‘How Far Is Too Far?’: Pro-Palestine Activism Under the Garber Presidency

By Joyce E. Kim and Jo B. Lemann, Crimson Staff Writers
By Sami E. Turner

On Friday evening, Syd D. Sanders ’24 was asked to withdraw from Harvard College for three semesters.

The decision, relayed over the phone by Sanders’ resident dean, comes following his involvement in the 20-day pro-Palestine encampment in Harvard Yard. As a senior set to graduate just one week later, receiving the suspension meant Sanders might not receive his degree until December 2025, despite having completed his required credits.

Three days after the encampment ended last Tuesday, the Harvard College Administrative Board — an administrative body responsible for the application and enforcement of the College’s policies — suspended five students and placed at least 20 more on probation.

Sanders is one of the 12 seniors who may not be allowed to graduate at Commencement. At least 60 students were initially called before the Ad Board, according to organizers with Harvard Out of Occupied Palestine.

The disciplinary action came to the shock and outrage of many protesters, who believed they would be granted amnesty as part of the negotiated agreement to end the encampment — one that they felt was not ultimately upheld.

“The school went back on that so intensely and so insanely, and with such harsh punishment,” Sanders said in a Saturday afternoon interview.

“I think it’s draconian. I think it’s harsh,” he added. “I think it’s just totally unheard of in the history of Harvard protests and presidents.”

Harvard spokesperson Jason A. Newton declined to comment for this story.

The Ad Board decisions capped a spring semester characterized by protests, external pressures, and a pro-Palestine encampment — marking the first major trial for interim Harvard President Alan M. Garber ’76.

Garber — who stepped into office on Jan. 2 following the resignation of former Harvard President Claudine Gay — has largely drawn praise for his measured response to controversy and his ability to assuage a divided campus.

But some students and faculty have condemned Garber’s approach to protests for being unusually repressive and forceful, drawing new, unprecedented lines around campus speech and protest.

The last weeks of Alan Garber's first semester were marked by a pro-Palestine encampment in Harvard Yard.
The last weeks of Alan Garber's first semester were marked by a pro-Palestine encampment in Harvard Yard. By Ellen P. Cassidy

‘Testing the Waters’

In his sudden ascension to the presidency, Garber inherited a Harvard in strife.

In the aftermath of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks on Israel, campus fractured down political lines, with pro-Israel and pro-Palestine protesters alike taking to the steps of Widener Library and Memorial Church to host vigils and protests.

Though it would be months before encampments swept the nation’s colleges, Garber seemed to take preventative measures.

On Jan. 20, three days before the start of the spring semester, Garber and 15 deans across Harvard’s schools sent an email to affiliates outlining the forms of protest and dissent prohibited by the University’s guidelines.

The email evoked the University-wide Statement on Rights and Responsibilities — a document that emerged amid a wave of intense anti-Vietnam campus protests, including the 1969 University Hall takeover — which protects peaceful protests that do not infringe upon the personal rights of Harvard affiliates.

But student protesters — who felt they had not broken any precedent of permitted protest on campus — saw the emails as heavy handed attempts to deter their activism.

Violet T.M. Barron ’26 — an organizer with HOOP and Jews for Palestine, an unrecognized student group at the College that formed in the fall — described her immediate reaction to the email as “deep frustration” and “sheer disbelief” that Garber could “make a unilateral move to essentially disallow protests and demonstrations across campus.”

“There was only one reason for that clarification, and that was the wave of pro-Palestine protests that we saw,” Barron, a Crimson Editorial editor, added.

Sanders described some of the prohibited activities — such as blocking a road or chanting on megaphones — as activities “essential to protests” that “have been happening on Harvard's campus for years without this presidential warning and without this repression and backlash.”

Crimson Editorial editor Clyve Lawrence ’25, one of the co-founders of the African and African American Resistance Organization — another group that stepped forward in pro-Palestine organizing in the fall — said the “vagueness” of the email was “a form of chilling.”

As Garber’s administration set the tone for its approach to protests — preemptive and broad, yet imminently forceful — the spring semester saw a relatively quiet start.

Though the first protest of the spring didn’t come until almost three weeks into the semester, student activism seemed to re-emerge in force as the pro-Palestine rally drew more than 150 people.

Sanders said that while the guidelines “definitely did not stop protest activity,” it forced organizers to “be more careful about the very logistical and back end of things.”

“It definitely required protesters to be more strategic and much more careful about the most mundane and insane things, like, where’s your logo going? Who is officially organizing and doing this protest? Whose name is going on it?” he said.

The Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee — which had authored the controversial letter holding Israel “entirely responsible” for the Oct. 7 attacks — also began to take a back seat following intense backlash and doxxing attacks.

In its stead, unrecognized groups like Jews for Palestine, AFRO, and the unofficial Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions caucus of the graduate student union — many of which included significant membership overlap with the PSC — took on the mantle of the movement.

Even for the most dedicated and public-facing student protesters, Garber’s email caused a moment of hesitation.

