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The Citizen

Occupy Harvard: Moment or Movement?

By Carli Hetland, Assistant Opinions Editor, MPP ‘13

As the sun set on November 9th, the 53rd day of Occupy Wall Street (OWS) in Zuccotti Park, the Occupy Harvard movement kicked off its first official day. Approximately 800 Harvard students, faculty, staff, and members of the community gathered in peaceful assembly on the Harvard Law School campus. Originally set to take place in Harvard Yard, the rally was held at the law school after approximately 300 non-Harvard students and members of the press were denied entry to the Yard.

Kennedy school students and professors were prominent throughout the rally, march and camping activity. HKS professor Tim McCarthy kicked off the night in what was the evening`s most rousing speech. “Harvard employees are the very people involved in the economic crisis. Harvard is complicit…in land grabs abroad, faculty that has made war more efficient, and faculty that teaches that profit are more important than people.”

The energy was palpable.  And contagious.

But the contagion has not spread to the entire HKS community. While many of the leaders of the movement are students, the views of the HKS community are mixed. Danny Hatem, MPP1, has been on outspoken voice in opposition, “I’m not a supporter of OWS, but I get it. But I don’t get Occupy Harvard.” He continues, “A university for the 99%?’ What does that mean?  I don’t think this university is for the 99%. This university is great because it is not for the 99%.”

He offered this advice: “if you don’t want to attend an elite institution, there are plenty of non-elite institutions you can attend.” But he also conceded, “If they had specific demands, I would respect them.  I’m a conservative, I’m not a nut.”

His comments were echoed by other HKS students when interviewed. But if they spoke to Timothy McCarthy, Adjunct Lecturer on Public Policy and Director of the Human Rights and Social Movements Program at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, they may become converted to the movement.In the pre-rally event sponsored by the HKS Progressive Caucus and ALANA, McCarthy noted that “Harvard is a factory that produces the 1%…that’s where its power comes from, that’s where the money comes from. We are all implicated in this.  And it’s important we recognize this.” He also recognized it is difficult to understand the movement. But he advised students to get involved in the process of at least trying to understand what is happening. “Sometimes folks just need to follow and continue to come.”

To get involved in the process of understanding, the Citizen interviewed Ben Beachy, MPP2 and a member of Occupy Harvard’s core team of approximately 40 organizers. The group started organically. In early October, Beachy states that “a group òf us recognized there are lots of ways that Harvard has not shown it’s a university of the 99%. And we recognized that Harvard should do more to address inequality. Harvard has the opportunity to prove it’s on the side of the 99%.”

This vision is further outlined in the press release circulated by the group November 10th. Occupy Harvard acts “in solidarity with the Occupy movement to protest the corporatization of higher education, epitomized by Harvard University.”

What does this mean? Beachy acknowledged that most of the attention has centered on two central issues: compensation for its custodial workers and university investment practices.  He noted, “as with other Occupy movements, there will not be a clear, consistent message, but maybe that’s a key to success.”

Occupy Harvard has put out a series of demands in its November 10th press release. In the immediate term, Occupy Harvard is demanding higher salaries for custodial workers under a new contract to address a pay discrimination of 180:1 between executives of Harvard Management Company and custodial workers.

Over the medium term, there is a call to terminate Harvard investment in HEI Hotels & Resorts and in alleged land-grabbing hedge funds like Emergent Asset Management; over the longer-term, to adopt a new transparency policy to disclose its investments. According to Beachy, “my student financing should not come on the back of African farmers.”

Other demands include the need for faculty to disclose conflicts of interest and offer academic options to understand answers to socioeconomic inequality outside of mainstream economics. While these have been the central messages, Occupy Harvard recognizes this doesn’t mean the movement will only be defined by these demands.

In response to the demonstrations, Harvard University released a statement November 11, acknowledging that while it respects the rights of expression of the members of the Harvard community, the university will “continue with heightened security measures for the time being. Most importantly, no one without a Harvard identification will be permitted into the Yard.”

Timothy McCarthy summarized it best when, referring to the Occupy events, he questioned “is this a moment or a movement?” By the time this is published, Occupy Harvard may be a distant memory or just getting started as a viable movement.  Right now, it’s too early to tell.