CAA-sponsored Inaugural sit-in ends peacefully
By Andrea Lamberti
About 18 pro-divestment demonstrators occupied the office of President Charles M. Vest the night before his inauguration as MIT's 15th president, leaving without incident the next day by 12 noon.
The sit-in came to an end after an agreement was reached between the demonstrators, who were members of the Coalition Against Apartheid, and a group of four faculty members at about 9 am Friday, May 10.
Provost Mark S. Wrighton told the demonstrators at about 8:30 am that they would be trespassing after 9 am and face disciplinary action if they remained in the office. In the ensuing discussion with Professor of Ocean Engineering J. Kim Vandiver '75, the group negotiated to stay in Vest's office through the Inauguration until 12 noon.
Another part of the agreement permitted members of the press, who had gathered outside Vest's office early Friday morning but were not allowed inside to speak with demonstrators, to enter the president's office.
The demonstrators entered Vest's office at around 4 pm Thursday, May 9, and asked him to support a binding community referendum on divestment, one of the coalition's main goals in its divestment efforts over the past year. Vest told them he did not support such a referendum, and that the MIT Corporation Executive Committee is responsible for MIT's investment policy.
Vandiver, who will become MIT faculty chair June 15, served as negotiator with the demonstrators. "I was sort of the senior faculty person there because everybody else was out at the Inauguration," he explained.
Vandiver said the decision to tell students they had to leave probably occurred Friday morning, and not at the meeting of faculty and administrators that happened shortly after the sit-in began Thursday evening.
At that Thursday meeting "a decision was made that there would be no arrests and no precipitous action of any kind on Thursday night. The administration made some ground rules that [demonstrators could] come and go to eat, [and] come and go to the bathroom. As long as they treated the president's office decently they were allowed to come and go," Vandiver said.
The next morning, though, students were not allowed to return once they left the office.
The Inauguration day was chosen for its significance, demonstrator Per N. Malkus '92 said. "Perhaps the Inauguration heralds a new way of thinking in MIT governance."
According to Jory D. Bell '91, the demonstrators chose that day because they wanted Vest to make a public statement on divestment before his inauguration and because "this [is] a crucial time in South Africa."
The sit-in came after several meetings -- in December, April and May -- between CAA members and members of the Corporation Executive Committee. At the meetings, the coalition presented information to members of the Corporation, who had submitted a list of questions on South Africa to the coalition.
Earlier this spring, the coalition called for MIT to divest from companies directly invested in South Africa and from companies identified as "the most blatant examples" of indirect investment in the South African economy.
The CAA also asked the Executive Committee to make a public statement reaffirming MIT's support for economic sanctions until a non-racial democracy is established in South Africa.
MIT issued a statement May 3, stating its intent to continue its policy of "selective investment" in United States companies with operations in South Africa.
"Dialogue really worked"
Faculty-administration discussions on how to deal with the sit-in contributed to the calm, civil atmosphere surrounding the demonstration, Vandiver said. "There was a lot of discussion, a lot of faculty input into the administration [decision on] how to handle a situation of this kind," he said.
He added that "the collected wisdom" at the Thursday meeting was, "Let's be cool, not do anything rash [and] let this thing go through the night."
The way the faculty and administration reacted to the sit-in, their attempts to foster discussion and an atmosphere of trust, closely followed the recommendations of a faculty study committee on demonstrations, which released its report at the May 15 faculty meeting. [See faculty meeting story, page 1.]
Vandiver said the demonstrations committee was formed in response to a series of pro-divestment demonstrations last year, two of which resulted in over 30 arrests. The mood at several of these demonstrations was often confrontational, he said.
Vandiver said the process for handling the sit-in was "very clearly an effort to consider carefully what to do and to bring faculty into decisions before the decisions were made. . . . The dialogue really worked this time."
Vandiver also said the negotiations with CAA members "lasted all of 10 minutes."
After the 10-minute negotiations during which the administration and students resolved the situation, demonstrators discussed with Vandiver a variety of topics. Steven D. Penn G said, "We talked about divestment and how to achieve it, functions of protest and change and how the university is structured."
Vandiver said it was a "good opportunity for students with some conscience and faculty also who are interested" to discuss issues.
Other faculty in the president's office during the early-morning discussion, whom Vandiver said were observers, were Associate Professor in the Writing Program Rosalind H. Williams, Professor and Program Head of Anthropology/Archeaology Jean E. Jackson and Associate Professor and Associate Department Head of Urban Studies and Planning Phillip L. Clay. All three were members of the demonstrations committee.