Perspectives on Divest Harvard and Why They Won’t Give Up

Following over a year of visible student protests asking Harvard to divest from its holdings in fossil fuel companies, University President Drew G. Faust released a letter affirming the University’s stance against divestment.

“Climate change represents one of the world’s most consequential challenges. I very much respect the concern and commitment shown by the many members of our community who are working to confront this problem,” she wrote in her letter dated Oct. 3, 2013. “While I share their belief in the importance of addressing climate change, I do not believe, nor do my colleagues on the Corporation, that university divestment from the fossil fuel industry is warranted or wise.”

Faust’s letter added weight to the idea that Harvard “operates with a strong presumption against divestment,” according to University spokesperson Kevin Galvin. But members of Divest Harvard, the student group currently spearheading the divestment movement, say this letter serves as a source of motivation, rather than discouragement.

“Having a concrete ‘no’ is something to work against... it makes our campaign stronger,” said Pennilynn R. Stahl ’15, the student outreach coordinator for Divest Harvard.

The campaign is not backing down. Just this past Sunday, over 150 students from schools in the Boston area gathered on Harvard’s campus to rally for divestment.

Whether or not divestment happens in the near future, activists are hopeful that it eventually will. In the meantime, they hope to bring immediate awareness to the effects of climate change and how divestment might lend urgency to that issue.

“It’s going to be a fight that’s going to take time,” Stahl said of divestment. “I don’t know how many years it will take, but we just want to continue building awareness of this issue and placing pressure on the administration.”

IT’S MORAL, NOT ECONOMIC

Since its creation in 2012, Divest Harvard has been committed to one goal—convincing Harvard University to divest its direct holdings in fossil fuel companies.

The movement, which has brought together students, faculty, alumni, and staff from across the Harvard community, aims to rebrand the fossil fuel companies as “social pariahs” in hopes of lessening the influence of these organizations. Therefore divestment, advocates say, is not an economic tactic, but a moral and political one.

“Divestment is a social movement. It’s trying to collapse down the social chain that exists between people’s actions and their investments,” said Benjamin Franta, a Ph.D. candidate in applied physics at Harvard and an organizer of Divest Harvard. “It’s about changing a broader societal psychology that surrounds an issue that has very long lasting effects.”

Activists have turned to divestment throughout Harvard’s history, calling for it in hopes of ending the system of apartheid in South Africa and reducing the influence of the tobacco industry.

In 1990, Harvard divested from tobacco companies, following a national trend that Franta said did not “bring the industry to its knees,” but did contribute to changing public attitudes towards smoking. Members of Divest Harvard hope to replicate that success with the fossil fuel movement.

“They have successfully managed to prevent any legislation at the level we need to really do something about the [climate change] crisis,” Alli J. Welton ’15, an undergraduate organizer of Divest Harvard, said of fossil fuel companies. “By taking away their social license with divestment, we can create space for the government to finally act.”

Divest Harvard grew from an undergraduate coalition known as Students for a Just and Stable Future, which aims broadly to encourage activism related to climate change.

Tags