Barron said the email also made her re-evaluate her visibility in the movement. As one of nine students who participated in a 24-hour occupation of University Hall in November, Barron was called before the Ad Board and given a warning.

“I think it definitely made me afraid the first few weeks following to participate in rallies,” she said.

But despite the “initial reservations and fear,” Barron added, the email “only emboldened me further.”

Violet T.M. Barron '26 was one of nine students who participated ina. 24-hour occupation of University Hall in support of Palestine.
Violet T.M. Barron '26 was one of nine students who participated ina. 24-hour occupation of University Hall in support of Palestine. By Frank S. Zhou

Still, Barron noted that people “lost their will to turn out” as the specter of administrative action and disciplinary punishment loomed.

“It didn’t really seem like people wanted to mobilize,” Barron said. “Whereas last semester, over 1,000 people turned out to that rally in October, we were struggling to get even over 100 at some rallies” in the spring.

Lawrence said that “people were unsure how far is too far.”

“Some people didn’t want to test the waters,” he added. “People were concerned — we don’t know if we do this ‘wrong,’ what will this mean for us and our status on this campus.”

Less than four months later, calls from resident deans began flooding in, and protesters got their answer.

‘Wave of Disciplinary Action’

By April, protests across the country had taken on a new tenor.

At Columbia University, Yale University, the University of California Los Angeles, and more, protesters began to set up encampments — some of which were subsequently violently removed by police force.

All still seemed quiet on the Harvard front, but Garber and his administration again took preemptive measures.

On April 21, the University locked down Harvard Yard, restricting access to only Harvard University ID holders. The next day, the College suspended the PSC — then one of the only recognized pro-Palestine groups on campus.

Three days later, on April 24, pro-Palestine student protesters set up an encampment in the Yard, streaming onto the lawn with tents and supplies as the College wrapped up its last day of spring classes.

For nearly one week, the protesters chanted, marched, and camped out in the Yard. And for nearly one week, Garber let them.

Six days after the encampment started, 30 students were called before the Ad Board. By May 6, according to HOOP organizers, that number had ballooned to 60.

The same day — nearly two weeks after the encampment began — Garber also finally broke his silence.

In a University-wide email, Garber threatened involuntary leave for protesters who continued to occupy the Yard, writing that “the disruptions from this encampment at the heart of the University have been numerous.”

Garber’s email — which noted final exams that were moved, the Yard closure, and the impending undergraduate move out and Commencement — recalled his January message to affiliates warning against protests that “would interfere with the normal activities of the University.”

Harvard Out of Occupied Palestine Coalition member Violet T. M. Barron '26 addresses the press in front of Johnston Gate on May 7, hours after interim Harvard President Alan M. Garber '76 announced that students would face involuntary leave for continuing to sustain the encampment.
Harvard Out of Occupied Palestine Coalition member Violet T. M. Barron '26 addresses the press in front of Johnston Gate on May 7, hours after interim Harvard President Alan M. Garber '76 announced that students would face involuntary leave for continuing to sustain the encampment. By Frank S. Zhou

Even as Harvard administrators began to crack down, HOOP organizers maintained that they would remain unless Harvard negotiated with them over their demands — full disclosure of investments, divestment from any ties to Israel, and a commitment to drop disciplinary action against protesters — or they were forcefully removed.

Despite repeated public insistence that the University would not divest from Israel, on the evening of May 8, Garber privately met with a group of organizers for the first time. During the meeting, Garber told the protesters to end the encampment and avoid receiving involuntary leave of absence notices.

The protesters rejected his proposal — and two days later, University administrators placed 22 students on involuntary leave over their involvement in the encampment.

Barron said Garber handled the encampment in a “sneaky” and “clever” way.

In particular, Barron pointed to the difference between Garber and Gay. Garber, she said, “communicates less than Gay, which is definitely smart on his end.”

Despite the minimal communication and, according to protesters, unwillingness to engage, Garber “still launched an unprecedented wave of disciplinary action against students,” Barron added.

On May 14, after protesters again privately met with Garber, the encampment — which had remained entirely peaceful — came to a similarly peaceful end.

According to an email Garber sent to affiliates, the University had agreed to promptly reinstate students and offer protesters a meeting with a member of Harvard’s governing boards about divestment.

Sanders said the decision to end the encampment marked a “strategy shift” that came as the demonstration began to lose students and became “more isolated.”

The end of the encampment had come alongside the official conclusion of the spring semester as undergraduates wrapped up their finals and returned home for the summer. Even as dozens of tents remained erected in Harvard Yard, the encampment began to quiet and feel deserted.

Barron, who participated in the encampment, said that while the decision was made for “a number of strategic reasons,” it was “still frustrating.”

“It was an agreement that most of us were not excited about and that none of us see as a win, and certainly not a material step towards disclosure and divestment,” she said.

Even as the encampment drew to a close and involuntary leave notices were officially retracted, the demonstration’s fallout continued as Ad Board cases proceeded.

