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Interim Harvard President Alan M. Garber '76 is pictured in a February interview. The pro-Palestine encampment in Harvard Yard, launched on Wednesday, represents the first major text of his presidency.
Interim Harvard President Alan M. Garber '76 is pictured in a February interview. The pro-Palestine encampment in Harvard Yard, launched on Wednesday, represents the first major text of his presidency. By Marina Qu
By Emma H. Haidar and Cam E. Kettles, Crimson Staff Writers

Updated April 24, 2024, at 6:38 p.m.

Interim Harvard President Alan M. Garber ’76 faces the first major test of his tenure as dozens of pro-Palestine protesters establish an encampment in Harvard Yard, the first large-scale protest on campus since the fall semester.

Garber and his administration earned early praise from Harvard donors and alumni for being initially successful in calming tensions on campus and enforcing policies to discourage disruptive campus protests, but Wednesday’s encampment threatens to upend all of that.

All semester, Harvard administrators attempted to be proactive in their efforts to keep campus safe and discourage activists from staging disruptive large-scale protests.

In January, Garber warned against violating the University’s policies on protests and dissent in a University-wide email. On Sunday, Harvard security employees closed Harvard Yard to non-Harvard University ID holders and warned students about building tents and other large structures in anticipation of an encampment.

On Monday, the College suspended the Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee after it allegedly violated the terms of its probation when it participated in a rally on Friday alongside unrecognized student groups.

But if the suspension was an effort to discourage student protesters from mimicking similar large-scale encampments at Columbia University and Yale University, it backfired.

More than 500 Harvard affiliates swarmed the Yard at noon on Wednesday for an emergency protest against the PSC’s suspension, while a smaller group set up tents in front of the John Harvard statue to begin an encampment.

The encampment, which was assembled just a few feet away from the president’s office in Massachusetts Hall, is everything Garber hoped to avoid.

The protest is a clear violation of a number of University policies. And with the PSC’s suspension on Monday, Wednesday’s rally was almost certainly unrecognized and unregistered.

How Garber handles the encampment — and whether the University will resort to police to forcibly remove demonstrators from the Yard — could have a major impact on whether students, faculty, and alumni continue to favorably view his presidency.

Paul Reville, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said that any “major disruption” is always a “testing moment for top leadership.”

“Inevitably if a president makes major mistakes in a tense moment of handling a crisis and those get blown up in the media and create all kinds of problems for the University, there’s going to be adverse judgments on presidents,” Reville said.

Harvard spokesperson Jason A. Newton wrote in a statement Wednesday evening that University administrators “are closely monitoring the situation and are prioritizing the safety and security of the campus community.”

But so far, the University has not acted to prevent the group from setting up camps and the gates to the Yard remain open to Harvard affiliates.

While there are Harvard University Police Department officers stationed around the outskirts of the protest, they have simply observed the protesters as they set up their encampment and did not make any attempts to prevent its construction.

In a Monday interview with The Crimson, Garber declined to rule out a police response to protests, but said the University has “a very, very high bar before calling police.”

He also said that HUPD’s policies for officer conduct during protests do not come from his office.

“It’s not in my place as president to tell them what to do,” Garber said.

Columbia President Nemat “Minouche” Shafik is currently facing calls to resign from a number of fronts over her handling of the student protesters that have been occupying the campus’ south lawn for more than a week.

On April 17, Shafik requested assistance from the New York Police Department to make arrests on campus and more than 100 student protesters were suspended. The decision enraged Columbia students and faculty.

While Garber declined to criticize Shafik’s decision to request assistance from the NYPD, he does not appear to want to follow it either.

Harvard is currently under fire from the House Committee on Education and the Workforce which has accused the University of not enforcing its own disciplinary policies in the committee’s investigation of campus antisemitism.

When the committee subpoenaed top leadership in February, it demanded the University turn over disciplinary records.

In a letter to Garber on April 1, Rep. Elise M. Stefanik ’06 (R-N.Y.) slammed the University for “delaying justice” for students involved in a confrontation at a pro-Palestine protest at Harvard Business School in October.

It is unclear how Wednesday’s protest will affect their investigation into Harvard. A spokesperson for the House Committee on Education and the Workforce did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.

While the protesters have been initially allowed to set up the encampment in the Yard, Garber said in the Monday interview that the University intends “to enforce our policies.”

“They’re designed to enable protest as long as it is essentially not disrupting the normal activities of the university,” he added.

—Staff writer Emma H. Haidar can be reached at Follow her on X @HaidarEmma.

—Staff writer Cam E. Kettles can be reached at Follow her on X @cam_kettles or on Threads @camkettles.

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