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Occupy Harvard looks ahead

Custodian strike averted, protest turns to other demands

The John Harvard statue was surrounded by tents earlier this month as the Occupy Harvard protest got started. The John Harvard statue was surrounded by tents earlier this month as the Occupy Harvard protest got started. (JONATHAN WIGGS/GLOBE STAFF)
By Mary Carmichael
Globe Staff / November 27, 2011
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The night the tents went up at Occupy Harvard, there was talk of a strike by custodians to persuade the university to raise wages and benefits. Students formed a human shield around their campsite at the center of Harvard Yard, refusing to move to a quieter quad despite administrative pleas. If necessary, some said, they would occupy President Drew Faust’s office.

But the custodians won an improved new contract before their bargaining deadline - no strike necessary. Since then, several tents have been dismantled, their poles scattered around the campsite like so many fallen leaves. The protesters have marched on Faust, but they have done it politely: They met with her last week for a few minutes during her office hours.

Occupy Harvard started with a bang. The challenge now, its members say, is to keep it from ending with a whimper.

On other campuses, rising student debt is fueling large, sometimes raucous protests. At the University of California, Davis, seated protesters were doused with pepper spray last week - an incident that led to the removal of the campus police chief and prompted calls for the chancellor’s resignation at a rally attended by thousands.

But at Harvard, the ambience is relaxed. There are no calls for Faust’s resignation. In fact, said Nic Galat, a member of the Harvard Undergraduate Council, many students are “really impressed with the university’s response in allowing a peaceful protest.’’

Having won their first battle, the protesters themselves are pondering next steps.

“Clearly, the union contract was a big win, but we haven’t finished our work,’’ said Fenna Krienen, a fifth-year psychology graduate student present in one of the 20 remaining tents yesterday. “We’re at an inflection point.’’

The protesters have moved on to other demands - an end to admissions preferences for the children of alumni, for instance, and an overhaul of the economics department. They say they want systemwide change.

“There’s tension between people who just want to make a laundry list of issues and those of us who want something more deep-seated,’’ said Randy Fenstermacher, a Harvard employee who splits his time between the campus campsite and Occupy Boston in Dewey Square. “We want to talk about principles. We don’t want to end up with a bunch of small reforms that can easily be undone.’’

But big change may require much more than a campout.

Occupy organizers are planning a nationwide student strike for Monday. So far, 29 schools have signed up, including Tufts University.

At Harvard, protesters will hold a rally in solidarity, featuring a speech by the author Chris Hedges.

But they are not planning to skip work or class en masse.

That is not to say they are not putting in serious effort. Their campsite is far more organized than it was in its first days. Last week, it earned national press after protesters heckled a visiting Newt Gingrich. And yesterday, Occupy Harvard put out a statement calling on the university to stop investing in HEI, a hotel company with questionable labor practices.

The movement now has its own newspaper, the Occupy Harvard Crimson, which features essays on “neocon indoctrination,’’ climate change, and the school’s development projects in Allston. At an information tent, visitors can pick up a pamphlet that is business on one side (a statement of the movement’s principles) and play on the other (a picture of the John Harvard statue with a dancer Photoshopped irreverently atop his head).

Few people were on campus yesterday, and the tents were sparsely populated - at one point only by Krienen, Fenstermacher, two other protesters, and a dog. All but a half-dozen undergraduates had gone home for Thanksgiving.

But there was no plan to dismantle the camp. “Every time we have a meeting, people come in with new enthusiasm and ideas,’’ Krienen said. “Do we think it’s still a useful strategy to stay? Do we think we’re furthering our message by staying? So far the answer has always been yes.’’

The protesters got an infusion of energy last week from faculty members. On Thursday, a few professors brought over a smoked turkey, collard greens, and pumpkin pie. Many professors have also complained and written open letters to administrators about Harvard Yard continuing to be off-limits to anyone without a university ID.

The protesters welcome that support. “We want this to represent the 99 percent, which is a very inclusive group,’’ Fenstermacher said. “But we’re having trouble doing that with the current constraints.’’

The constraints are also beginning to annoy some students, one of whom started a petition this week to “Free Harvard’’ - by moving the Occupy campsite outside the campus gates. It had 742 signatures and counting. (A competing petition in favor of Occupy Harvard had 845.)

For the time being, the lockdown continues. Faust released a statement. “Our decision to monitor access to the Yard was not to limit our own students and faculty but rather to ensure their safety, including that of the nearly 1,400 first semester freshmen who live in the close vicinity of the encampment,’’ it read. “We meet regularly to evaluate our decision, as we have no interest in restricting access to the Yard for a day longer than we believe necessary.’’

Mary Carmichael can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @mary_carmichael.

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