Arrested Divestment

Other higher education institutions, notably Stanford, are finding their stakes in fossil fuels increasingly unconscionable, but Harvard itself has made no intentions to divest. Still, the protests continue.

Students assemble outside Massachusetts Hall to call for Harvard to divest from investments in fossil fuels in April 2013. Christopher J Magnani

UPDATED: October 2, 2014, at 3:15 p.m.

In early March, Alli J. Welton ’15 sat with some of her fellow Divest Harvard activists in the front row of Sanders Theatre. In bright orange shirts, they rose to follow Drew G. Faust out of the building after the University president’s Junior Parents Weekend address, with a camera in tow.  

In the Science Center Plaza, Welton presented Divest Harvard’s impassioned argument in favor of divestment while her group filmed Faust’s reaction. In doing so, the campaign was gambling that the benefits of increased attention outweighed the potential cost of straining their already tenuous relationship with the University administration.

“When the fossil fuel industry is standing in the way of our politicians doing anything about climate change, it’s absolutely clear that we have to do something to decrease their influence over the political system,” Welton, then student outreach co-chair for Divest, explained as she caught her breath in the windy Science Center Plaza.

In early march, Divest Harvard released an edited video of an exchange with University President Drew G. Faust where members of the group confronted her with questipons about the fossil fuel industry. Faust said she was disappointed with the way the group presented her comments in the video, arguing the group should employ a strategy 'with a greater degree of civility and fairness.'

Faust, bundled in a dark blue scarf, remained silent with her head tilted downward until Welton tossed a heated question at her: “If Harvard doesn’t help us, who do we turn to?”

“Harvard does help you,” Faust responded. “Harvard helps by making discoveries that enable this transition, by exploring—”

Welton cut in, “But the fossil fuel company stands in the way of their implementation.”

“That is not the case,” Faust said.

The video, which Divest uploaded shortly after the encounter, fades out after that line. Faust later chided Divest’s chosen means of protest and elaborated further her reasons against divesting.   

In the following months, the group’s interactions with University officials went much further than a brief confrontation through the Yard with Faust. Divest Harvard became more ardent and more active, culminating in an early morning arrest of member Brett A. Roche ’15 outside of Massachusetts Hall in early May.  

Divest Harvard’s recent escalation is the outgrowth of a sense of frustration at a University president and Corporation, that to them, are too secretive, too dismissive, and too unresponsive to their fervent calls. The three meetings Divest Harvard have had with members from the Corporation Committee on Shareholder Responsibility, a body that advises Harvard Management Company on managing its $36.4 billion endowment, have been been “private...off-the-record and not recorded,” as stipulated in emails from HMC  to Divest Harvard obtained by The Crimson, and have led to no tangible results.

But as Divest turns to these more extreme campaign tactics, there’s a concern within the organization that they will lose support from Harvard’s student and faculty bodies.

Activists say that the importance of divestment is not readily apparent in the type of cost-benefit analysis that is the go-to mode of critical thinking on Harvard’s campus.  According to Divest Harvard’s website, divestment’s goals are threefold. They aim to halt investment in fossil fuel industries, divest direct holdings in the top 200 publicly traded fossil fuel companies, and divest indirect holdings in such companies within the next five years.

Harvard is a linchpin in their movement, because, with its historic prestige and power, members believe it can sway popular opinion against the fossil fuel industry and, more specifically, the industry’s influence on Capitol Hill.

The University is caught between two seemingly disparate roles—one as one of the world’s leading research institutions, promoting green research and initiatives, and the other as an investor of the world’s largest University endowment, directing portions of its funds towards the fossil fuel industry. Other higher education institutions, notably Stanford, are finding their stakes in fossil fuels increasingly unconscionable, but Harvard itself has made no intentions to divest. Still, the protests continue.  

