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The Spring of Our Discontent

What kind of community do we want to be? Student activists and the University administration have offered competing visions to answer this essential question. These conflicting views have been at the center of tensions on a variety of issues on campus this spring, not for the first time.

Fifty years ago this month, the famous protests in front of University Hall rocked this campus, fostered by deep divisions over the Vietnam War and a generational chasm that precluded good-faith engagement on the issues. Today, student activists may feel compelled to move to similar scales of protest — including the recent disruption of University President Lawrence S. Bacow’s divestment forum — by similar feelings.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. If both sides are willing to depart from their standard practices to engage one another, we can have a different, better kind of dialogue. Rather than affirming in words alone the right of students to dissent as long as it has no meaningful impact on policy, Bacow and University administrators should recognize the depth of moral conviction felt by protestors and invite them to seriously present their case.

This cannot simply take the form of a meeting where protestors present a list of demands. The University should invite them to draw up proposals, solicit advice and work from sympathetic economists, philosophers, and other professionals to help make a comprehensive case for their point of view. To truly pay respect to the gravity of the protests, the administration must invite activists to present their requests for policy changes by the same procedures the administration uses to make these decisions itself.

But the onus for better dialogue falls on student activists, too. While their frustration at being ignored and desire to stage a protest that demands acknowledgement are understandable feelings, this kind of protest only gives the administration political cover to maintain its disregard for the issues in question and the students who raise them. If given the opportunity to propose and advocate for policy changes through established channels, activists must work to present the best case possible in the spirit of good-faith dialogue. Not only can this foster trust for future cooperation and understanding, but it is also more likely to achieve meaningful change.

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The gridlock and frustration surrounding the divestment protests has extended beyond the specific policy debates on divestment to friction between students and faculty on a whole host of issues this semester. The refusal to grant tenure to Divinity School professor Ahmed Ragab, the departure of two tenure-track professors specializing in Asian-American studies, and ongoing issues surrounding Winthrop House Faculty Dean Ronald S. Sullivan, Jr.’s decision to represent Harvey Weinstein and associated fallout are just a few such areas of contention.

The debates over the arbitration process for harassment and discrimination claims between Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers and the administration have become emblematic of this gridlock. Even when the concerns at issue are as grave and vital as these, airing advertisements on national television intended to put political pressure on the University will not make negotiating on the rest of the HGSU-UAW’s priorities any easier. But the University has, at least in the eyes of graduate students, dragged its feet. University administrators must work to come to a rapid resolution, recognizing that delays in this process have real effects on real people. Further delays will only perpetuate the view that the University has no actual commitment to taking HGSU-UAW’s concerns seriously.

When so many different kinds of situations are causing conflict between students and administration, we have to look beyond the specifics of each controversy to find the root of the problem.

This root is the disconnect between what Harvard teaches us and how it expects us to behave with regard to its own policies. We are taught to question authority. To think critically about the structures of power that surround and define our lives. To be ambitious in our desire to excel in our various fields, lifting up the downtrodden and combating unfairness and discrimination along the way. To speak out when we see injustice and to call on ourselves and the institutions we inhabit to live up to their highest ideals and affirm their morals in everyday practice, no matter how hard that may seem.

Reasonable people can disagree on questions of divestment, on HGSU-UAW negotiations, on the particulars of a few tenure and appointments decisions, and on the behavior of a faculty dean. But it is contrary to the nature of our education to expect students to apply those principles only outside the institution where we live and work eight months a year and where our minds, friendships, and futures are shaped. In fact, the very acts of protest and requests for reform must be seen as affirmations of those principles, and the University should understand engagement with students on the substantive questions as a vital pedagogic tool — after all, how can we transform the institutions we will come to inhabit later in life without learning to do so here?

So we return to the question: What kind of community do we want to be?

To give an answer, we first have to agree on how to get to one. The University must offer a formalized channel through which students can engage in real, meaningful policy debate with the administration. The administration must take this process seriously, and engage in rigorous reason-giving and debate in the spirit of an educational institution to defend its choices, or else accept the recommendations of student activists. Yes, this process requires considerable effort from both students and administrators. But the hard work of debate that is not reduced to mere disagreement requires real commitment. If student activists and administrators are willing to give it, they can make our campus a better place.

Ari E. Benkler ’21, a Crimson Associate Editorial Editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Leverett House.

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