Putting the Green in Green

By Sandra Y. L. Korn

From the grass in Harvard Yard to the Dunster/Mather dining hall to the bright green levers on all Harvard toilets, the mantra “Green is the New Crimson” certainly seems to apply to Harvard’s environmentally conscious mindset. But although Harvard ranks in the Princeton Review’s “Green Honor Roll” of environmentally friendly schools, one rather large obstacle stands in the way of knowing whether Harvard is as green as it appears. After all, this University’s biggest asset is its now 27 billion dollar endowment.

With such a large endowment, Harvard has the potential to put enormous pressure on unsustainable corporations to improve their environmental practices and support companies committed to sustainability. But due to the Harvard Management Corporation’s lack of transparency, donors to the University and students like me have absolutely no idea if Harvard is investing in environmentally friendly companies.

Harvard College certainly boasts many green student organizations, from Green ‘14 to the Environmental Action Committee. Most of these groups focus on student education initiatives and changes in Harvard’s day-to-day operations. However, while they do important work, Harvard must adopt far-reaching sustainable investment policies in order to become truly “green.”

The only way to hold the University accountable for the sustainability of its investments is transparency. The Harvard Management Corporation, which controls Harvard’s endowment, must allow students and potential donors to investigate its investment portfolio.

The 2010 College Sustainability Report Card rates American universities on a grading scale from A to F in different aspects of environmental sustainability. Although Harvard earned mostly A’s in areas ranging from “Food & Recycling” to “Administration,” we received a measly C in the “Endowment Transparency” section.

The Report Card noted that Harvard does have an Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility (ACSR) and a Corporation Committee on Shareholder Responsibility (CCSR). The ACSR listens to proposals from students and faculty about ethical investment choices for Harvard, and the CCSR votes whether to accept those proposals. However, although an overview of the decisions of Harvard’s Corporation Committee on Shareholder Responsibility is available upon request, the University only reveals its list of endowment holdings to trustees and senior administrators. This does not allow students, faculty, or potential donors to assess the sustainability of Harvard’s investments for themselves.

Furthermore, the CCSR’s 2010 report reveals little beyond requests to companies like Exxon Mobil and ConocoPhillips to provide reports relating to environmental and human rights issues and plans for greenhouse gas reduction. While these steps are a good start, the CCSR could do much more to ensure the ethical nature of Harvard’s investments. Additionally, the Harvard Management Corporation provides no information about whether companies actually follow through on these proposals or how much money Harvard invests in these and similarly unsustainable corporations. If the CCSR took stronger stances on environmental issues or addressed more companies, it could actually ensure the responsibility of Harvard’s investments. And if its proceedings were more public, students and donors could hold the CCSR better accountable to its mission of sustainability.

Fortunately, the Higher Education Transparency Act , a bill introduced recently to the Massachusetts State Legislature, would require that Harvard and other private universities in the state make information about their investments available to the public. This increased transparency will allow more critical discussion about the ethics of Harvard’s investments and hopefully lead to a more socially just endowment. Students, faculty, and administrators alike should support and encourage increased transparency not only as a means to financial accountability, but as the only way for Harvard to become a true green University.

Transparency is important to enable an assessment of how “green” Harvard and its investments really are.  Indeed, if Harvard truly wishes to be green, it cannot invest in companies that follow business models incompatible with sustainable energy and green industry. Furthermore, the Harvard Management Corporation must be more transparent about its investments so that concerned students and student groups can evaluate the University’s portfolio and petition for more ethical investments.  Lastly, the CCSR must be more responsive to concerns about sustainability and take more drastic actions against environmentally destructive companies, such as reprimands and divestment.

So, what should environmentally conscious students do? Most importantly, we should speak out in support of the Higher Education Transparency Act: it’s possibly one of the most important environmental laws that will come out of the Massachusetts legislature this year. And in the meantime, we’ll just have to continue using our travel mugs and taking shorter showers—because without investment accountability, that’s about all we can do.

Sandra Y. L. Korn ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Matthews Hall.

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