THE GENESIS OF DIVEST

Chloe S. Maxmin ’15 first read about the idea of divestment in the summer of 2012, in a Rolling Stone article by William E. McKibben ’82 that proclaimed, “we’re losing the fight, badly and quickly—losing it because, most of all, we remain in denial about the peril that human civilization is in.” McKibben’s tally of the environmental damage created by fossil fuel use prompted Maxmin to look into 350.org, founded by McKibben, where she learned more about the divestment movement. By fall of 2012, Maxmin had founded Divest Harvard.

Divestment Advocate
William E. McKibben '82, environmentalist and author, conducts a lecture on climate change and fossil fuel divestment at Sanders Theatre on September 17, 2013.

“I’ve been an activist, since I was about twelve years old. My whole focus up until the summer before divestment was on advocacy—changing light bulbs, doing energy audits,” Maxmin says. “But then I learned about the power of the fossil fuel industry and the influence they have in, what I once thought was my idyllic state of Maine.”    

After Divest’s founding, the group quickly gained members. For Benjamin Franta, a graduate student who is working to build Divest’s alumni network, joining the group marked the first time he became involved with activism.

“When I went to my first rally, I was nervous,” he says. “I still get a little nervous at rallies.”

Franta, a doctoral candidate in Applied Physics and a predoctoral fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, spends most of his days in the lab, where he researches solar technology.

“I felt like part of my life is doing research in the lab on stuff that will maybe never make it to market and, if it does, only after ten years,” Franta said. With Divest, on the other hand, he felt that was making a more immediate impact in the fight against climate change.

McKibben also helped develop Franta’s interest in divestment. A McKibben lecture led him, in the fall of 2012, to attend the first meetings of the Divest Harvard student organization.

In the years since then, Franta has headed Divest’s faculty relations and alumni relations operations—work that he says some of his academic colleagues might rebuke.

“A lot of technocrats find it difficult to see the purpose of social movements,” Franta says.

He’s noticed that, in response to the threat of climate change, academics in the social sciences and hard sciences are more focused on solutions that attack the economic conditions and technological constraints that leave the fossil fuel industry with a monopoly on energy services. Franta, however, says that there is also a need for a social movement to attack the popular indifference towards the fossil fuel industry that allows it to continue.

Benjamin and Alli
Benjamin Franta, a Harvard Graduate School student, and Alli J. Welton '15 discuss the carbon budget and fossil fuel reserves at their rally in Harvard Yard on March 11, 2014.

Franta believes that academics think about the issue differently depending on their field. “Economists will say, ‘What you’re doing is a waste of time. What you need is a carbon tax.’ Scientists will say,  ‘What you’re doing is a waste of time. ­What we need is better solar technology.’ The historian would say, ‘absolutely, we need a social movement,’” Franta says. “Because that’s the way they’re used to looking at the world.”   

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Canyon S. Woodward ’15, co-coordinator of Divest Harvard along with Sidni M. Frederick ’17, believes that a social movement to create stigma around the fossil fuel industry is particularly important, not only for the environment, but also for human rights. He argues that a social movement will do more to denormalize the actions of the industry than either scientific research or overt political action.

When we meet, he speaks deliberately and dons dark sandals and a picnic red and white checkered button-down shirt with three buttons loosened. His Macbook Pro is clustered with worn stickers that announce things like: “Raft Naked,” “Not all who wander are lost,” or “I Climbed the Brooklyn Bridge.”

He explains that divestment is not just about protecting nature; it is about protecting people—particularly those in the developing world.

“The Maldives and other nations are literally going under water,” Woodward said. He added that while the United States can weather events like Hurricane Sandy, countries like the Philippines, which lack easy access to money and technology, simply cannot.

The “climate justice” aspect of divestment is, according to Woodward, what inspires him and other Divest Harvard activists who are willing to do anything for their cause. “We get climate change in a human way,” he says. “A way that other people, going about their day-to-day busy lives, understandably, don’t.”

This semester, Divest Harvard plans to continue asking Faust to hold an open meeting and is organizing a community-wide fast from Oct. 20 to Oct. 24.

