When the workers engaged in a three week-long strike in October, McCarthy was holding that sign on the picket lines. He’s been agitating for social justice causes since he first arrived at Harvard as an undergraduate in 1989.
As both a citizen and a scholar—he co-teaches “Culture and Belief 49: American Protest Literature from Tom Paine to Tupac”—activism has been a part of McCarthy’s “whole adult life,” he said. But McCarthy said this puts him in the minority among his colleagues.
“I always laugh whenever there’s kind of a caricature of Harvard as a kind of hotbed of faculty radicalism, you know the Kremlin on the Charles, and Harvard is filled with all of these radical insurgent revolutionary thinkers who don’t respect authority and the status quo and institutions and so on,” he said.
McCarthy laughed. “That has not been my experience.”
While Harvard faculty may not be the radical cohort some imagine, McCarthy and other professors say they have noticed growing activist engagement among the faculty. Recently, faculty members have been involved in advocating for undocumented students and other marginalized groups following the election of President Donald Trump.
“I have definitely noticed recently in the last year or so a growing chorus of critique and activism among a broader range of faculty members, which I welcome with open arms,” McCarthy said.
While many of Harvard’s professors still prefer the lectern over the loudspeaker, in the age of Trump, a growing number of faculty members are signing petitions and joining protests.
'The Usual Suspects'
For John Stauffer, an English and African and African-American Studies professor who teaches “Culture and Belief 49” with McCarthy, activism is more of an intellectual pursuit.
“I’m not on the front lines in a walk,” he said. “I’m more interested in analyzing and understanding what leads to a position.” Stauffer said he believes that many of his colleagues feel the same way.
McCarthy said a small cohort of professors are regularly inclined to protest, though. He calls them “the usual suspects.”
For that small group, protests are a way to push for change at an institution that tends to tread cautiously on political issues.
One of the “usual suspects” is Kennedy School lecturer Richard Parker, who has advocated for Harvard’s divestment from fossil fuels and against the manufacture of Harvard-brand goods by sweatshops. Parker said he believes activism has influenced Harvard’s history in a positive way.
“Go look at the way in which modern Harvard was created, which was out of the so-called Unitarian revolt of the beginning of the 19th century or look at the protests that swept through Harvard in the 1930s over public policy issues or in the 1960s, the 1970s and they’ve all had an impact on the University,” he said.
“I’ve never felt that an explicit encouragement to remain silent from anyone here at Harvard and no one’s ever written to me and said to me and said you can’t say this,” he said. “I would say that there are certain people here who are probably not happy with the fact that I sometimes will be vocal about things in the world including certain policies that Harvard has implemented or certain positions that Harvard has taken or not taken.”
McCarthy said he had once had a dean question whether the outspoken professor must speak at “every rally.”
“I said I wouldn’t have to if more people would,” he said.
Indeed, a small minority of faculty have often been the most involved in activism, and unsurprisingly—according to Organismic and Evolutionary Biology Department chair Elena M. Kramer— most come from the Social Sciences and Arts and Humanities divisions.
It is frequently non-STEM professors who take to the microphone at Faculty meetings to critique administrative policies, draft petitions, or discuss heated political issues in the classroom. Kramer attributed the varying levels of activism to “different cultures in those departments” and geographic distance from undergraduates.
“Those departments are more integrated into the Yard and the College,” Kramer said in an interview from her office in the Biology Labs, one of the northernmost sectors of campus. “Because of that, they have a closer connection and investment in the undergraduate College.”
Dean of FAS Michael D. Smith, a current professor in SEAS, agreed that the topics discussed in STEM field usually aren’t accompanied with fierce political debate.
“I’ve learned a lot from listening to my students over time,” Smith said. “Engineering is not all that political sometimes, but it can be.”
'A Different World'
While political activism among Harvard’s faculty has historically been muted, movements and events including the dining workers’ strike, the January Women’s March, and Trump’s executive order on immigration have lit a fire in many faculty who have previously remained silent.
“More people are engaged, more people are involved,” Parker said. “It is not the case that 50 percent of the faculty or something are willing to march, I don’t think even 20 percent might march, but for sure more active than the past.”
Activism among faculty members takes different forms. Petitions and letters remain efficient and common methods of protest for faculty members on a variety of topics from campus issues like the protection of undocumented students and the dining workers strike to Trump’s executive order.
“I’ve signed many petitions in the past months. I’ve been a huge petition-signer. I’m a huge fan of petitions and it's also just logistically easy,” Stauffer said.
Sometimes, though, faculty members engage in more overt methods of activism on and off campus. Suzanne P. Blier, an Art and Architecture and African and African American studies professor, can be found alongside Cambridge residents at weekly City Council meetings, fighting to preserve historical structures like the Out of Town News Kiosk and Abbot Building, which houses the world’s Only Curious George Store.
“I came to this in part through last year’s primary. I had not been that active politically before then,” Blier said of her political efforts. “I, like many others, came to realize that all politics is local.”
Following Trump’s executive order on immigration, Economics department chair David I. Laibson ’88 encouraged his students to attend a Copley Square protest if they felt strongly about the issue.
Following Trump’s executive order, Smith emailed Faculty to “reinforce a deep commitment to our unique community of scholars.”
“I think reasonable parties can disagree on values and we should have those debates and universities look to be a place where freedom of expression and those sorts of debates can take place," Smith said. “But when it’s directly is impacting our mission that’s one of the things we definitely feel we can say.”
Smith, as well as University President Drew G. Faust and Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana issued statements following Trump’s recent immigration ban. For Parker, this is a sign of Trump’s impact on activism at Harvard.
“When you have the president of the University and the dean of the Kennedy School both issuing public statements, expressing concern about rejection of the truth and the integrity of university values, that’s a different world from the election of Obama or even George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan,” he said.
Activism Meets Academics
In some Harvard classrooms, real-world activism has seeped into the curriculum, reshaping the role of professors from one of an educator to a mentor in activism.
In the heat of the dining workers strike, McCarthy participated with his students in a “walk-out” to support the striking workers. Students were not required to walk out and Stauffer stayed behind to teach those who chose not to.
“I’m mindful of the fact that not everyone around here agrees with me or has the same world view or lives by the same values and that we are a diverse community that has to respect each other, because of and for those differences.” McCarthy said.
Blier, a co-author of the petition to protect undocumented students, said she believes professors should encourage their students to get involved in politics.
“It’s really important as professors, for those who are interested in this piece, to get students involved,” she said. “I have strongly encouraged my students, particularly graduate students, to get involved in national and international issues related to our fields.”
Smith said that while activist professors are entitled to their personal opinions, they should be careful of how they present themselves in the classroom.
“When we walk into the classroom, we’re objective about the materials we’re presenting,” he said. “We need to be open to differing opinions in the classroom.”
But for McCarthy, the age of Trump demands that the longstanding separation between activism and academics be reconsidered.
“I think we have to resist the kinds of compartmentalizations that academics are so famous for,” McCarthy said. “We have to think more interdisciplinarily, more intersectionally, more comprehensively about just what we’re up against and what we can do to help address the injustices that are rising before us.”
—Staff writer Joshua J. Florence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaFlorence1.
—Staff writer Mia C. Karr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @miackarr.