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The Case Against Negotiation

By Ellen P. Cassidy
By Eric M. Nelson
Eric M. Nelson is the Robert M. Beren Professor of Government.

On Monday, interim President Alan M. Garber ’76 announced that, after two weeks of extraordinary forbearance and repeated warnings, the University would take steps to end the Harvard Yard encampment and discipline the students involved.

In response, a number of faculty colleagues have suggested that the University should instead enter into negotiations — or what is euphemistically called “meaningful dialogue” — with the students in question, as several of our peer institutions have done in the face of similar behavior. The idea, as I understand it, is that such a course of action would demonstrate respect for “reasoned discourse” over imperious dictates.

Those, like myself, who support the president’s decision, tend to argue in contrast that offering concessions to students who willfully subvert our norms and rules would simply incentivize similar conduct in the future.

But that rejoinder begs the question. Why, after all, would it be so bad for the University to function in this way? Students, faculty, or staff who feel strongly about a given issue could routinely disregard our rules and occupy buildings and community spaces until the administration “comes to the table” and gives them some portion of what they want.

This would be far from pretty, perhaps, but what exactly is wrong with it?

Part of the answer, of course, is prudential: It is difficult to imagine the University being governed in any sort of reasoned or coherent way under such circumstances.

But the deeper objection, I want to suggest, is a moral one.

Quite simply, allowing community members to leverage their noncompliance with our rules in order to extract concessions from the University is deeply unfair. It denies the rest of us — those upholding our collective norms — the equal standing we ought to enjoy to have our voices heard on matters of common concern.

To be sure, not every member of the Harvard community has, or ought to have, precisely the same role in governance.

Faculty members, for instance, ought to have a greater say over curricular matters than their students. But no faculty member is entitled to more of a say than any other — nor should any individual student’s voice count for more than that of a peer. For this reason, we have created a dizzying range of structured opportunities for shared decision-making and consultation: voting meetings of each faculty, the elected Faculty Council, student-faculty committees, the various elected student governments, and so on.

Those who urge the president to negotiate with the “encampers” seek instead to circumvent all of these institutions, effectively replacing them with a wholly unaccountable and unrepresentative ad hoc committee composed of individuals invited to the “meaningful dialogue.” The consequence would be to disenfranchise the vast majority of our community who would be excluded from these negotiations.

Consider the case of Northwestern, regarded as exemplary by those who urge a negotiated settlement with the encampers. The agreement reached between the administration and the protesters there included, among other things, the creation of a new university committee on investment responsibility (along with guidelines for its composition), new faculty positions for Palestinian scholars, dedicated scholarships for Palestinian students, and the construction of a new Muslim student center.

The issue is not whether any of these is a good idea, but rather why major questions of University governance, faculty hiring, and funding priorities should be decided in a manner that assigns no weight at all to the views of the thousands of stakeholders who declined to join the encampment.

And then, of course, there is the issue of divestment. The students occupying the Yard feel strongly that Harvard should engage in a financial and academic boycott of the State of Israel, not merely because they oppose the war in Gaza, but because they apparently believe the State of Israel should not exist (the area to be “liberated,” their banners inform us, extends “from the River to the Sea”).

Many other Harvard affiliates, myself included, feel at least as strongly that Harvard should do no such thing — so strongly, indeed, that a large number of us would surely leave this place if the University did in fact bow to the demands of the encampers.

We have been appalled to witness the encampers and their allies adopting rhetoric and tactics that plainly wound, frighten, and ostracize their Jewish classmates — even if we grant that some of them know not what they do.

And we find it shameful that some members of the faculty have likewise sought to gaslight their Jewish students by claiming that the encampment is free of antisemitism — despite the chants of “intifada” and “from water to water Palestine is Arab” that echo throughout it.

I do not suggest for a moment that our views are entitled to more weight than anyone else’s. But surely they are not entitled to less, simply because — unlike our opponents — we do not seek to hold Harvard to ransom.

Eric M. Nelson ’99 is the Robert M. Beren Professor of Government.

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