By Aaron J. Miller
April 16, 2015
IDEAS
Aaron J. Miller is a student at Harvard University.

The uproar of Heat Week has taken over Harvard. A group of students, alumni, and other members of the community are leading a weeklong demonstration to urge Harvard University to exercise ethical and intellectual leadership by divesting from fossil fuels. The only problem? The group’s tactics have arguably garnered more attention than the cause itself.

On Sunday, demonstrators blockaded Massachusetts Hall, where University President Drew Faust and other senior administrators have their offices. They hung up banners stretching across the building’s façade and laid out sleeping bags at each of its three doors. On Tuesday, when demonstrators learned that Faust was taking refuge for the week in the neighboring University Hall, they set up camp at its six entrances as well.

The demonstrations reflect a certain disregard for the movement’s envisioned goals. If Divest Harvard — the group leading the charge — were duly fixated on progress, its leaders would have acknowledged that divestment’s fate is reliant on the administration’s cooperation and would have pursued dialogue with key decision-makers.

This potential for effective dialogue exists. In a 2012 Undergraduate Council survey, 72% of the student body favored divestment from fossil fuels. In 2014, the Harvard-Radcliffe Club of Vermont became the first alumni group to officially back the movement. Proponents for divestment have considerable leverage to engage university leaders in a genuine discussion. Furthermore, last April, more than 250 faculty members signed an open letter to the administration supporting divestment.

There are also arguments on both sides. Divestment advocates maintain that Harvard’s investing in fossil fuels is hypocritical for an institution committed to environmental protection. Administrators have countered that the endowment is a financial tool, not a political statement. However, the movement’s leaders have sacrificed this opportunity for dialogue by instead focusing on the clamor of a Heat Week.

This isn’t a new approach for Divest Harvard, which was founded in 2012. In early February, about 20 student protesters camped inside Massachusetts Hall. When Faust offered the demonstrators a meeting, the group refused. They demanded an immediate meeting on their terms, which Faust declined. Last March, one of the group’s organizers accosted Faust while she was walking through the Yard and posted a video of the confrontation to Vimeo. Faust responded days later in an email to the group, “I had hoped you would carry on your campaign with a greater degree of civility and fairness.”

Harvard boasts a well-known legacy of civil disobedience, which Divest Harvard organizers have championed. From the 1969 anti-war demonstrations to the 2011 Occupy Harvard protests that forced the university to temporarily shut down the Yard to visitors, there is a strong precedent of students challenging the administration via protests. But civil disobedience is ultimately a means to an end. While the tactic proved effective in changing university policy almost 50 years ago, it failed the Occupy protests and now is failing Divest Harvard.

Progress will begin when the divest movement puts aside its proclivity for noise and attention and recognizes that trumpeting its ideals in the loudest means possible differs from taking the practical steps to attain its goals. Instead of Heat Week, Divest Harvard should engage the administration in a serious conversation. The campus is ready for this dialogue, and the divestment movement should be, too. It’s the only path forward.

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