On Divestment: Debate, Don't Marginalize

In the last year, Stanford University, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the British Medical Association, the World Council of Churches, the Australian National University, and the University of Glasgow have all adopted some form of fossil fuel divestment, along with other cities, universities, and churches around the world.

In contrast, the recent strategy of the Harvard Corporation has been to avoid debate on divestment by marginalizing students who support it. The Corporation’s avoidance of debate has allowed it to take absolutist, illogical, and unsubstantiated positions on divestment. Not only is the Corporation’s strategy intellectually weak, but it also does not serve the Harvard community well. And in the long run, it is unlikely to succeed.

The Corporation’s marginalization of students supporting divestment began last spring. In March, President Faust wrote a letter to students who were making the case for divestment, saying, “We have more to do to create a culture of sustainability, and I am committed to building on the strong progress that we—as one Harvard community—have made. I hope you will join this effort.” President Faust’s use of the word “join” suggests that the work of students supporting divestment lies outside the efforts of the “one Harvard community.”

The President’s portrayal of divestment supporters as an out-group is not accurate. Student referenda in favor of divestment have been passed in both the College and the Law School, with 72 percent and 67 percent support, respectively. Divestment supporters have worked to raise awareness about climate change on and off campus since the campaign began, and many divestment supporters also contribute to sustainability efforts at Harvard and globally through their other work. In addition to being inaccurate, the President’s portrayal of divestment supporters as an out-group at Harvard does not offer or address any substantive arguments about divestment itself.

Throughout 2013, I and other students met with members of the Corporation to discuss divestment. But the meetings were unproductive, and it was impossible to hold anyone accountable for that lack of productivity due to their private nature. When students called for a public meeting with the Corporation in the spring of 2014, President Faust refused to take part and dismissed the student group as wanting “a chance to draw attention to itself rather than a discourse and an interchange on substantive issues.” The Corporation avoided debate by ascribing false motives to students supporting divestment.

The Corporation’s unwillingness to engage in public, fact-based debate on divestment allows it to make weak arguments without accountability. When New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof ’81 asked President Faust about divestment in September, for example, she implied that divesting from fossil fuels could jeopardize Harvard’s non-profit status. Not only does it make little sense that Harvard’s non-profit status would require it to maximize profit with no other considerations, but other non-profit institutions are currently divesting. In its most recent letter to the Harvard Faculty for Divestment, the Corporation argues that divesting from fossil fuel companies will hurt Harvard’s ability to collaborate with them on research and development projects. The argument that research support from companies is dependent on investment in those companies by Harvard implies a University-wide conflict of interest, and the Corporation provides no evidence that companies would break their ties with Harvard researchers should the University divest.

The Corporation’s avoidance of debate is intellectually weak and unethical. Students have a mandate to address Harvard’s continued investments in fossil fuels, because continued dependence on fossil fuels is a systemic threat to student futures. In avoiding debate on divestment, the Corporation is making a choice that serves the short-term interests of its members rather the long-term interests of students at the school it represents.

The Corporation’s avoidance of debate does not portray or serve the Harvard community well. The Harvard community prides itself on a dedication to truth, veritas, and yet the Corporation appears afraid to debate a topic that other institutions are not only discussing, but also acting upon. In a debate to understand the truth, no one can predict where the chips will fall—but they will fall where they should. That faith is what a belief in veritas means.

And the Corporation’s avoidance of debate is not likely to succeed in the long run. Divestment already has majority support among students at Harvard and other universities. Student and public education on and awareness of climate change will continue to grow, climate change’s impacts on people will continue to worsen, and investments in fossil fuel exploration and extraction will continue to be increasingly difficult to defend. Other institutions recognize this, and each of their decisions to divest from fossil fuels further undermines the idea that divestment at Harvard is unreasonable or impossible.

Clinging to fossil fuel investments, especially on the basis of specious or self-interested arguments, will not be judged kindly by history. In the meantime, the Harvard Corporation should engage in debate and make its arguments with evidence rather than avoiding debate by marginalizing those who support divestment.

 

Benjamin Franta is a Ph.D. candidate in applied physics at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. He is a member of Divest Harvard.

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