As Other Colleges Discuss Divestment, Harvard Stays Mum

UPDATED: Nov. 27, 2012, at 11:56 p.m.

While a number of colleges have expressed enthusiasm at the overwhelming Harvard student support for the divestment of the University’s endowment from the fossil fuel industry, many student leaders also voiced concern at the Harvard administration’s silence on the issue.

More than 70 percent of the roughly 3,600 Harvard undergraduates who cast ballots in the Undergraduate Council presidential election voted in favor of a referendum calling for divestment of Harvard’s $30.7 billion endowment from the fossil fuel industry, adding Harvard’s name to a slew of similar campaigns at other colleges.

“We are so excited that Harvard and so many other schools have joined the movement. In particular, we were thrilled to hear that 72% of the Harvard student body supported the referendum,” Sachie Hopkins-Hayakawa, an organizer of the fossil fuel divestment campaign at Swarthmore College, wrote in an email.

But despite such immense student support, the Harvard administration said last week that it is “not considering” divestment, and student attempts to meet University President Drew G. Faust to discuss the issue have been unsuccessful thus far.

“It’s two-and-a-half weeks that we’ve been waiting for a response—and we sent reminder emails,” said Alli J. Welton '15, a board member of Divest Harvard, the student organization that championed the referendum.

Student leaders at other schools said their administrators have been much more receptive to student divestment campaigns.

“Honestly it’s terrible that the [Harvard] administration is refusing to [discuss the issue] considering that there are students that are really concerned about it,” said Catherine E. Martin, an organizer of the fossil fuel divestment movement at Syracuse University. She added that the Syracuse administration has been “very willing” to work with students—the chancellor formed a committee of five trustees to evaluate the college’s investments after students inquired about investment in fossil fuels.

Amherst College’s administration has also been “very willing” to engage in dialogue, said Deidre Nelms, who is spearheading fossil fuel divestment efforts there as president of the Green Amherst Project.

Amherst administrators will likely vote in January whether or not to divest from the coal industry, and a robust campaign at Harvard could influence the outcome.

“They’d be more likely to divest if other colleges were actively pursuing it as well,” said Nelms. “Keep protesting, and try to make the issue as high profile as possible, because people pay attention to what people do at Harvard.”

Martin echoed Nelms’ words of advice and is optimistic that the Harvard administration will not be able to ignore divestment if student involvement in Divest Harvard accelerates. “If people are even vaguely interested they need to go out and support [the campaign] because change isn’t easy,” she said. “If you want to get involved don’t think somebody else is going to take care of it for you—make sure your voice is heard.”

The nationwide environmental initiative was catalyzed in large part by environmental author and activist Bill E. McKibben '82’s ‘Do the Math’ tour, in which the former Crimson president traveled to dozens of university campuses to encourage investment in sustainable energy rather than fossil fuels.

This article has been updated to reflect the following clarification:

CLARIFICATION: Nov. 27

An earlier version of this article stated that more than 70 percent of undergraduates voted in favor of a referendum calling for Harvard to divest from the fossil fuel industry. To clarify, that number refers to the 72 percent of the roughly 3,600 students who voted in the Undergraduate Council presidential election who supported the referendum.

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