THE PRESIDENTIAL VOICE

The majority of Faust’s responses to the divestment movement have been through open letters. The 67 year-old former historian publicly entered the discussion with her first open letter in early Oct. 2013. Members from Divest Harvard maintain that they still are awaiting an in-person, open conversation with Faust. The president, for her part, told the Faculty in May that she had met with proponents of divestment at least seven times.

In her first open letter, she wrote that divestment is neither “warranted or wise,” based from manifold criticisms of the reasons for divestment. Foremost, Faust critiqued the use of a university endowment as part of social movements and stressed that restricting investments in large sectors “come at large economic costs.”

“The funds in the endowment have been given to us by generous benefactors over many years to advance academic aims, not to serve other purposes, however worthy,” Faust penned, further cautioning imposing political initiatives to the endowment.

“We should, moreover, be very wary of steps intended to instrumentalize our endowment in ways that would appear to position the University as a political actor rather than an academic institution. The endowment is a resource, not an instrument to impel social or political change,” she wrote.

Despite propagating economic motives that run contrary to divestment in her nearly 1,300-word first open letter, Faust took aim at a perceived contradiction in the divestment movement.

“I also find a troubling inconsistency in the notion that, as an investor, we should boycott a whole class of companies at the same time that, as individuals and as a community, we are extensively relying on those companies’ products and services for so much of what we do every day,” she wrote.

After Faust released her first open letter, Divest Harvard continued to meet regularly in Hampden Hall and Quincy’s Spindell Room on Monday and Thursday evenings, crafting and debating how to best to engage the University.

On a frigid and snowy Valentine’s day, the group delivered nearly 100 less than romantic construction paper cut-out valentines, all strung together with twine, to Faust.

Light-hearted, but pointed, one read: “Roses are red, violets are blue. Fossil fuels stink…u know its true.” And another: “Fossil fuels don’t deserve your <3.”

A more sensual one, wholly embroidered with small red hearts, read: “I’m not dirty, so be my valentine.”

In April 2014, after the video encounter with Welton, Faust issued a second open letter, which focused on the ways that Harvard’s academics lead in climate change research.

“People at Harvard make extraordinary contributions,” Faust wrote, “that in time can help society’s most complex and intractable problems seem amenable to effective solutions.”

The role of University investments was less important, she continued, relative to the contributions of “faculty, students, staff, and alumni” in the school’s fight against the climate change threat.

“Harvard will contribute to confronting climate change not through presidential pronouncements, and not through a sudden burst of eureka moments,” the letter read, “but through the steadfast, unrelenting commitment of faculty, students, staff, and alumni.”

IS RESEARCH ENOUGH?

While Faust believes that Harvard’s answer to climate change lies in academic research, many among Harvard’s faculty maintain that the University’s response must include divestment. This stance has led to Harvard Faculty for Divest, a group of faculty members that engages with the University through discursive means.

From November to April last academic year, a cohort of five professors, spanning vast fields of interest, met behind the scenes to draft a detailed rebuttal to Faust’s letter. At the same time, they were recruiting support from fellow faculty and staff members.

The five faculty members—James M. Recht, Joyce E. Chaplin, James T. Engell ’73 , Richard F. Thomas, and Eric S. Chivian ’64—worked through through countless revisions and reams, to give an initial written response to Faust.

The final product was an answer to Faust’s first open letter.

“Divestment is an act of ethical responsibility, a protest against current practices that cannot be altered as quickly or effectively by other means,” they wrote. “The University either invests in fossil fuel corporations, or it divests. If the Corporation regards divestment as ‘political,’ then its continued investment is a similarly political act, one that finances present corporate activities and calculates profit from them.”

The letter, which initially garnered the support of over 100 faculty signatures and now counts the support of 164, asserted that “no evidence exists that planned divestment would damage Harvard.”

