the achievement of Occupy’s goals was a result more of circumstance than of action, as the movement estranged everyone from administrators, to tourists and freshmen trying to enter the Yard, to even those undergraduates who initially supported it.


To the core group of occupiers who camped out from Nov. 9 to Dec. 19, protest was far from new. Many students behind the Occupy movement were involved in some form of on-campus activism long before discontented citizens occupied New York City’s Zuccotti Park, termed their encampment Occupy Wall Street, and sparked a national movement.

“[Student Labor Action Movement] members played a pretty major role in Occupy,” said SLAM member William P. Whitham ’14, who described himself as tangentially involved in Occupy Harvard. “SLAM’s interests were very much intertwined with Occupy.”

Some of the students who joined Occupy Harvard had already been protesting at Occupy Boston’s tent city in Dewey Square.