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Scheduled Century-Old Oak Tree Felling Pits Students Against Harvard Divinity School

HDS Tree
Administrators plan to fell a century-old red oak tree on the Divinity School's campus as part of planned renovations to Andover Hall. Some students are outraged.

The scheduled felling of a century-old tree on the campus of Harvard's Divinity School is pitting administrators against students in a fight to save the red oak from death-by renovation.

The Divinity School insists that planned construction to update its Andover Hall necessitates the removal of the tree. Administrators including the school's dean and his top advisors have said there are simply no other options.

Some students, though, say cutting down the tree amounts to a sacrilegious act of violence — and they are determined to keep fighting for the oak.

Divinity School enrollee Jesse Bercowetz, who said he identifies as a pagan, said he believes the tree is like an elder family member. Cutting it down is an act of murder.

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“I question an architectural team and administration who cannot figure out another solution,” Bercowetz said.

Throughout the months of September and October, students and administrators engaged in a continuous — and at times contentious — back-and-forth over the fate of the oak, participating in several meetings and coffee shop office hours.

Like Bercowetz, some students say they are concerned by both the ethical and spiritual ramifications of the tree's felling. Others take issue with the manner in which administrators have handled the decision-making process, calling it one-sided.

Divinity School enrollee Shane H. Brodie said in an interview he feels that students and Divinity School administrators are not at all on the same page.

“What’s very hurtful in this situation and the decisions that are coming down about the tree is that I had assumed we had the same values,” Brodie said.

Brodie also questioned whether administrators ever really planned to take student input into account. He noted that the Divinity School released its final decision to cut down the tree well ahead of the December deadline by which its meetings with students are slated to conclude.

“It’s not that they’re bad people,” he said. “But I feel like they are using some of the worst aspects of institutional power to bulldoze the situation.”

Divinity School top brass maintain, however, that they have been clear about the decision-making process. School officials sought alternatives to the tree's removal in response to student feedback, they said. No alternatives were feasible.

“I know some are not happy with where we are, but we really have been very transparent with the process,” said Ralph DeFlorio, the Divinity School director of operations.

DeFlorio, along with Divinity School Dean David N. Hempton and Senior Advisor to the Dean Patricia M. Byrne, all highlighted the University's commitment to the environment and to fostering a multi-faith space. The trio said the school plans to replace the canopy lost by the tree and will engage in discussions on how to best process and mourn its removal, making sure to carefully weigh all the different religions and beliefs at play.

“We’re all deeply sad about this, there is no one happy about the fact that the tree is going to have to come down,” Hempton said. “We want to do the right thing for people to give proper expression to that sadness.”

The health of the tree marks another a bone of contention between students and administrators. Byrne said Divinity School staffers consulted a tree specialist about the health of the tree and its possible relocation, only to be told the oak is already declining irreversibly and probably wouldn't survive a move.

“If we weren’t doing the renovation, we would probably be looking at the health of this tree anyway,” Byrne said.

Students like Brodie and Bercowetz don't buy it. Both said they want to hear a second and third opinion on the tree's health before giving it up for dead.

No one explicitly mentioned the oak during a public community forum held at the Divinity School Friday. But the issue surfaced nonetheless; a petition pasted outside the room listed student concerns about the tree's removal.

Administrators tacked a response from the dean alongside it. In his message, Hempton thanked students and invited them to keep discussing the matter. But he denied the accuracy of their complaints.

Construction on Andover Hall is set to begin sometime in Summer 2019 and is slated to wrap up in Spring 2021.

—Staff writer Karina G. Gonzalez-Espinoza can be reached at karina.gonzalez-espinoza@thecrimson.com.

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