In response to Faust’s position in her letter that the University ought to leverage its influence as an investor, the faculty letter stated: “It seems self-contradictory to argue that Harvard owns a very small percentage of shares in a group of stocks (shares that, moreover, represent a small percentage of its own holdings) yet can nevertheless exert greater influence on corporate behavior by retaining rather than selling that stock as protest. If Harvard were a major shareholder, that argument might make sense, but Harvard is not.”

Today, Harvard Faculty for Divest counts 16 principal authors. History of Science professor Naomi Oreskes, one of them who specializes in analyzing climate-change deniers and fossil fuel industries, says that she finds it unreasonable to support companies that have historically gone to great lengths to undermine environmental research, including Harvard’s.

“The fossil fuel industry has worked to challenge that evidence, to undermine it, to question the integrity of the scientific researchers, to—in some cases—harass them personally,” Oreskes explains by phone from Washington, D.C., having earlier in the day testified before Congress on how fossil fuel industries spread doubt on scientific research. “Organizations have been involved with linking scientists to terrorists.”

Oreskes reached out to Faust after the March video with Welton surfaced. She recounts that she told Faust, “I’ve worked on the history of the fossil fuel industries. They’ve tried to block action on climate change. If it would be useful or helpful to talk about what I know on the issue, I’d be happy to meet with you.”

Oreskes, who will be part of an Oct. 26 forum hosted by Harvard Faculty for Divest, said she met with Faust for an hour after Divest Harvard’s video was posted, though Faust has never openly mentioned the meeting.

“As a university dedicated to knowledge...it’s unconscionable to me that we would be investing in—supporting—organizations who have done work diametrically opposed to our mission as an academic, scientific, and research organization,” Oreskes says, while acknowledging that she thinks there are departments at Harvard that receive funding from companies in the fossil fuel industry.

Faculty for Divest members relate widely different motives and backgrounds for their engagement in the movement.

Recht, a principal author of the letters, traces his involvement back to McKibben’s Rolling Stone piece and his own advocacy efforts to get the City of Cambridge to divest its public pension funds from fossil fuels. The campaign was ultimately unsuccessful.

He notes that it has not been immediately straightforward as to how faculty members should engage with the University in the discussion of divestment or Divest Harvard itself.

“How does our group of faculty interact with or synergize with Divest Harvard? I don’t have a simple answer to that either. But I’ll tell you that we struggle with it,” Recht explains. “The way to move things forward hasn’t always been real clear-cut to us.”

The groups have worked together in a number of ways, including routine communication between some of the faculty members and Divest Harvard. Maxmin, Divest Harvard’s c0-founder, manages the website and email account for Harvard Faculty for Divest. Additionally, members from Harvard Faculty for Divest and Divest Harvard travelled to Manhattan in late September for the People’s Climate March, the largest ever climate-change demonstration.

Recht articulates the involvement of faculty pushing for divestment as somewhere in the middle of an arched spectrum, ranging from supporting the University—its President, its other faculty, its research, and goals—and on the other end, being there wholly for the students.

“We’ve taught [students], arguably, what’s right,” Recht says, “So in doing our daily work and what we get paid to do as teachers, we’ve taught, and now we’re faced with a situation where the students come back and say, we’ve learned what’s right.”

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ARRESTED PROGRESS

After Faust’s letter in Oct. 2013, Divest Harvard members say they wrestled with the feeling that the movement was stagnating. They had been demanding open communication with Faust for months, but had never been granted the opportunity to meet with her. In the face of the administration’s resistance, morale in the club was dwindling, even as the movement for divestment was gaining the support of faculty.  

“Especially in the wake of [Faust’s] letter and the ‘no,’ there was this feeling of ‘Where do we go from here?’ It took the wind out of our sails in a lot of ways. There was a decline in participation,” Woodward says.

The University, by April, signed a United Nations-supported Principles for Responsible Investment and the Carbon Disclosure Project’s climate change program. These initiatives provide a framework for considering environmental and social issues when investing and also push investors to be transparent about the environmental effects of portfolio companies. During the 2013-2014 academic year, Harvard Management Corporation was also hearing input on its investment decisions from its first-ever vice president for sustainable investing, Jameela Pedicini, whose hiring was announced in July 2013. Still, though, Divest saw the developments as more symbolic than substantive.

