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To the Student Protesters Barred From Graduating on Time

By Julian J. Giordano
By Ryan D. Enos, Alison Frank Johnson, Steven Levitsky, and Kirsten A. Weld, Contributing Opinion Writers
Ryan D. Enos is a professor of Government. Alison Frank Johnson is a professor of History. Steven Levitsky is the David Rockefeller Professor of Latin American Studies and a professor of Government. Kirsten Weld is a professor of History.

To the student protesters barred from graduating on time:

We are sorry.

We are senior faculty members who served as your advisors while you underwent investigation by the Harvard College Administrative Board. Some of us encouraged you to accept terms of an agreement to end the encampment, and we all encouraged you to cooperate with the Ad Board and its recommendations.

We offered this advice because, with a combined 69 years at Harvard, we trusted the administration to act in good faith and to adhere to the values it claims to uphold and has previously demonstrated.

We never imagined that Harvard administrators would punish peaceful protesters in such an extraordinary way: suspension, probation, and, in at least 13 cases, denial of an on-time graduation.

Interim President Alan M. Garber ’76 wrote to the encamped students that he would “encourage the administrative boards or other disciplinary bodies within the schools to address cases expeditiously under existing precedent and practice (including taking into account where relevant the voluntary decision to leave the encampment), for all students, including those students eligible thereafter to graduate so that they may do so.”

We read President Garber’s language as a clear commitment to having seniors graduate on time.

We believed the administration would respect past precedent in sanctioning student protesters. As two of us have written previously, Harvard has consistently employed restraint and forbearance in dealing with peaceful protests in the post-Vietnam era.

We spoke with activists from four student movements — the 1986 anti-Apartheid encampment, the 2001 Living Wage occupation of Mass Hall, the 2011 Occupy encampment, and the 2015 Divest Harvard occupation of Mass. Hall — and not one could recall a case in which a student was suspended, had to lose a scholarship, or was prevented from graduating.

In fact, we found no instances in which students faced any significant punishment at all.

Given decades of precedent and the Ad Board’s stated commitment to pedagogical, rather than judicial, goals, we believed the College would not impose disproportionate penalties on you. Surely the College would not jeopardize our students’ careers over a peaceful protest.

Most of all, we believed that Harvard would prioritize the well-being of its most precious asset: its students. And you are not just any students: Several are seniors set to graduate with honors. The group includes two Rhodes Scholars and a prestigious Harvard-UK fellowship winner.

Accordingly, when Ad Board members recommended that you forgo appearing before the Board to defend yourselves in-person to accelerate the proceedings, we saw it as a good-faith effort to expedite the process and allow you to graduate. We encouraged you to comply.

We were devastated to learn that we were wrong.

You, graduating seniors, have fulfilled every requirement for a Harvard degree. If not for the capricious actions of the Ad Board, you would be leaving the University in a matter of days with that degree in hand. Even a successful appeal of the Ad Board’s decision would delay your degree conferral, causing significant disruption to your lives, plans, and prospects in the meantime.

You are the best of Harvard: talented, hard-working, and principled young people with a deep commitment to public service. Rather than focusing narrowly on your own careers, you’ve engaged with the most pressing crises of our world.

You are precisely the kind of student the College aspires to foster. Yet, by failing to live up to its values, Harvard failed you.

It also failed us, by misleading us into participating in a procedurally compromised and unduly punitive disciplinary process. We and many other faculty members feel betrayed, and we know you do, too.

The Ad Board’s bad-faith actions have damaged something that is essential for our great University to fulfill its mission: trust among faculty, students, and administrators. We hope our leaders have the courage to repair it — immediately.

Ryan D. Enos is a professor of Government. Alison Frank Johnson is a professor of History. Steven Levitsky is the David Rockefeller Professor of Latin American Studies and a professor of Government. Kirsten Weld is a professor of History.

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