April 28, 2001
By PATRICK HEALY, The Boston Globe
After nine long days, protest-weary officials at Harvard University yesterday threatened academic penalties and the possibility of police action to end a stand-off with 40 students occupying the main administration building in Harvard Yard.
Harvard's president, Neil Rudenstine, met with the protesters for the first time yesterday, gently making clear that he wanted the demonstration to end. Yet, he refused to accede to the students' demand that he and Harvard's governing board adopt a minimum wage of at least $10.25 an hour for all campus employees.
However, Harvard officials said that Rudenstine was prepared to put "all things on the table" in direct negotiations with the students, a new sign of flexibility. But first, they said, the students would have to leave the building, and a new study of the "living wage" issue would be necessary.
The students, several of whom will graduate in June, blanched at the idea of a another study and said they were reluctant to give up their best bargaining chip: their presence in Massachusetts Hall, where Rudenstine and other top officials have offices.
A top administrator, who asked not to be named, said yesterday that students could face serious consequences for missing classes, exams, and academic deadlines as a result of staying in the building. Harvard rarely instructs faculty on how to treat students, but the official did not foreclose some form of punishment. He also did not rule out calling in police if the protesters did not clear out.
"What is most likely is some kind of academic discipline. The fact that nothing has been said about it is not to say that discipline will not be taken," the official said. He characterized the possibility of a police response as unpalatable, recalling how student protesters were injured in 1969 upon being forcibly removed from a building.
Beyond the rhetoric, the wage issue has taken on a strikingly personal dimension for Rudenstine.
He deeply disapproves the kind of rowdy confrontation the Harvard students have waged, and rarely involves himself in direct activism campaigns. But Rudenstine, who is stepping down in just two months after 10 years in the post, is finding his image as an honest broker challenged like never before.
In a statement Thursday night and in comments to the activists yesterday, he signalled new terms of negotiations so long as they quit the building. Until now he has said that Harvard would be guided by a 1999-2000 faculty study of the wage policy. But in his statement, he said future negotiations "would not be limited" by that report's findings, which opposed the kind of universal minimum wage the protesters seek.
Rudenstine essentially gave his word that if the protesters left, he would open serious negotiations with them. But while his personal commitment has been good enough for donors who have given $2.6 billion to Harvard on his vision for the university, the students, in the word of one, said, "C'mon."
"Because of our history of dialogue with the administration and the president, it's hard to see this as anything but an attempt to get us out of the building," said Aaron Bartley, a third-year Harvard law student.
"If we had seen more progress in the past, this would seem like a worthy and good faith promise from him."
An ally of Bartley's, Paul Lekas, who is not in the building, said this is the first time Rudenstine has involved himself so prominently in the living-wage debate, which has been simmering for more than two years.
"He hasn't done much with us in the past," raising students' doubts about his pledges, Lekas said. "He does have a track record of moral committment, so this is kind of an anamoly for him."
The students' hand will be strengthened next week, with a series of rallies featuring politicians and labor leaders, including AFL-CIO president John Sweeney.
Despite the demonstrations, Joe Wrinn, a Harvard spokesman, called on the students to act in response to Rudenstine's heightened level of involvement. "I hope they know the president well enough to know that he means what he says," Wrinn said.