On April 30, Divest Harvard escalated its campaign with its most confrontational tactic yet—an involved barricade of Massachusetts Hall, home to Faust’s office and the central administration.

Early before sunrise, Divest Harvard members descended on the Yard and crept towards Mass. Hall, with banners and Dunkin Donuts provisions.

Two tents, one red, one blue, were pitched on the Matthews side of Mass. Hall. Several Divest members, their bright neon orange shirts clashing against the backdrop of the maroon brick, blockaded the main entrance to the building.

Brett and Divest Harvard at Mass Hall
Members of Divest Harvard, including Brett A. Roche '15, far right, who was arrested during a protest two days prior, returned to Massachusetts Hall on May 2, 2014 to renew their call for an open meeting with the Harvard Corporation.

Activists, bundled and hooded, chanted with megaphones and bore signs demanding an open meeting. Even amid the cold and at one point chilling rain, Divest Harvard continued their protest into the next day.

At around 7:00 a.m. on May 1, as all three entrances of Mass. Hall remained blocked, the demonstration took a sharp turn.

According to Franta, Faust’s senior special assistant, Lars P.K. Madsen, was prevented from entering the building. Brett A. Roche ’15 was arrested after refusing to comply with Harvard University Police officers who asked him to move away from an entrance. Though charges were later dropped, fury around the arrest ignited, with many professors and students admonishing the University’s decision to arrest, rather than engage.

Recht characterized the University’s response to the demonstration as “terrible.” According to him, its actions clashed with what he and other faculty members see as the University’s mission—“to grow a civic sense of belonging and citizenship and responsibility” in young adults.

Harvard Faculty for Divest released a brief response after the incident, comparing the arrest to notable civil disobedience in history.

“[This action] echoed the arrest of students protesting civil rights violations in the 1960s, of Henry David Thoreau protesting the Mexican War and slavery, and of Bill McKibben protesting a possible Keystone XL pipeline,” Harvard Faculty for Divest wrote.

The demonstration brought the group into raw opposition with University powers and was a point of contention for months to come, one that would later influence Faust to exclude students from the open dialogue she said she planned to have with faculty in the 2014-’15 academic year.

For Kelsey C. Skaggs, a member of Divest Harvard and president of Harvard Law Students for Sustainable Investment, the arrest was troubling due to its treatment of free speech.

“The whole idea of not listening to student speech when it’s presented in the context you want,” says Skaggs, referring to Divest’s attempts to engage with the administration in the year and a half before the blockade, “and then shutting it down and being derogatory about it when it’s something you don’t want is really troubling from a free-speech perspective.”

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Following the arrest, Faust criticized Divest Harvard for repeatedly turning to uncivil behavior as a means of engagement.

“Blocking the entrance to buildings, following and videotaping me and then editing and posting my words in ways that misrepresent them are not part of reasoned and civil discourse,” Faust told The Crimson several days after the arrest.

While Faust said she was committed to free expression in the community, she believed that Divest Harvard had exceeded the bounds of free speech when it began “infringing on the rights of other community members to conduct their normal activities.”

Rather than deflating Divest Harvard, as Woodward describes, the blockade of Mass. Hall and the ensuing arrest reinvigorated the organization, bonding the activists and drawing more attention to their work from observers, both on and off campus.

According to Woodward, Roche’s arrest, which quickly attracted national media attention, was the first arrest in the nationwide divest movement, and the blockade of Mass. Hall inspired similar actions of civil disobedience throughout the country.

2013 Divestment Rally
Students assemble outside Massachusetts Hall during the Harvard Divest Rally on April 11, 2013.

“Going to Harvard—there is that name-brand recognition that picks up attention and then it just sprouts outward,” said Woodward. “There’s definitely a sense of being one of the campaigns...that this nationwide movement looks at.”

