Last Friday, organizers of Divest Harvard poured molasses, intended to symbolize oil, on themselves during a protest in front of Smith Campus Center. The demonstration comes on the heels of the Undergraduate Council election, in which nearly 70 percent of voting students were in favor of a referendum calling on Harvard to commit to and develop a clear divestment plan by Earth Day 2020. A similar referendum the previous year garnered 71.5 percent support.
In the wake of two overwhelmingly supportive referenda for fossil fuel divestment and months and years of pressure and protest by very vocal advocates, we have yet to see concerted efforts made by the administration to address the status quo of the University’s investment position. In fact, this event and the response from the administration or, rather, the lack thereof precisely highlight the lack of power that students have when advocating for important and consequential changes on our campus.
As we have previously opined, the role of student activism is to challenge the prevailing order and understanding of current norms. Inherent in this conception of protest is the recognition that student activists are already fighting an uphill battle against the inertia of the status quo. But as members of the Harvard community, students and their opinions on the University’s policies are crucial components of the commitment to dialogue that undergirds our communal life, and we believe that there is a need for greater student input in administrative processes.
In the meantime, working outside of the school’s administrative system, Divest Harvard’s persistence in campus protest and advocacy has allowed students to be heard. By employing a diverse range of tactics — the mock oil spill, for example, is a powerful, symbolic, even artistic expression of discontent — Divest Harvard has captured the attention of the campus and can hopefully move the needle on this issue, in spite of of the vast power disadvantage at which protesters find themselves.
More than the immediate efficacy of the divest protest, we also see a large educational value in engaging in student activism. On every college campus around the country and the world, learning how to be an activist and to express oneself is a critical part of nurturing the future of the democratic process. And perhaps in this sense protesters should be recognized for doing precisely what the University has claimed as its own response to climate change: “Pursu[ing] a range of innovative and ambitious efforts to accelerate the world’s transition to renewable sources of energy and to help mitigate the catastrophic consequences of climate change that are already being realized.”
Moving forward, we remain supportive and hopeful about Divest Harvard’s efforts to urge the University to divest. But as previous and current protests prove ineffective and more disruptive means of protest, expressing disillusionment, and exerting pressure may seem an increasingly compelling option, we believe that conversations about the Divest Harvard’s methods for protest and their goals warrant further discussion.
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.