Harvard, MIT leaders call on protesters to stop encampments on campuses

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Citing increasing concerns for safety on their campuses, the heads of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Monday called on protesters to end encampments on both campuses.

“We have directed students to leave the encampment peacefully by 2:30 p.m. today,” M.I.T. President Sally Kornbluth said in a letter to the school community on Monday.

“I hoped these measures could be avoided through our efforts to engage the students in serious good-faith discussion. But recent events, and my responsibility to ensure the physical safety of our community, oblige us to act now,” Kornbluth said.

In an open letter to members of the Harvard Community, Interim Harvard President Alan Garber on Monday called for an immediate end to “the occupation of Harvard Yard.”

Garber said the continuation of the encampment “presents a significant risk to the educational environment” at Harvard and that anyone who participates in or perpetuates the encampment “will be referred for involuntary leave from their Schools.”

“Among other implications, students placed on involuntary leave may not be able to sit for exams, may not continue to reside in Harvard housing, and must cease to be present on campus until reinstated,” Garber said.

Kornbluth called the ongoing encampment at M.I.T.’s campus “highly unstable.”

“My sense of urgency comes from an increasing concern for the safety of our community,” Kornbluth said. “I know many of you feel strongly that the encampment should be allowed to continue indefinitely – that the protest is simply a peaceful exercise of the right to free expression, and that normal rules around campus conduct shouldn’t apply in the face of such tragic loss of life in Gaza.”

“But I am responsible for this community,” Kornbluth said. “Without our 24-hour staffing, students sleeping outside overnight in tents would be vulnerable. And no matter how peaceful the students’ behavior may be, unilaterally taking over a central portion of our campus for one side of a hotly disputed issue and precluding use by other members of our community is not right. This situation is inherently highly unstable.”

Kornbluth and Garber said anyone who does not comply with the schools’ requests to end the encampment will face consequences. MIT students will be placed on an immediate interim academic suspension, and be prohibited from participating in classes, exams, or research for the remainder of the semester.

The ongoing encampment at Harvard over the last 12 days has “disrupted our educational activities and operations,” Garber said, adding that the actions of some protesters towards Harvard staff and passersby are “indefensible and unacceptable.”

“The right to free speech, including protest and dissent, is vital to the work of the research university. But it is not unlimited,” Garber said. “It must be exercised in a time, place, and manner that respects the right of our community members to do their work, pursue their education, and enjoy the opportunities that a residential campus has to offer.”

Furthermore, Garber said, “The encampment favors the voices of a few over the rights of many who have experienced disruption in how they learn and work at a critical time of the semester. I call on those participating in the encampment to end the occupation of Harvard Yard.”

Garber said the persons participating in encampment activities “have been informed repeatedly that violations of University and School policies will be subject to disciplinary consequences” and that “further violations and continued escalation will result in increasingly severe sanctions.”

“Last week, faculties across the University began delivering disciplinary notices to students who continued to participate in unauthorized, disruptive activity in the Yard despite these notices,” Garber said.

Last week, Massachusetts Congressman Jake Auchincloss called on Garber to remove the Pro-Palestine encampment and “re-engineer” a more accepting environment on campus.

“The oppressive and overbearing culture that is antizionist does not represent the median American, nor does it represent the core values of America,” said Auchincloss, who spent the day on Thursday speaking with Israeli and Jewish students at Harvard.

Garber issued the call to end the encampment at the university about two weeks before Harvard is set to hold its commencement on May 23. Thousands of family members and friends are expected to “celebrate the achievements of graduate and undergraduate students who have earned the right to walk in Commencement.”

“This celebration is the culmination of years of hard work and accomplishment. The members of the Class of 2024 deserve to enjoy this milestone uninterrupted and unimpeded,” he said.

His comments came as another Ivy League school, Columbia University in New York, on Monday announced that it is canceling its main commencement ceremony amid ongoing protests.

The days leading up to Harvard’s planned commencement later this month have been disruptive for both students and staff at the historic Cambridge campus, Garber said.

“The disruptions from this encampment at the heart of the University have been numerous. Harvard College exams and other important activities and events have had to move elsewhere,” Garber said. “Safety concerns over the past two weeks, including those raised as a result of students sleeping outdoors overnight, have required us to sharply limit access to Harvard Yard.”

Especially troubling are the “increasing reports that some within, and some supporting, the encampment have intimidated and harassed other members of our community,” Garber said.

“When Harvard staff have requested to see IDs in order to enforce our policies, supporters of the encampment have at times yelled at them, tried to encircle them, and otherwise interfered with their work. We have also received reports that passers-by have been confronted, surveilled, and followed,” Garber said. “Such actions are indefensible and unacceptable.”

In February, the co-chairperson of Harvard University’s talk force on antisemitism resigned amid concerns that the prestigious Ivy League school would not act on the group’s recommendations. That same month, Harvard condemned what it called a “flagrantly antisemitic cartoon” that an undergraduate group posted on social media.

House Republicans last week launched an investigation into federal funding for universities amid the campus protests and reports of growing antisemitism on college and university campuses, The Associated Press reported.

In his message to the Harvard community on Monday, Garber said that enforcement of university policies are essential to our educational mission” and “an obligation we owe to our students and the Harvard community more broadly.”

“It is not, as some have suggested, a rejection of discussion and debate about the urgent issues that concern the University, the nation, and the world,” Garber said. “As an academic institution, we do not shy away from hard and important questions. There are many ways for our community to engage constructively in reasoned discussion of complex issues, but initiating these difficult and crucial conversations does not require, or justify, interfering with the educational environment and Harvard’s academic mission.”

This is a developing story. Check back for updates as more information becomes available.

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