WEST COAST, DIVEST COAST

Whereas divestment activists in Cambridge have been met with a chilly response from the University, Harvard’s Californian counterparts have had markedly different results. Last year, Stanford divested from coal, widely known to be one of the most carbon-emitting fossil fuels.

Sophie Harrison, now a junior at Stanford and one of the founders of Fossil Free Stanford, recounts her initiation into climate-change activism in much the same way as Maxmin and Recht. After reading McKibben’s Rolling Stone piece, Harrison began to research real-world results of climate change and efforts to curb it. By fall 2013, Fossil Free Stanford had formed and even Skyped in members from Divest Harvard for one of its first meetings.

“It’s been growing and building. It’s been exciting checking off milestones one bit at a time,” Harrison says.

Starting the divestment process, in the spring of 2013, Harrison and her fellow activists submitted a two-page document—barely 300 words long—for the review of one of Stanford’s investment oversight bodies, called “the Advisory Panel on Investment Responsibility & Licensing (APIRL). APIRL is tasked with providing advice on investing endowment resources in companies that “could cause substantial social injury.”

In fall 2013, months after Fossil Free Stanford submitted the review request, members from the group presented their case to the full board of the APIRL.

“When I got out of the meeting with the full panel at the beginning of last year, it hadn’t even occurred to me that we’d be divested by coal by the end of the year,” Harrison recounts. “I think that was a huge, huge, and wonderful surprise for everybody in our campaign, a moment to show that student campaigns, student voices, the work that we are doing really can make a difference.”

Mindful of chronology, Harrison quickly contextualizes her group’s achievement within the Harvard arrest, drawing a distinction between Stanford and Harvard’s situations.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily a coincidence that Stanford’s divest from coal happened the week after Harvard was arresting students for a similar campaign,” Harrison says. “I think it’s just a national show of power, of what student campaigns are possible across the country, and we’ve been fairly lucky to have such a receptive administration so far, it turns out.”

HARVARD AT THE FOREFRONT?

The presidents of Stanford and Harvard, one university partially divested and one not, recently co-wrote an op-ed in the Huffington Post on the obligations of universities to devote resources to combating climate change.

“We in higher education must continue to step up,” the op-ed by Faust and President John L. Hennessey reads. “Universities have the opportunity and obligation to look toward the long term.”

Furthermore, the op-ed spoke of the need for universities to pursue “powerful long-term solutions without becoming subservient to near-term economic interests or partisan political concerns.”

The proverbial elephant in the article, albeit greener than grey, was divestment. Though many divestment advocates are convinced that the University dedicates itself to sustainable research and efforts on campus, they still believe that Harvard can help curb climate change, through divestment, more substantially and immediately.  

“When [Faust] makes this change and says, we were wrong, and we are changing that, then people are really going to see that’s the meaning of being in leadership of the world’s greatest university,” Recht says. “That’s what a leader does. That person will say, ‘we’ve learned from this. We wanted to do the right thing. We’ve always worked at doing the right thing and when we’ve made an error, and we’ve made an error here, we get it. We know that. And we’re gonna make it right.’”

However, skeptics caution that Harvard and its peers in the Ivy League are fundamentally conservative institutions, unwilling to take on the risks associated with leadership.

McKibben is one such critic. He calls Harvard “a very old and conservative institution,” pointing to its hesitation to divest from South Africa in the 1980s when he was an undergrad.

McKibben believes that Harvard, and its fellow Ivy League institutions will divest eventually but only after other universities have taken the lead.

“The walls are covered with ivy, because they’ve been there a long time,” McKibben says. “These are no longer path-breaking institutions. They’re increasingly ceding that mantle to others.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following clarification:

CLARIFICATION: October 2, 2014

An earlier version of this article stated that Chloe S. Maxmin ’15 founded Divest Harvard. To clarify, Maxmin co-founded the student activist group.

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