Garber Is Taking a Patient Approach to the Harvard Encampment. So Far, It’s Working.

By Cam E. Kettles, Crimson Staff Writer
By Julian J. Giordano

As the pro-Palestine occupation of Harvard Yard approaches the end of its second week, interim University President Alan M. Garber ’76 has adopted a policy of strategic patience to avoid the controversies facing peer institutions.

While the encampment situation may still escalate, Garber earned initial praise from an array of Harvard affiliates for taking preventative steps to limit Harvard Yard access, not commenting on the occupation, and refraining from asking law enforcement to remove the protesters.

Since mid-April, pro-Palestine student protesters have set up encampments at more than 80 college campuses across the country. The responses from university leadership have varied from mass suspensions and arrests to offering protesters meaningful concessions, but both approaches have sparked fierce backlash.

Garber’s strategy has allowed him to chart a middle path to keep himself and Harvard out of the national spotlight. But it is unclear how long he will manage to avoid police action while also avoiding negotiations with protesters.

As the semester ends and Commencement draws closer, neither the University nor the protesters can sustain the encampment indefinitely. Harvard Out of Occupied Palestine Coalition, the unrecognized pro-Palestine student group organizing the encampment, gave Garber a Monday 5 p.m. deadline to begin negotiations over the group’s demands.

So far, Garber has given no indication that he will engage with the protesters. And with no threat behind the deadline, it is unclear whether HOOP will attempt some sort of escalation.

University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain wrote in a statement that the University “remains committed to free speech, including the right to dissent and protest.”

“However, the ongoing protest encampment in Harvard Yard is a violation of university policy, one that continues to disrupt the normal academic and operational activities of Harvard’s community,” he added.

The Restrained Approach

For 13 days, members of Harvard Out of Occupied Palestine have held rallies and slept in tents in Harvard Yard to demand the University divest from Israel.

For 13 days, the University has let them.

Harvard’s actions contrast with at least 50 other colleges and universities across the country that have asked local authorities to arrest or detain student protesters.

Former American Civil Liberties Union President Nadine Strossen ’72 said Harvard is well within its rights to employ “the whole panoply of options from arrests to doing nothing.”

“The only question is: ‘Is it strategically wise?’” she added.

Though Harvard has begun the process of disciplining students through the Harvard College Administrative Board — an administrative body responsible for the application and enforcement of Harvard College policies — the encampment has been allowed to remain in place for almost two weeks. Administrators have repeatedly informed the group that they are in violation of University policies, but it remains unclear how the occupation will end.

But the most important action taken by Harvard was its preemptive decision to restrict access to Harvard Yard days prior to the start of the encampment and ensure that outside groups could not join or antagonize the protesters.

The pro-Palestine encampment in Harvard Yard is the first major test for interim Harvard President Alan Garber.
The pro-Palestine encampment in Harvard Yard is the first major test for interim Harvard President Alan Garber. By Julian J. Giordano

Harvard’s encampment has remained peaceful and, for the most part, rather quiet. Protesters respect quiet hours at night, take care to leave walkways clear, and — with the exception of briefly rising three Palestinian flags from the University Hall flag poles — the group has left University property alone.

In turn, the University has treated the encampment as little more than a nuisance.

Administrators took steps to relocate events and some final exams, but most of campus life remains uninterrupted. Even many freshmen who live in dorms just several feet from the encampment said it had not significantly impacted their daily routines.

The scene in the Yard has paled in comparison to clashes at universities where administrators asked police officers to break up pro-Palestine encampments.

At Columbia, President Nemat “Minouche” Shafik allowed the New York Police Department to arrest student protesters just one day into the encampment, triggering a larger wave of protests, a faculty revolt, and international condemnation of the police response.

At UCLA, a group of pro-Israel counterprotesters wielding metal pipes violently attacked encampment protesters Wednesday. One day later, administrators called the police to arrest at least 200 protesters.

