Retrospective on Occupy Harvard

Two days ago, thousands of people filled Zucotti Park to mark the one-year anniversary of the birth of the Occupy Wall Street movement on September 17 of 2011. In November last year, while Harvard celebrated 375 years as the United States’ leading educational institution, while Harvard sociology classes discussed rising inequality, and while Harvard undergraduates were busy piling lines of community service onto their CVs, a group of rowdy activists set up camp in the middle of the Yard and claimed that their university was making the world a worse place. Although the tents disappeared, the students and staff of Occupy Harvard stayed, leading a week-long occupation of Lamont Library that insisted on the same re-examination of the role Harvard plays in society. A usually cordial and self-confident campus community became polarized over what this protest meant, how much it bothered them, and whether being bothered was what mattered at all.

Opinion pieces disagreed on where to place the blame for such discord, looking either toward Harvard students’ hesitance to challenge the status quo or to Occupy Harvard’s failure to market itself persuasively. It’s true that without an organizational structure, inscribed leadership, or a clear set of demands, Occupy Harvard came across as a shambles of a political campaign. But was this a political campaign, with a set of members whose viewpoints should be well articulated and kept in line? Was it an organization that should be tarnished when one person associated with it speaks out of ignorance or impatience? If it is neither of these things, and instead defies categorization, why should we make any effort to understand it, or allow it to be so slippery?

It is ideas that challenge existing categories which spark innovation, and movements that defy established methods which push our society forward. Occupy Harvard is not comparable to the civil rights movement, but it does create that level of confusion and disruption which we should recognize from past junctures.

When I arrived at Harvard three years ago, I was impressed by the wealth of talent, support for students, and excellent facilities, for which I’m grateful to this day. But I was also disturbed by a self-congratulatory smugness and an absence of self-criticism, which I’d not seen before. I wondered why graduate student employees had so little say in their research and teaching contracts, how industry-sponsored academics were using Harvard’s name to endorse private interests, why Harvard’s endowment loss was being felt most keenly by its hourly wage staff, and what on earth lay behind the generation of that endowment in the first place. I looked toward student representative bodies to speak up on these issues, but found that at the department level we had no representation at all and at higher levels there were organizations that focused their energies on channelling funds for social events. I looked to student groups to find activists speaking up about issues within the University, but, with some exceptions, found that students invested public service energies toward problems off campus, or to set up corporate sponsored micro-initiatives in other countries.

Occupy Harvard changed that picture. It marched rudely on stage and told us to confront ourselves as elites, and to be willing to criticize a university whose industry funding and opaque governance was presented as a sign of encroaching corporatization. In line with the wider Occupy movement from which it was inspired, it defined itself negatively, in terms of what it was fed up with, rather than positively, in terms of what it demanded. Like other Occupy movements, it resisted the temptation to organize into a hierarchy and to be restricted to fixed-term campaigns that, once satisfied, would allow us all eventually to breathe a sigh of relief. In so doing, Occupy Harvard pointed to the need for students and staff to act as the conscience of their university—a role that can only be kept alive by insistent action outside of the university establishment.

Does this mean that the rest of us should sit down patiently to decipher an inchoate set of voices, or jump on board some runaway ideological trolley? Not at all. However, I think we should pay attention to the feeling of discomfort that radical activism stirs up, and respect the lonely defiance of principled dissent, however untidy. Students debated over hotly contested issues that Occupy presented to them. People like me have swallowed our distaste for what we first took to be childish tactics or parochial concerns in order to be won over by new forms of horizontal democracy and collaborative deliberation. To me, that makes Occupy Harvard a successful movement, even if it’s just a hint at what student activism here could be.

Jennifer A. Sheehy-Skeffington is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Psychology, a Resident Tutor at Winthrop House, and a member of the Executive Committee of the Graduate Student Council.