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Harvard Divests | The Nation

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Harvard Divests

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Matt Mahan is not the sort of person the mind conjures up when trying to imagine Harvard's student-body president. The product of a Jesuit high school with a strong emphasis on social justice, Mahan was not content to limit his influence to putting more frozen yogurt machines in dining halls. A committed activist who had been outspoken in support of janitors' rights and the fight against global AIDS, Mahan had drawn the ire of various members of the student government who believed the president's role was to improve student life.

About the Author

Sam Graham-Felsen
Sam Graham-Felsen was Barack Obama's chief blogger on the 2008 campaign. He writes and speaks on technology, politics,...

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Mahan's involvement with the Darfur campaign began during the 2004 graduation ceremony, where Kofi Annan served as keynote speaker. Mahan e-mailed thousands of students and alumni and urged them to participate in a rally calling for the United Nations--which had not yet labeled the situation a genocide--to act. When Mahan returned the following fall for his senior year and second term as president, he attempted to pass a student-body resolution calling for divestment, but he was disappointed when the bill received no support.

In February Mahan became a vocal leader in the divestment campaign. Furious that Harvard had doubled its PetroChina holdings, Mahan called Brandon Terry, president of the Black Men's Forum. In an open letter in the Crimson, Mahan and Terry called for seniors to boycott Senior Gift, the annual endowment drive in which students are expected to begin the cycle of "giving back" to Harvard. "As we approach graduation and grapple with what our legacy to this University will be, we must question if continued inaction will place us on the wrong side of history," the letter read. "This is a crucial opportunity to show that we are leaders for a more just world, and will not tolerate our money and name being complicit in genocide."

The letter caused immediate controversy, and after some consideration, Mahan and Terry modified their plan to create Senior Gift Plus (www.seniorgiftplus.com). Under this plan, if Harvard did not divest, student donations would go directly to the Carr Center for Human Rights at the Kennedy School. But even Senior Gift Plus was too abrasive for a large portion of the Harvard community. Mahan believes that the entrenched power of the Senior Gift Committee--whose members had been prepped for months by university officials to act as, essentially, flacks for the university--was responsible for much of the negative reaction. "What made it tough," Mahan explains, "is that there were 150 Senior Gift collectors who had roommates and friends behind them. Meanwhile, many members of the Senior Gift Committee were also Crimson editors, one of whom wrote the opinion piece coming out against us. It was a very underhanded and politically savvy operation."

But Mahan's presence and the Senior Gift controversy generated just the kind of media buzz Collins and Bhatnagar were hoping for in the wake of their campaign's setback. Thousands of students were visiting the Senior Gift Plus website, and hundreds more signed the petition. Mahan began devoting all of his time to the campaign. "I was working on this eight hours a day. I couldn't go to class, couldn't work on my thesis," he says. "We were having meetings at 10 or 11 at night, and thirty people would show up. This kind of enthusiasm was unprecedented in my experience at Harvard."

At the campaign's peak, leaders of forty-five different student groups had signed on in support of Senior Gift Plus and divestment. Not only had Harvard's progressive community--which, Mahan says, is generally quite fragmented--come together but conservative students, many of them from Christian student groups, had joined the fold as well. Collins was amazed by the coalition. "It really hit me that this was a unique convergence of student groups," he says. "I think it really speaks to the transcendent moral power of the issue. This is an easy one--a genocide everyone knows about--and there was a concrete way to fight it."

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