While Garber has not ruled out the use of police, he said there is a “high bar” for such a response, specifically indicating that violence or threats of violence could lead to law enforcement action.

Former Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers wrote on X that while he believes the high bar for police action is appropriate, Harvard should do more to discipline students.

“The application of threatened academic discipline to clear infractions of university rules is long overdue at Harvard,” he wrote.

Swain wrote that “those participating in the ongoing encampment and associated protest activities will face disciplinary consequences, with repeated or sustained violations subject to increased sanctions.”

John K. Wilson, a former fellow at the University of California National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement, said Harvard’s handling of the campus protests has been successful for now.

“I think the best approach universities have done is to let people do this,” Wilson said.

Not Negotiating

Garber has also declined to follow in the footsteps of universities like Rutgers and Northwestern, where administrators ended encampments by agreeing to several of the protesters’ key demands.

Still, the peaceful end of the encampments did not allow university administrators to escape controversy. Northwestern President Michael Schill’s concessions to the pro-Palestine protesters sparked backlash from a range of Jewish affiliates and led to the resignation of nearly half of Northwestern’s antisemitism advisory group.

It seems increasingly unlikely that Garber and the pro-Palestine protesters in Harvard Yard will manage to reach a similar agreement.

In an April interview with The Crimson, Garber said he would “not entertain” divesting from Israel, though he defended the group’s right to suggest that they do.

“I’ll only say that there are various ways to express your views and it does not necessarily mean that the University needs to change its investment policy or engage in activities like academic boycotts that run contrary to academic principles and University principles,” he said.

Interim Harvard President Alan M. Garber sits in a February interview in his office at Massachusetts Hall.
Interim Harvard President Alan M. Garber sits in a February interview in his office at Massachusetts Hall. By Marina Qu

It is also possible that Garber can’t make any concessions to the pro-Palestine protesters, even if he wanted to.

The House Committee on Education and the Workforce is investigating Harvard for not doing enough to combat antisemitism on campus, and any concessions Garber makes will only serve as ammunition for the House Republicans leading the investigation.

Beyond the political dangers associated with brokering a deal, he would also face backlash from the very same donors and alumni that Garber is attempting to mend relations with.

But even if the University agrees to an initial conversation with protesters to hear their demands, it seems likely that Garber will delegate a lower-ranking administrator to lead the discussion.

Thus far, Garber has sought to deny the encampment any extra attention by not visiting the encampment or speaking to protesters. Instead, official communications about the encampment have come from spokespeople or Harvard College Dean of Students Thomas Dunne.


The encampment marked Garber’s first major test since assuming office in January as the first-large scale protest of his tenure.

While his initial handling of the protest has earned him praise from Harvard affiliates, he still faces several hurdles before he is able to proclaim that his administration successfully managed the protest.

The next challenge for Garber is to find a way to end the encampment without resorting to the measures that led to widespread controversy at Columbia, UCLA, and other universities where police arrested students.

As the end of the semester and Harvard’s commencement ceremonies draw nearer, both Garber and the protesters will be forced to make choices about how firm their positions really are.

Undergraduates will lose access to their housing on May 12, an incentive for protesters to leave the encampment in the coming week. Commencement — just a couple of weeks away — will make removing the encampment a greater priority for the University.

Disciplinary measures, in particular, will likely escalate in the coming weeks to prevent ceremonies from being disrupted by the protests or the Yard restrictions around it.

Garber’s handling of the encampment could influence whether he permanently becomes president of Harvard.

Especially as other university leaders now face votes of no confidence over their response, Garber’s ability to maintain campus calm would be a major win as the Harvard Corporation — the University’s highest governing body — looks toward its upcoming presidential search.

Paul Reville, a professor of education policy and administration at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said Garber’s ability to control the situation will impact whether he will be viewed as a successful leader.

“Control is a key factor that those outside the school and those authorizing a president look at,” Reville said.

“There are a lot of potential challenges on the horizon,” he added.

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

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