CAMBRIDGE — A colorful collection of tents appeared late last night in Harvard Yard, placed there by student protesters laying claim to the storied patch of land as part of the national Occupy movement.
The first tents were planted in the shadow of John Harvard’s statue a little past 10:30 p.m. Within 45 minutes, about 20 stood there.
The tents’ arrival marked the denouement of an evening of protest that began with a rally, led to a decision by university administrators to lock the gates of the yard, and spurred chaotic decision making by demonstrators who had spent weeks planning their occupation of Harvard.
‘‘It has been a long and very successful evening,’’ one protester bellowed, to hoots of support.
A Harvard dean asked the demonstrators to move their tents to a different quad so that they would not disrupt other students who live there. ‘‘We want to accommodate you,’’ Suzy Nelson, dean of student life told the protesters.
The students — their ranks swelling to more than 200 — linked arms and later voted on whether to move the tents. They decided to stay.
Earlier in the evening, after the rally outside Harvard Law School, several hundred students and other protesters found themselves temporarily locked out of the yard. They chanted and waved signs as flashbulbs went off. Police closed a gate the protesters were trying to open, provoking cries of ‘‘let them in’’ and ‘‘the whole world is watching.’’
The university released a statement as the protests were ongoing. ‘‘Free speech and the free exchange of ideas are hallmarks of the Harvard experience, and important values for the university community to uphold,’’ it said. ‘‘At the same time, it is important that we assure the safety and security of our students, particularly those who live in the Yard.’’
Harvard University police briefly detained one demonstrator, Jeff Bridges, who yelled, ‘‘I’m a student!’’ Bridges, a third-year divinity student, said he had pushed his way in, waving his ID. ‘‘I think what they’re doing is wrong and immoral, and as a divinity student I should know,’’ he said. Police allowed him to stay inside.
Harvard students met repeatedly in recent weeks, sometimes for three or four hours at a time, to hatch their plan to occupy the university’s yard. A rotating group of undergraduates and graduate students have said they plan to reside in the tents for days, leaving at intervals for class or visits with family and friends. They are calling on the university to amend its investment practices and to negotiate a new contract with custodial workers.
The prospect of chill and rain, they pledged, would not deter them.
‘‘It’s a protest movement, not a camping trip,’’ Jason Rowe, a Kennedy School graduate student, said in an interview Tuesday.
This is not the Occupy Harvard students’ first protest. Like many of the movement’s campus chapters, they have spent time at the city’s main Occupy site and organized their own transient demonstrations. Last week, they held a 70-person walkout of a popular economics class and a march winding past the Harvard Club and ending at the Occupy Boston tents near South Station.
That got media attention, but much of the student body was unmoved. To escalate their protests and ‘‘focus the eyes of the Occupy movement on Harvard,’’ said sophomore Sandra Korn, the students decided to harness Occupy’s most iconic imagery: tents.
Even before finishing their plans, some students started to worry about a clash with administrators. Will Whitham, a sophomore, said he and two others tried to chalk slogans on a Harvard sidewalk two weeks ago, but were stopped by security personnel who told them, nicely, that chalking was not allowed. Whitham said a police officer also asked whether he was part of the Occupy movement.
‘‘He gave me the impression that the police and administrators were concerned about some kind of possible occupation,’’ Whitham said.
An unusually large number of security guards and police were seen outside several Harvard buildings during the day yesterday.
Outside Harvard Yard last night, on Massachusetts Avenue, Dr. John Trumpbour, research director at Harvard Law’s labor and work life program, came to lend his support to protesters.
‘‘I feel like a lot of the people here,’’ Trumpbour said. ‘‘Government is just serving the 1 percent. Harvard is an important symbol in society; it serves as a service station for the ruling class and bankers.’’
A statement circulated at the rally called for changes at Harvard, including disclosure of investments, a commitment not to reinvest in specific companies and hedge funds, and a new contract with custodial workers. The protest was explicitly timed to coincide with Harvard’s negotiations with SEIU Local 615, a union for service workers. The workers’ contract with Harvard expires next Tuesday.
‘‘We have a number of major proposals on the table that aren’t really moving,’’ said the union’s Boston-area higher education director, Wayne Langley, listing concerns over health care, child care, and potential layoffs.
Kevin Galvin, a university spokesman, released a statement regarding negotiations. ‘‘The custodians have seen a 36 percent increase in their hourly wages since 2005, and the university already pays more to cover their health care benefits than many other institutions,’’ it read. ‘‘We remain optimistic that the negotiations will be productive for both the university and the people who help to make it one of the world’s premier institutions for research and education.’’