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Freshman Convocation Brings Divestment Protests, Calls to Action

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Class of 2023
The Class of 2023 gathers to take a class photo on Widener steps despite the rain.

Roughly thirty freshmen raised signs calling on Harvard to divest its endowment from the fossil fuel industry as University President Lawrence S. Bacow addressed their class Monday during Harvard’s 11th annual freshman convocation in the Science Center Plaza.

Facing a crowd peppered with orange Divest Harvard signs, Bacow endorsed both student activism and reasoned argument.

“I choose my words intentionally when I say standing up and speaking out are actions. They are often the most difficult when they are most worthwhile,” he said. “You will not regret the time you spend articulating your argument and pushing for change over the next four years.”

Bacow’s remarks echoed those he made last year amid an increasing number of protests organized by Divest Harvard and the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign — two campus groups supporting fossil fuel divestment and divestment from companies with ties to prisons, respectively.

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His speech Monday also touched upon his own time as a college freshman in 1969. He recalled watching students protest the Vietnam War as he moved into a MIT dorm.

“It was the height of the Vietnam War, the police were present in riot gear, there were a bunch of students with bull horns, and there was lots of chanting going on,” Bacow said. “My father picked this exact moment to turn to me and say, ‘If you decide to do that, and you get arrested, don't call home.’”

Divest Harvard organizer Ilana A. Cohen ’22 said the group has set an April 22, 2020 deadline for the University to divest, marking Earth Day’s 50th anniversary. She added that they have plans to ramp up their efforts in order to achieve that goal — including recruiting new members from the freshman class.

“We're planning a lot of actions for the upcoming year, particularly because we take this deadline of Earth Day 2020 very seriously,” Cohen said. “Last year was really kind of a question of groundwork organizing, and we've done a lot of recruitment since then.”

University spokesperson Jason A. Newton declined to comment on the signs and calls for divestment.

Before and after the protest, several University administrators joined Bacow in addressing the freshmen.

In a prayer kicking off the event, Harvard Divinity School professor Stephanie A. Paulsell referenced Ismail B. Ajjawi ’23, who came to campus Monday after being denied entry to the United States ten days prior. Ajjawi was not on campus at the start of the ceremony.

“Not everybody has arrived on campus today. We pray that soon the entire class will have assembled,” she said.

Dean of Harvard College Rakesh Khurana repeated statements from previous convocation addresses, noting that he did not gain admission to the College and urging students to make their time at Harvard “transformational” rather than “transactional.” But he also advised the freshmen to reflect upon Harvard’s motto, “veritas,” and seek difficult truths.

“Sociologists and social psychologists find that conformity, our need for approval and positive feedback, to be one of the most powerful of all social forces. We all have probably experienced that tension between identifying with a particular group and then speaking up or questioning that group,” Khurana said.

“But if we're committed to finding the truth, we need to sincerely engage in listening to those who don't agree with us,” he added.

—Staff writer Shera S. Avi-Yonah can be reached at shera.avi-yonah@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter at @saviyonah.

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