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Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana said in an interview Tuesday that he has met with students advocating for the University’s divestment from fossil fuels and companies with ties to the prison industry and that he supports their right to engage in activism — including through protest.
Khurana said he supports student protests when they are combined with other forms of activism, such as direct dialogue. His comments come weeks after University President Lawrence S. Bacow criticized a group of protesters calling for divestment after their protest interrupted an event at which he was speaking at Harvard Kennedy School.
“I think protest is an important part of our democratic tradition. And I'm pleased to see our students engage in a variety of different ways, including protest, which is one form of expression,” Khurana said.
“I also think that protest in combination with other approaches that lead to educating, awareness, organizing, developing along the sort of notions of reasoned argument, appeals to values, and appeals to reason are often critical for actually long term change in society,” he added.
Khurana’s comments come in the middle of “Heat Week” — a week-long protest calling on Bacow and other Harvard administrators to divest endowment holdings from the fossil fuel industry. Divest Harvard — a fossil fuel divestment advocacy group — organized the series of panels, speeches, and demonstrations.
Heat Week is only the most recent effort in several months of divestment activism. Earlier this semester, prison and fossil fuel divestment organizers held rallies in Harvard Yard and coordinated petitions that have earned support from many Harvard affiliates. Activists have also met in person with Bacow. At a meeting with prison divestment activists, Bacow told them he responds to “reason,” not “demands.”
In line with the past several University presidents, Bacow has repeatedly rejected the idea that Harvard’s endowment should be used to promote social change.
University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain previously reiterated this position in an email to The Crimson.
“The University’s position, as it has stated previously, is that it should not use the endowment to achieve political ends, or particular policy ends,” Swain wrote.
Khurana said he believes students and Harvard officials should continue to engage in “dialogue” with each other on divestment.
“I'm in agreement with our student leaders, our President, University leaders, that the most important thing that our community can do is engage in dialogue,” Khurana said. “Dialogue allows for perspective taking. Dialogue allows people to ask informed questions. It assumes the best of each other's intentions.”
The University last divested a portion of its holdings in 1990. That year, the Corporation announced that Harvard would divest its stocks from tobacco-related companies. Khurana said that while divestment falls outside his domain, he would like the College to examine how it can become more sustainable.
Khurana suggested a series of changes he thinks the College should make, including incorporating readings about climate change and the prison system into freshman orientation, making dining hall menus more sustainable, and encouraging students to use bikes instead of motorized vehicles.
“Within the College, there's a lot of things that we can do, I think, to be an example of what a thoughtful, responsible community looks like,” Khurana said. “How can we think about the readings that we choose? How can we think about some practices that we introduce in our residential houses? I think there’s an opportunity, as well, to think about what kind of courses that we could create, that are transdisciplinary, that are more problem-driven.”
Khurana also said he has met with “students who are interested in the fossil fuel divestment area” this semester.
Asked whether he has an opinion about whether the University should divest from fossil fuels or prisons, Khurana said he does, but declined to share it.
“I think it's important, in my role, to keep those views personal,” he said.
—Staff writer Shera S. Avi-Yonah can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @saviyonah.
—Staff writer Delano R. Franklin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @delanofranklin_.
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