Students dismantle the Harvard Yard encampment on May 14.
Students dismantle the Harvard Yard encampment on May 14. By Addison Y. Liu

In his email announcing the end of the Yard encampment, Garber wrote he would “encourage” the Ad Board to “address cases expeditiously under existing precedent and practice.”

In a separate private email to HOOP organizers that morning, Garber added that this would include “taking into account where relevant the voluntary decision to leave the encampment.”

Three days later, several Ad Boarded students received news that they were put on probation, and in some cases, suspended for up to three semesters. For more than a dozen seniors, this meant they would not be able to graduate on time.

While Garber never explicitly promised leniency in either email, many took it as such — and the disciplinary consequences doled out seemed exponentially more severe than expected.

For some protesters, this reflected the way Garber has chosen to respond to protests on campus.

In an Instagram post, HOOP alleged that the University had broken its promise and taken an unprecedented strike at student protesters.

“Garber does things in a more veiled way,” Barron said. “There’s more of an implicit link between what he’s saying and what he’s trying to get at.”

The ‘Red Lines’ of Protesting

Some student activists who have participated in other movements alleged that the University drew new red lines as pro-Palestine organizing took the main stage.

Rosie P. Couture ’26 — who participated in the 2023 protests against John L. Comaroff, a Harvard Anthropology and African and African American Studies professor under fire for sexual harassment allegations — was called before the Ad Board for the first time this semester for her participation in the encampment.

According to Couture, tactics she used to protest Comaroff that did not result in disciplinary action are “things that people have now been Ad Boarded for this semester.”

“People were Ad Boarded for being in University Hall — we were in University Hall for hours,” she said. “People were Ad Boarded for disrupting a classroom — we had over 100 people walking out of a classroom.”

“We never were even told that disciplinary action was a possibility. It was never used as a threat against us to get us to stop pursuing a tactic or to leave a building,” Couture added.

Sanders, who also organized and participated in protests against Comaroff, said the pro-Palestine protests were met with “so much more institutional crackdown and disciplinary consequences.”

“I have organized a walkout of my Gov 20 class when I was a sophomore. I have occupied the building over the Comaroff stuff in the spring of my junior year,” he said. “None of those things were met with Ad Board consequences.”

Now, “if you’re leading a protest, you’re getting an Ad Board case,” Sanders said.

Students occupied University Hall in protest of professor John L. Comaroff in March 2023.
Students occupied University Hall in protest of professor John L. Comaroff in March 2023. By Julian J. Giordano

Sanders, who has been asked to withdraw from the College for three semesters, has now been called before the Ad Board three times — all in relation to pro-Palestine organizing. He said the disciplinary crackdown has intensified under Gay and Garber, who “flipped the rulebook on us.”

“Never have they threatened to disband the PSC for having a protest in the Yard. Never have they locked down the Yard at the hint of a protest or protest activity,” he said. “Not even just compared to other organizing — within pro-Palestine organizing itself, the institutional crackdown has been much more strong under Gay and Garber.”

During the 2023 protests — which called for Comaroff to resign from his post at the University — former President Lawrence S. Bacow was at the helm of the University. Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana, who chairs the College Ad Board, has served in his post since 2014.

Barron said she believed the reinforced protest guidelines from this semester were created “before our eyes” specifically “ in response to pro-Palestine demonstrations and rhetoric.”

“Red lines — yes, they exist, but they didn’t even make me think twice because I really do see them as being created in a very unfair context,” she added.

Though not all pro-Palestine activists agree on how Garber’s approach has diverged from that of his predecessors in Mass. Hall, the consensus remains that there is a double standard for speech in support of Palestine.

Some, like Lara Z. Jirmanus ’01, an instructor at Harvard Medical School and a member of Faculty and Staff for Justice in Palestine, said the University’s approach to speech surrounding Palestine is the “main difference” between Garber’s administration and the ones that came before.

“Harvard as an institution is under immense pressure to appear to have a close-to-zero tolerance policy for the speech of those who would defend Palestinian lives,” she said.

Other protesters said the perceived crackdown was unrelated to Garber.

Couture said she deemed “the Palestine exception to free speech” as an exception “that all of our presidents would have made.”

“I think it’s not an issue of who’s in office, but an issue of what students are protesting,” she said.

Couture added the administration’s preemptive response to protesters “sets a very scary precedent on our campus for free speech.”

Despite Garber’s use of wide-scale disciplinary action on pro-Palestine encampment protesters, Lawrence said the past semester “exposed a lot of the incompetence of the administration.”

“It’s lit a flood of fire under students’ feet,” he said. “People don’t feel as afraid of these kinds of executives at Harvard anymore.”

“This is a historic moment,” Lawrence added. “Harvard is in a state of crisis in many ways, and I think it shows the necessity of student organizing moving forward.”

—Staff writer Joyce E. Kim can be reached at joyce.kim@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X at @joycekim324.

—Staff writer Jo B. Lemann can be reached at jo.lemann@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @Jo_Lemann.

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